Whatever Happened to Hell?

Recently, at his Wednesday general audience, Pope John Paul II brought up a topic that has almost disappeared from Catholic preaching: The existence of hell. Today, Catholic books and homilies soft-pedal the subject or don't mention it at all. I attended a Mass not long ago where the celebrant deleted the words “Save us from final damnation” from the Roman Canon.

This expunging of hell from Christian revelation, like much else that goes on in the Church today, is partly a reaction to the old days, when homilists and CCD teachers used to turn up the oven for their audience. One of my earliest churchgoing memories is of a very sonorous preacher bellowing about hell. I don't recall the precise content of the sermon, but I am sure that it had more than a touch of Jansenism. The American Church at midcentury was a veritable hothouse of this Catholic version of Calvinism. God was a stern judge who had instituted rules in order to test our blind obedience. And it is easy to caricature the pictures that homilists of the old school liked to paint of the chamber of tortures that awaited us if we didn't obey those rules.

Now, we cannot doubt the existence of hell. Christ referred to it repeatedly and in very clear language. He mentioned it six times in the Sermon on the Mount, not because he wanted to bully us with images of hell-fire, but to warn us of a very real possibility — that at the end of time there may be souls, perhaps many souls, who hear the words, “Depart from me into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

Christ deflected questions from his disciples about the demographics of the afterlife. He simply warned them — and us — to follow the narrow path and that few are chosen. “Few” does not necessarily mean a very small number or even less than half. If the number of saved souls does not include everybody, it will be too “few.” However, given the gravity of Christ's warnings, we should not indulge in sentimental thinking. Remarks like “Yes, I believe in hell, but I don't believe anybody's there” play games with the Gospel message.

Who are the damned? To say that they are persons who have died in a state of mortal sin is true enough, but does not go to the heart of the matter. The damned person is one who has chosen eternal self-sufficiency. Hell, as Cormac Burke has remarked, is full of closed systems that have failed. The damned have chosen self rather than make a gift of self. God does not put them in hell, they put themselves there. As the Pope writes, hell “is not a punishment from God inflicted from the outside,” but rather the result of choices made in this life about where our heart will be.

So the old understanding of the particular judgment does not quite get it right. In that version, the departed soul enters a courtroom and pleads his case before a difficult judge, who passes sentence on the basis of strict definitions of mortal and venial sin. This courtroom drama was consistent with the legalism and externalism that informed the Church before Vatican II.

The eschatological drama we face after death will not, however, be a courtroom scene, much less a New Yorker cartoon of St. Peter at the celestial gates. Rather, in the presence of Truth we will see ourselves as we truly are. As Bishop Fulton Sheen writes, “In each of us there are several persons: there is the person others think you are; there is the person you think you are; there is the person you really are.” At that moment, we will not be able to deny the truth about ourselves. We will, in effect, judge ourselves and go to our next immediate destination — heaven, purgatory or hell — like iron fillings to a magnet.

Where our soul goes after death is decided by what we love. And we would be miserable in a place that did not answer that love. Newman in one of his sermons points out that an unrepentant sinner would face no greater punishment than being summoned to heaven. “He would find no one like himself; he would see in every direction the marks of God's holiness, and these would make him shudder … no unholy soul can be happy in heaven.”

Two additional thoughts about hell are worth pondering, one from John Paul II and the other from C.S. Lewis.

“Is not hell,” the Pope writes, “in a certain sense the ultimate safeguard of man's moral conscience? How otherwise is human freedom to be respected if it does not include the freedom to say no finally to God?” People who hope that one day the souls in hell might be finally saved assume that they would want to be saved.

Then there is an unsettling sentence from Lewis' novel That Hideous Strength: “The final moments before eternal damnation are seldom dramatic.” It does not require a life of notorious behavior to put oneself into hell. Very quiet, ordinary lives may end up there.

Hell is worth thinking about, but not worth getting melodramatic about. We need, as one theologian puts it, to avoid the extremes of “silence and terror.” We see in the lives of saints that people who have a lively sense of heaven also have a lively sense of hell. The existence of hell is part of revelation, and Christians do not have a “bye” on preaching it.

George Sim Johnston is author of Did Darwin Get It Right?