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The Brighter Side of Hell | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | November 11, 2005

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Hell has gotten a bad name. I am sorry to hear it.

If rightly understood, it is rather a positive teaching, even a freeing one. Hell has too few defenders. We are told, by learned scholars and other unsympathetic souls, that Hell is "old-fashioned." It is "out-of-date." No one, especially no one important or smart, is said to hold it any more. Therefore, it cannot be significant. If anyone has heard a sermon on Hell in his local parish in recent decades, he probably cannot remember it. No "fire and brimstone" is to be heard in the land. Or if something on the topic of Hell was heard, it was undoubtedly some reassuring preachment guaranteeing that this unpleasant topic was really nothing to worry about, even if we are inveterate sinners, especially if we are inveterate sinners. Obviously such inveterate sinners have the most to lose in case this curious doctrine is true.

All is forgiven, But if anything perchance needs to be forgiven, we are assured, furthermore, that "all is forgiven" by a compassionate Maker. Most funerals these days, as far as I can tell, operate on this assumption. We give eulogies. We do not remind ourselves that we too are to follow. Not to worry, in any case. Forgiveness in theory becomes not sacramental but sociological. Poverty, ignorance, prejudice, compassion–these excuses, these exterior forces, rule our internal order to explain why we must do what we did. The internal order it not responsible to rule itself, as in the classical tradition.

Hell has been depopulated by other enterprising thinkers. Terrible place, no doubt, but no one is in it. Even if it exists, which is improbable, it is likely that no one is in it actually suffering its famous pains and pangs. We even find proposals to save those said definitely to be roasting or freezing there, depending on one’s theory of which is worse. Lucifer, for instance. The famous philosopher Jacques Maritain once wondered (and there is nothing wrong with speculations) if it would not be possible, in the divine mercy, to lift Satan out of Hell and deposit him in Limbo. The only trouble with that thesis is that Limbo is even less believed than Hell. Limbo was a place for those unbaptized souls who did not sin but who were also not redeemed. Hell was a place for those redeemed in the blood of the Lamb but who rejected its dimensions in their personal lives. In any case, it appears that to put anyone in Hell for whatever reason, however horrendous, is downright unseemly. It is against "human rights." A "good" God, it is said, simply would not do such a nasty thing as put someone in Hell.

What are we to make of all of this confused thinking on a doctrine that is even found in Plato, not to mention rather prominently in divine revelation? Is it all that absurd or outlandish or unthinkable? Is Hell really a sign of God’s impotence? Of His cruelty? We love to imagine that if we were God–which, to be sure, we are not–we would certainly not concoct such a place from which, evidently, no turning back can be discovered, no possibility of escape. The trouble with this hypothesis is that it is pretty difficult to find an alternative that is really better than the one we are given. Every alternative that I have ever seen ends up, finally, by removing our freedom, our happiness, or our minds.

We like, no doubt, to put ourselves in a position whereby we can judge God to have been at fault for coming up with such an absurd and cruel position. Hell, it is said, is a problem of God, not us. Any threat of Hell causes us all sorts of discomfort, especially now that many of what were formerly called "sins" are now called "human rights." We presume to define what was evil to be good. We actually legislate what is good and evil. The list gets longer daily. Surely, we think, the Divinity could have figured out a better way? God seems to have had limited imagination not to have created a world in which Hell was no possibility for anyone actually existing in it.

The fact, of course, is that God did come up with such a world "in the beginning." Hell was not first invented by God and then, later on, seeing the mess human beings made of things, He decided to send human beings and angels there for safe keeping. It was the other way around. God first intended and created a world in which Hell did not exist, except maybe potentially. But He did intend a world in which real, finite human beings and angels existed and were destined for eternal happiness if they so chose.

This situation of initially creating man for eternal life is that from whence God’s problems with human beings arose. He could not create free creatures who were called to participate in His inner life unless they were, at the same time, actually free so to choose Him. Otherwise, they would have been–not free human beings or angels–but automata. Heaven, if it existed (or Hell for that matter) was not designed as a place for robots. Such latter beings, for whatever their worth, are not really capable of loving God by virtue of their own inner understanding and freedom.

Hell is simply the direct and necessary consequence of really free creatures refusing to choose God rather than themselves. They chose or preferred a world they thought they could make for themselves. Put in positive way, the doctrine of Hell is the guarantee of our individual and personal dignity. Without what it stands for–namely the basic seriousness and importance of our lives–we evaporate all concrete meaning from our existence. How so?

But before we go into this question, it is first advisable to remind ourselves of just what the Church itself had historically taught on this often, to many people, unsettling doctrine. Various doctrines are emphasized or sometimes overemphasized in given eras of Church history. We can certainly say that Hell has been "under-emphasized" in the past century or so; probably overemphasized at other times. But there is a difference between what Christianity universally holds on a subject it finds in its sources of revelation and those doctrines that are popularly attended to or emphasized. What is ignored or neglected still remains within the doctrinal deposit of things to be known and held.


First, then, I want simply to recall the brief paragraphs that the General Catechism of the Catholic Church devotes to Hell (#1033-37). These paragraphs in turn recall the passages in Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium in which this doctrine is indicated and explained. The discussion begins with the point made above, that is, "We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him." The doctrine of Hell, like the New Testament itself, is primarily an aspect of love, not of justice. The question of justice comes in only after the question of love has failed. Hell is directly related to our own choices, to the choices of what we choose to love in the concrete decisions of our lives.

"To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from Him forever by our own free choice." In this sense, we create or put ourselves in Hell. Mortal "sins" do exist. They must be acknowledged as our own acts put into effect against the rightness of our own natures. "This state of definitive self-exclusion from community with God and the blesses is called ‘Hell.’" Thus, initially, we cannot really understand Hell if we cannot or will not understand love, including divine love. God Himself is, as it were, bound to what this reality of love is, since He is bound by what He is. We would not have it otherwise.

Recalling what is known as the "Last Judgment," the Catechism refers to the fires and punishments for those who persistently do evil. While Hell may be primarily a spiritual thing, it is depicted also in terms of physical punishment, almost out of respect to the wholeness that we are, body and soul. We may not like this physical description, but it is not simply made up by the Church. Rather what Christ actually said on this topic is preserved in the Church, which cannot forget its own foundations. But the same Church never doubts that whatever physical punishment there may be, the spiritual suffering–the realization that we have rejected what we are–is always more serious.

But just knowing what Hell is does incite us to ask, "Why are we told these things?" Obviously, we are told these things for our own good and for our own aid, indeed for our own illumination about what is. Thus man is asked to "make use of his freedom in view of his eternal destiny." We often neglect to think of Hell or live as if it existed. Still it seems merciful on the part of God to let us know as best He can, that is, within the limits both of our freedom and of His, what happiness or punishment is in store for us as a result of our choices. God is not Himself, as some religious and philosophic theories hold, pure will who cam make right wrong and wrong right. He follows the goodness of what He is. Thus, this teaching on Hell becomes a "call to conversion," if we need it, as we often do. We are reminded again that "we know not the day nor the hour," so that this very uncertainty is an incentive to prepare ourselves for what we as mortals are about in this world.

Finally, the much misunderstood teaching about "predestination" is mentioned. "God predestines no one to go to Hell." Predestination does not make us do what we do by some necessity outside ourselves. It is not a denial but an affirmation of free will, both God’s and ours. Simply because God knows our free acts, it does not follow that He is doing the acting, not ourselves. If I see someone get up and walk away, my knowledge of his getting up does not make him determined to do so. Knowledge of a free action and cause of that free action are not the same. My knowledge of a free act includes the awareness of its freedom, otherwise, I do not know what really is.

Moreover, we are to "persist" to the end. The fact that we sin is not fatal unless we choose to make it fatal. That is, it is our whole life and its orientation that interests God. Sinners can repent. Many do. The whole point of the Incarnation was the divine awareness that men sin but cannot save themselves by their own efforts because sin itself reaches the Godhead’s love of us and others. That some pretty horrendous things happen among us by our own choices means that we need, at all times, a way to save ourselves from ourselves. This is the whole purpose of our redemption, to restore to us the possibility. But once a way of redemption is given to us, we still must avail ourselves of it. We still must choose to use it. Our personal salvation cannot take place without our freedom. Even God cannot make it otherwise because God too respects the dignity of His own creation of a free being.


Let us grant that, in its origins, Hell is a teaching of both philosophy and religion. It is something we are not merely asked to know but also to think about. What positive meaning can it have? I would say, paradoxically, that no doctrine more vividly states or restates the importance of our daily lives and the choices therein than this doctrine. Ironically, its denial is not a formula for human liberation but a guarantee of ultimate human meaninglessness and insignificance. Why?

We can learn much about what is at issue from Plato, that is, from a pre-Christian philosopher, in many ways the greatest. Plato’s whole philosophy was designed to direct our love and actions to the Good for its own sake, not for any motivation of reward and punishment. There is nothing wrong with doing many things for a motivation of reward or avoiding them for a motivation of fear or punishment. On the other hand, as Socrates saw at the end of The Republic, we did need to talk of rewards and punishments because it was quite clear that the best men are often killed, even by the state, and evil men are rewarded with great wealth and honor in the cities of this world. This situation is simply a fact that disturbs our sense of fairness. It seems to indicate that the world is very poorly made.

Hell, in other words, is a philosophic response to our sense of violated justice, a sense we all have on the hypothesis that the wicked are not really punished and the good not rewarded. Without an ultimate reckoning, beyond this life, many, if not most, evils and crimes performed in this world by individuals on others would go unpunished. Rewards would be wrongly distributed. If this ultimate reestablishment of order, in the form of a Hell or a Heaven, is not in effect, the world is made in vain. It is clear that there is a contradiction at the very heart of the world between what is right and what is carried out. So, without ever going into the question of religion on this topic, there is a case for Hell that flows from any basic insight into the human condition and its actual record over time. Not all crimes are punished, not all good deeds rewarded. The world, on this view, is simply unjust at its core.

Let us take this argument a step further. Let us, for the sake of discussion, accept the proposition that there is no Hell. What follows from this denial? First, no ultimate requital of rewards and punishments in terms of deeds done takes place. What is wrong is not punished and what is right is not rewarded. Secondly, what follows, on the basis of this hypothesis that Hell does not exist, is that no human action really makes any difference for good or bad. The acts of the worst sinner or tyrant and the greatest saint become equivalent. Both end up the same way no matter what anyone does. Any effort to distinguish a noble and ignoble life falls apart if ultimately it makes no difference what we do. To be sure, we can introduce some taste criterion that would say that I prefer what are now called just deeds. But no ultimate reason exists why my deed or yours are preferable. Thus, in logic, the denial of Hell is not at all a neutral proposition.

It is this consequence that inclines me to affirm that Hell is a very positive doctrine. More almost than any other teaching, it, indirectly perhaps, established the worth of my daily actions. At any moment, I can perform an act worthy of damnation, or one worthy of transcendent dignity. These actions do not take place in the clouds, but right here in my daily relationship with others and with myself. This realization is what it means "when you did this to the least of my brothers..." And this consequence is both for good and for evil. The ultimate dramas of existence take place everywhere, among the rich, the poor, the ordinary, the unusual. No one is in a privileged place where this drama, with its consequences, does not regularly take place.

Obviously, this is not to maintain that such ultimate things happen every day as we brush our teeth or greet our neighbor. But they can and often do take on, through what the Catechism calls "mortal sins" or through acts of charity, transcendent meaning, They become a part of the free life and character we make of ourselves. Thus, Hell has the paradoxical function of enhancing our awareness of the meaning of our daily lives. This effect is not something morbid or upsetting, but something reassuring. Our lives are so ultimately important that we can lose them. But this possibility is placed before us so that we do not lose them. And we are not supposed to lose them. Hell exists to help us achieve what we are given in the first place, the promise of eternal life. But this life cannot just be automatically structured into our being so that we have nothing to do with its coming to be.

In the end, Hell too exists that we might be free, free of what is most likely to prevent us from achieving the purpose of our existence. But freedom itself does not exist for its own sake. We are not free just to be free. We are free so that what we choose is something that is really worthy, really good, really existing. In short, we are free to reject what we are created for. That is, we are free to make ourselves the definition of our own happiness. If we do this, we are, by definition, in Hell–that is, we reject, by our own freedom, the purpose of our being. We can reject this. Both reason and revelation exist to advise and direct us to that end which is more glorious than any we might choose or make for ourselves.

Thus, Hell is not such a bad doctrine. It has a lot of positive things about it if we take the trouble to think about it. Like all Christian truths, it is given to us to think about. In so doing, we can come to see that these doctrines contain a core understanding that directs us to what is Truth in itself. "The road to Hell," it is said, "is paved with good intentions." It is also paved with many insights into the very nature of our being that guide us to the truth of things and the importance of our existence.

Other IgnatiusInsight.com articles by Fr. Schall:

Dialogue Is Never Enough
The Inequalities of Equality
On Praise and Celebration
Making Sense of Disasters
Martyrs and Suicide Bombers
On Learning and Education: An Interview with Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Part 1 of 3
On Writing and Reading: Interview with Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Part 2 of 3
Chesterton, Sports, and Politics: Interview with Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Part 3 of 3
Wars Without Violence?
Chesterton and the Delight of Truth
The One War, The Real War
Reflections On Saying Mass (And Saying It Correctly)
Suppose We Had a "Liberal" Pope
On Being Neither Liberal nor Conservative
Is Heresy Heretical?
Catholic Commencements: A Time for Truth to Be Honored
On The Sternness of Christianity
On Teaching the Important Things

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning.

Read more of his essays on his website.

Visit the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies, and news in the Church!


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