Does Hell exist? Fr David Watt considers a heated controversy.
For many modern Catholics, it is mortal sin to believe in mortal sin, let alone to believe in Hell. And yet, could we know, just using general theological considerations (‘we have a loving God’ and so forth), we must reject the infallible teaching of the Council of Trent. See Chapter 12 of the Decree on Justification and Canon 16 of the same decree, which anathematises those who are sure of their eventual salvation, the only exception being those whose confidence is derived from private revelation (for example, the so-called ‘Great Promise’ of the Sacred Heart via St Margaret Mary, concerning the Nine First Fridays).
Furthermore, arguments for universal salvation, whether as certain, probable, or merely possible, have a habit of proving too much. By parity of reasoning they would support universal salvation for all rebels against God, angelic as well as human. For instance, ‘a loving God would never send anyone to Hell’ — no man nor fallen angel either? ‘The sufferings in Hell would spoil the happiness of the blessed in Heaven’ — including the suffering of the demons? Perhaps that is why those denying the existence of a populated Hell frequently also deny the existence of angels, in flagrant contradiction of both Scripture and Tradition compared with, for example No 393 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
‘Many are called, but few are chosen’ (Mt 22:14). It is because of texts such as this that the Church has never accepted the hypothesis of an empty Hell. Until modern times, the hypothesis seems to have been upheld by virtually no-one. Origen did advance it, which is why, notwithstanding his vast erudition, he is not ‘St Origen’ or a Father of the Church. For proposing, albeit tentatively, that no-one goes to Hell (understood in the Church’s sense as a state which is eternal), he was repeatedly condemned, amongst others by Pope Vigilius and, later, the Second Council of Constantinople (553).
Even in the Old Testament it is clear that not all are saved. Consider, for instance, Dan 12:2: ‘And many of those that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, others to see everlasting reproach’. It is fashionable nowadays to say of ‘apocalyptic language’ that it cannot be taken literally. Well, obviously there is some non-literalness here, ‘sleep’ standing for death; however, if this text does not mean that some are damned, does it also fail to mean that some are saved? For it is exactly symmetrical regarding these two groups. The text is indeed apocalyptic in the true sense of that word, ie revelatory. It reveals something about the future. That is the way the Church has always taken it. Many New Testament texts, eg Mt 25:31-46, are likewise symmetrical between the blessed and the damned.
Here is one more Biblical reference to Hell – St Jude’s mention of Sodom and Gomorrah’s ‘punishment of eternal fire’ (Jude 7). Scripture, particularly the New Testament and the Gospels, has innumerable references to everlasting punishment. I will not quote more, for the sake of brevity and also because, as the Second Council of Orange put it in another context, ‘more texts will not profit those for whom a few do not suffice’.
One theologian for whom they do not suffice is Hans Urs von Balthasar. How then does he deal with such texts? He simply admits there are parts of Scripture which exclude universal salvation, but claims other texts say the opposite. In his book Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? he repeatedly asserts that Scripture contradicts itself on this point. But having asserted that God’s Word is incoherent, von Balthasar, logically enough, gives himself permission to be incoherent in turn. For instance, he claims that Scriptural talk of Hell is just a warning. How can it be just a warning if, according to von Balthasar himself, the Good Book affirms over and over again that men do in fact go to Hell?
What then is the right way to deal with the texts von Balthasar sees as denying Hell? By the age-old technique of harmonisation, unmodish though it may be. Von Balthasar admits, and his critics vigorously assert, that Scripture repeatedly rejects universal salvation. This then is a datum, and other texts are to be read in the light of it. Take for example the “universalist” text 1 Cor 15:22: ‘For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive’. If this affirms salvation for all, why does St Paul say in the very same letter (3:17): ‘If anyone destroys God’s Temple, God will destroy him’? Why does he warn in this letter (6:9-10, 8:11, 9:27) and elsewhere about the danger of eternal damnation? And if St Paul is universalist, what sense can it make to speak as he does (eg Rom 2:5) of the ‘day of wrath’?
Von Balthasar gives statements such as ‘all shall be made alive’ a mathematical interpretation, as if ‘all’ means every single one. But in ordinary speech ‘all’ need not bear this sense. Suppose I say ‘it has been raining all day’. I am not thereby necessarily saying rain has fallen every single second. And indeed there is clear evidence that in 1 Cor 15:22, ‘all’ does not mean ‘every single human being’. We need only read a single verse further: ‘But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits; then at His coming those who belong to Him’. So it is those who belong to Christ who shall be ‘made alive’.
What then do we make of God’s universal salvific will, as expressed in such texts as 1 Tim 2:4: ‘God our Saviour … desires all men to be saved …’? The traditional answer distinguishes God’s will antecedent to man’s choice, which is a salvific will, from God’s will consequent on man’s choice. Against this distinction, von Balthasar offers no argument; only mockery. Yet clearly there is a kind of Divine Will that is infallibly fulfilled and a kind that is not. Contrast, for example, God’s will to create the universe with His will that we not sin. God’s universal salvific will surely is of the second sort.
Von Balthasar, like others, tries to argue from the premise that we don’t know any particular individual is damned to the conclusion that we don’t know there are any people in Hell. The premise can be impugned: if Judas Iscariot was saved, how would it have been ‘better for that man that he not be born’ (Mt 26:24)? But even were the premise true, the conclusion would not follow; it is like saying, ‘because I don’t know of any individual who comes from Iceland, I don’t know there are any individuals who come from Iceland’.
Belief in universal salvation, as abetted by the likes of von Balthasar, has white-anted the Church in her missionary endeavours. If everyone will attain to Heaven anyway, what becomes of traditional ‘zeal for the salvation of souls’? Why be a St Francis Xavier, baptising so many that his arm ached? And let us also ignore Our Lady’s request (Fatima in Lucia’s own words, 12th edition, Jan 2002, Secretariado dos Pastorinhos, Fatima, vol 1, p180): ‘Pray; pray very much and make sacrifices for sinners; for many souls go to Hell because there is no one to pray and make sacrifice for them’.
Does God no longer love those in Hell? The answer is that He does; however, He loves the blessed much more. Here some would object: ‘If God is infinite, His love must be infinite, so He can’t love one more than another’. This objection displays an ignorance of the logic of infinity. Since Cantor’s celebrated proof, mathematicians have known that some infinities are larger than others. For example, the entire set of counting numbers is smaller than the set of so-called real numbers, even just those in the interval from zero to one.
A sign of Divine Love for the damned is in ending their earthly probation when He did, to stop them adding sin to sin and hence clocking up more severe punishment. As Vatican II points out, there are degrees of suffering in Hell depending on the degree of guilt (Lumen Gentium 14, towards the end).
How the devil must laugh to hear people, even priests, denying his reality or the existence of Hell. Nevertheless, praise God, there is a return to orthodoxy, particularly among the younger generation of Catholics; so the future of the Church looks bright.
As Our Lady prophesised at Fatima, in the end Her Immaculate Heart will triumph.