God and Hell
SUNDAY, MARCH 15, 2020
Note: This is the first of two columns offering Lenten reflections by Fr. Weinandy on the proper understanding of Hell.
The question of whether everyone is saved, and thus no one goes to Hell, was debated (and censured) in the early Church, as well as in the wake of Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s 1987 book: Dare We Hope “That All Men be Saved”? Recently, this dispute has intensified with the publication of David Bentley Hart’s book: That All Shall be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation.
Though I have not yet read the book, I gather from the various critiques and his response that Hart adamantly argues and definitively concludes that everyone is ultimately saved. Thus, no one will reside everlastingly in the pains of Hell.
I do not want to tackle Hart’s arguments directly, here. Instead, I want to attend to some questions that I believe are pertinent and, from what I have read, have not been adequately addressed.
First, it’s commonly argued that since God is all-good and all-loving, he would not allow anyone to be punished forever in Hell. Such eternal damnation would be contrary to his supreme love and goodness – his all-consuming mercy and forgiveness. I would hold, instead, that God’s goodness and love demand Hell’s existence and that it is forever inhabited by the damned.
Because he is goodness itself and love itself, God loves all that is good, and therefore, by his very nature, he must hate what is evil. Evil, by its very nature, is an affront to and an attack upon God himself. If God tolerated or excused evil, or if he thought it to be of little account, he would not be all-good and all-loving, for he would sanction and so participate in evil itself.
He would then be a malevolent deity, a God who does not possess genuine concern for what is morally good, just, and upright. Thus, God himself, in his very goodness and love, is the foundational principle that validates the possibility of Hell.
Second, while God does not hate those who perpetrate evil, for he is their good Creator, yet he does hate, he cannot endure, the evil they do. Those who willingly and knowingly do evil are incapable of dwelling in his all-good and all-holy presence. They simply are not morally suited to abide with him.
Because of this sinful situation, the Father, in his love, sent his Son into the world, not to condemn sinners but to save those who believe in his incarnate Son – that they may not perish but possess eternal life. (see Jn. 3:16-17). The Father eternally and lovingly wills that “we should be holy and blameless before him,” and so become “his sons through Jesus Christ.” (Eph. 1:4-5) We perceive God’s lavish mercy and compassion in the crucified and risen Jesus.
Third, not every evil act makes a person completely abhorrent to God, but some evil acts so conform someone into an evil person that, unless they repent and undergo change of heart, they can never abide in God’s presence.
This is why the Catholic Church distinguishes venial from mortal sin. (1 Jn. 5:16-17) Even venial sins must be purified, either in this life or in purgatory after death. Only then can the venial sinner enter fully into the presence of the all-good, all-holy, and all-loving God. Those who knowingly and willingly commit mortal sins, and remain unrepentant in this life, deprive themselves forever from entering into the full, heavenly presence of God.
Intrinsically evil acts – such as murder and adultery – are specified in the Ten Commandments (though not every act prohibited in the Ten Commandments is necessarily a mortal sin, e.g., “small” lies).
Other examples can be found, for example, in St. Paul’s letters (e.g., Gal. 5:19-21). Paul warns that those who do such evil acts, if they remain unrepentant, “will not inherit the kingdom of God.” Every sin conforms a person to the likeness of the sin committed, but some sins are so evil that they can completely stamp or seal moral character – making someone a murderer, thief, fornicator, adulterer, deceiver, and hater. Mortal sins justly exclude the unrepentant sinner from God’s good presence.
Fourth, we should understand that those who have perpetrated such heinous evil acts and have remained unrepentant here on earth are repulsed when, at the moment of their death, they are confronted with the all-good, all-holy, and all-loving God. It is utter folly to think that those who die in mortal sin will be overwhelmed by their vision of the all-loving and good God and so will immediately repent of their sin and love him everlastingly in return.
They will indeed be overwhelmed, for they will not be able to bear the sight of someone so radically and utterly different from their own evil selves. They will straightaway flee in repugnant disgust and fearsome hatred. The last place they will want to be is in God’s presence, and they will never want to be there for all eternity.
Thus, while, from one perspective, they are eternally condemned by a just God, yet, from another perspective, they have willingly and eagerly cast themselves into their own everlasting damnation.
Lent is not simply a time of purification, it is also a season of holiness – a time to grow in goodness and love, a time to conform ourselves to the likeness of God, in whose image we were created and now recreated in Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior. Thus, the sacrament of confession is opportune and may be a necessity. Moreover, our participation in and love for the Eucharist ought to increase, for there we meet him who is our life and our salvation.
Is this not all rather frightening, to say the least? That is why the Church, in her motherly concern for her children, has, for centuries, accentuated the importance of Lent. Lent is a time for turning away from the evil of sin – sin that can lead us to everlasting death – and for turning towards the mercy and forgiveness found in Jesus Christ.
*Image: Law and the Gospel by Lucas Cranach the Elder, c. 1529 [Herzogliches Museum Gotha, Germany]
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Fr. Thomas G. Weinandy, OFM, Cap.
Thomas G. Weinandy, OFM, a prolific writer and one of the most prominent living theologians, serves as a member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission. His newest book is Jesus Becoming Jesus: A Theological Interpretation of the Synoptic Gospels.