Does Hell Exist?

In contemporary theology few topics give rise to as impassioned yet ill-informed discussion as the topic of hell. The traditional position, with roots in St. Augustine, holds that not only is hell real, but it is likely the destiny of most of us. (Enchiridion, Ch. 24.  City of God, Bk. 21) The path to heaven is the “narrow gate”, while broad and easy is the path to destruction. Aquinas, following in this tradition, went so far as to suggest that the punishments of the damned would be a source of rejoicing for the saints, who would see in it the manifestation of God’s perfect justice. (ST, Suppl. q. 97, a. 1 c.)  It is not surprising that this somewhat dark vision of the general lot of humanity is out of fashion in these kinder, gentler times.

Hell bosch

In the twentieth-century we find great theologians in the Protestant tradition, such as Karl Barth, questioning the very existence of Hell. While his position on the question is complex (some argue he leaves undecided the question of whether all actually are saved), Barth seems to argue that the power of the Cross puts a definitive end to the debt owed due to sin. He writes, “All pain, all temptation, as well as our dying, is just the shadow of the judgment which God has already executed in our favour. That which in truth was bound to affect us and ought to have affected us, has actually been turned aside from us already in Christ’s death.”

The Anglican philosopher of religion and renowned Ockham scholar Marilyn McCord Adams provided one of the most compelling arguments against the possibility of hell, by claiming that it would not only be contrary to divine mercy, but also contrary to divine justice. Any human sin is merely a finite violation of the divine law, as no human being is capable of performing an act that is infinite in nature. Yet, the doctrine of hell holds that some sins are punished for eternity. This would mean that God imposes an infinite punishment for a finite transgression, a view that presents God as manifestly unjust.

While Adams’ argument sounds very persuasive, I think it is in the end unconvincing. In discussing the gravity of sin, St. Thomas Aquinas notes that a sin against another becomes more serious in proportion to the greater dignity of the one we offend. For example, to strike a peer is a serious matter, but to strike someone in authority such as the Prime Minister or a Bishop is even worse. This is relevant to the present problem, since all grave sin is an offence against God, in addition to any others who may be affected. Since God’s dignity is infinite, this entails that all serious (i.e. mortal) sin is of infinite gravity, and thus deserving of infinite punishment. This seems to show that Adams’ argument is insufficient to prove that a universalist theory of salvation is the only position compatible with Divine justice.

In a much discussed work, “Dare we Hope that All Men be Saved” the renowned Catholic theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar rejects the possibility of affirming definitively a universalist position. His argument is, rather, that an analysis of scripture makes it reasonable for us to hope that all will be saved. He insists we cannot know if this will be so or not, as Hell is a real possibility. However, it is reasonable to hope that God’s mercy will lead all to be saved. While I don’t think we can rule out this position as impossible, I find it improbable. It seems to me more logical to suggest that it is reasonable to hope that any particular individual can be saved. When we are speaking of the totality of humanity throughout human history, I find it harder to say that it is reasonable for all to be saved. Why would Hell have such a prominent place in scripture, particularly in the teachings of Jesus, if it were merely an abstract possibility? Scripture exists to teach us what is necessary for salvation, not theoretical possibilities that in all likelihood will never be realized.  Further, while it is certainly correct that the Church has never taught that we can know that a particular human person however evil has been condemned, the Church does teach that a plurality of spiritual beings, angels, did definitively turn away from God and have been condemned. Thus, some beings are in hell, it is just a question of whether any human beings will end up there are not.  But presumably divine justice must be just as fair to angelic beings as it is to humans. So a doctrine of universal salvation with regard to humans doesn’t solve the problem after all.

el greco hell

However, speculating on the population of Hell is not a very profitable enterprise. Of more interest is the nature of Hell. On this score, I think it is safe to say Christianity has moved far past the view of hell as a place God throws sinners to undergo torture and fire. In the Confessions St. Augustine makes an astute observation when he suggests that the greatest punishment of a disordered mind is its own disorder. This fits well with St. John Paul II’s famous, if somewhat oblique, teaching that Hell is “more than a place”. Far from being a fiery pit, Hell is more profoundly the state of separation from God. This state is the necessary and inextricable consequence of serious sin. It involves precisely that unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit, the refusal to accept God’s merciful and forgiving grace. This is a critical point, as it shows that regardless of what the population count happens to be, the condition of being in hell is none other than the condition of the person who freely and knowingly has separated him or herself from God and his loving mercy. The punishment is none other than the very condition that one has embraced.

In keeping with this the damned do are not punished as much by external agents sent from God as by the free acts of their own will.  Their greatest punishment is to get what they want.  Neither does this frustrate the divine plan.  While God does not will evil or that anyone should be lost, this is permitted through his respect for human freedom.  Yet, in his providential will for the world even the lost have a role to play.  One of the greatest recent poets in the English language, Geoffrey Hill expresses this evocatively in the second stanza of his poem “Ovid in the Third Reich”:

I have learned one thing: not to look down
So much upon the damned.  They, in their sphere,
Harmonize strangely with the divine
Love.  I, in mine, celebrate the love-choir.

This, it seems to me, seems to fit well with Aquinas’ position that God permits evil, in part, because the world is better if every degree and kind of goodness is allowed to exist and flourish, rather than merely the perfect good alone. I think that this provides a way to respect the place of the teaching on hell in Scripture and the Church’s magisterium, while showing in a profound way how even God’s justice is a reflection of His merciful love.