Cautious Reflections on Hell

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is an ex-Muslim and an atheist, a former Member of Parliament in the Netherlands, and currently a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute in the United States. In the Netherlands, she collaborated with Theo Van Gogh in the production of the short film, Fitna, which chronicled hate-filled calls to violence among Islamist clerics, accompanied by quotations from the Koran. The film led to Van Gogh’s assassination by a young Muslim, threats to the life of Hirsi Ali, and her eventual resettlement in America. She has to be accompanied continually by security guards because of threats on her life. Her recent book, Nomad, is primarily about her early years and immersion in Islamic culture and her life-changing exposure to Western culture and Enlightenment values. But in reading the book I have been struck by a subject that was peripheral to her story – namely, the constant references to hell by her parents, siblings, clan members, and acquaintances, who during her transition out of Islam alternated between fierce rejection and attempts to re-convert her from apostasy.

As I read through the descriptions of these multiple familial and social encounters, I began to realize that the fear of hell partly drives the cruel and almost sadistic subjugation of women in Islam, many of whom are locked into marriages in competition with other wives and prevented from any normal exposure to the outside world. Ayaan’s mother, grandmother, and most other women in her clan, according to her account, were willing to live like slaves or worse, influenced largely by the numerous graphic and almost obscene depictions in the Koran and other sacred books of the tortures of hell reserved for those who do not accept or who depart from Islamic tenets.

Many of us are utterly confused and mystified by the dedication of Islamic fanatics carrying out massacres and tortures, even against innocents and children, the very thought of which might make us feel like vomiting. But the “hell-factor” may provide something of an explanation. In other words, as they understand the situation, they must do what they are doing, to avoid spending an eternity wearing clothes made of fire, shedding scorched skin to receive renewed fire-clothes, drinking pus and boiling water, etc., etc.

Such continual reference to hell in the Islamic milieu from which Hirsi Ali came offers us a rather stark contrast with present-day Christianity in the West. Liu Zhenying, the founder of numerous house-churches in China, who finally escaped from persecution with his family to the West, mentions in his book, The Heavenly Man, that in sermons in the Protestant churches he attended after his escape from China he was struck by the fact that hardly any mention was ever made of hell. His experience might have been similar had he attended Catholic churches. In my experience, which may not be typical, I can’t remember one homily or retreat in the last forty years in which the doctrine about hell got any real emphasis. Especially since Vatican II, there seems to be an unwritten mandate not to bring up hell, but rather to concentrate on the many positive teachings ascribed to Christianity.

Morbid concentration on the possibility of hell should, of course, be avoided. A misplaced and exaggerated fear of hell can even lead, as we have seen, to horrific acts and subjugations, “in the name of God.” Love is of the essence of Christianity, and God assuredly does not want His children shaking in their boots out of fear of hell. Such obsessions are not likely to lead to free and spontaneous love.

On the other hand, even some saints, as we hear in their biographies (Mother Teresa being a recent example), were troubled with doubts about their salvation towards the end of their lives. Their great faith apparently had an unusually large admixture of the “fear and trembling” counseled by St. Paul (Phil. 2:12).

Aside from some Protestants (who for some reason believe a one-time experience of being “saved” is their guarantee of salvation), can the uncertainty about our final destination be alleviated for the rest of us Christians? Yes. Most importantly, we need to remember that our Lord promises (Mark 9:40; Mt. 10:42) that those who give even a “cup of cold water” to one of his little ones, “will not lose their reward.”

Some approved private revelations offer to Catholics more explicit guarantees of salvation. For instance, during the apparitions of Our Lady to three children in Fátima, Portugal, in 1917, the oldest child, Lucia asked Our Lady if she and her two little friends would go to heaven, and Mary answered very clearly that the youngest, Jacinta, would go to heaven soon, and Francisco would go after he had “said many rosaries,” but that she (Lucia) would have to stay on earth for many years (she died in 2005, a Carmelite nun). Both Jacinta and Francisco died within a few years of the visions.

In the Catholic tradition, even those of us who do not feel particularly holy have received some time-honored assurances of salvation from creditable sources – the “Five First Saturday” promises made at Fatima, the “Nine First Fridays” devotion given to St. Margaret Mary, the assurances given to St. Dominic and Blessed Alan about regular recitation of the rosary, and the Scapular promises made to St. Simon Stock. In all of these cases, Our Lady made quite specific promises about the graces for salvation being provided at the time of death. Of course, this doesn’t mean one can go out and live a dissolute life after making the First Saturdays. The Ten Commandments still remain foundational. And the great drama for all of us is to understand how those commands are not merely a recipe to avoid hell but express the divine love and show us how to live it out in a world that thinks happiness only comes from doing whatever we want. 


Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.