Hell, You Say?

In my book, The Existence of God and the Faith-Instinct, I discuss the story of Liu Zhenying, who as a teenager, was living during Mao Zedong’s “Cultural Revolution.” Possession of a Bible then was punishable by prison, torture, and even death. Liu Zhenying was entrusted with a Bible in miraculous circumstances, memorized the New Testament, and eventually began founding “house churches” throughout China. He was eventually exiled after long imprisonments, and received asylum in Germany. After experiencing many Protestant services, he expressed surprise that there was hardly ever any mention of hell!

Many Catholics would not find this surprising. I’ve lived, worked, and studied in various states, but I can’t recall one homily or sermon on hell – with the possible exception of some “missions” that used to come to parishes in Los Angeles during the 1950s. Of course, for the last four decades I have been living in Milwaukee, a bastion of political and religious liberalism – so my experience may not be typical.

Doing a computer search of the Gospels, I find that Jesus spoke explicitly about “hell” or “Hades” about twenty-five times, not including the parables mentioning the “outer darkness” (Mt. 22:13, the “furnace” (Mt. 13:42), etc. Jesus points to some specific sins that can lead to “hellfire” – for instance, the expression of intense hatred for someone (Mt. 5:22); being merciless to the poor and needy (Luke 16:23); and the “sin against the Holy Spirit” (Mt. 12:32), which some Fathers of the Church interpreted as final impenitence of one who has received great graces.

Jesus’ admonition that one should be ready to pluck out his eye or cut off his hand or foot to avoid hell (Mk. 9:43-47) is variously interpreted by the Fathers – sometimes metaphorically, as with Bede (“A friend is called a foot, on account of its service in going about for us, since he is as it were ready for our use. A friend who is useful, and anxious, and sharp in perception, is called an eye”) – but sometimes in reference to actual sins, as with Jerome (“As He had placed lust in the looking on a woman, so now the thought and sense straying hither and thither He calls “the eye.”)

Of course, Jesus’ explicit or implicit references to hell often come up at Sunday Mass in readings of the Gospel. So it would be strange if a homilist would not, at least occasionally, speak about this mainstay of Catholic doctrine.

"Hell" by Frans Memling, c. 1485 [Musée des Beaux Arts, Strasbourg]
“Hell” by Frans Memling, c. 1485 [Musée des Beaux Arts, Strasbourg]

Putting the best face on this apparent lacuna, I presume that the intention of said homilists might be to emphasize love rather than fear. The emphasis on God’s love, they hope, will induce in sinners the state of “perfect contrition,” the impulse from charity, which will bring about forgiveness of even mortal sins, even prior to the sacrament of Confession. Even a person who, because of invincible ignorance or insuperable obstacles, has no access to the sacrament of reconciliation, may be capable of perfect contrition. But who of us can be sure that our contrition is “perfect” in that sense? In Catholic doctrine, fear of hell, with the intention of avoiding future sins, is sufficient for a good Confession.

But, we often hear: shouldn’t a good and merciful God be able to save even hardened sinners, without the requirement of repentance and Confession? The question ought to be formulated differently: In view of free will, would it be possible for someone who has resisted God and perpetrated evil on others during his life to enter into a kingdom of universal love (which is what heaven is supposed by Christians to be)? Could one’s habitual attitudes, expressed in concrete actions, simply be miraculously overcome at the time of death?

As I mentioned in a previous column, the fact that even angels voluntarily chose hell rather than heaven seems baffling. Angels, purely spiritual creatures without any passions or mental handicaps, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, had complete knowledge of what they were choosing when rejecting God, as well as the punishments that would result. Are their punishments less severe, because they don’t have bodies? Or perhaps even greater?

Even for humans, burning with the fire of hatred could be more painful than any physical suffering. St. Thomas mentions a gloss upon James 3:5 regarding the suffering of the fallen angels: “They carry fire of hell with them wherever they go.” Why did they make this irreversible choice? Simply to start their own kingdom? Simply to avoid serving the Creator?

Our Lady of Fatima, showing a vision of hell to three children on July 13, 1917, focused on an inner fire rather than externals – souls in hell were “raised into the air by the flames which issued from within themselves, together with great clouds of smoke.” Our Lady told one of the children, Jacinta, shortly before her death, that most of the souls in hell are there because of “sins of the flesh.”

Our Lady’s intention in revealing hell was not to scare the children, but to motivate them to pray to save all sinners from such a fate. This is also an important motivation for us, and for homilists to bring up the subject on occasion.

In our ordinary secular life, there are so many distractions, so many concerns. Who has the time or incentive to think about the afterlife? Plato and Aristotle and other philosophers thought quite a bit about the afterlife (Plato even speculates about a final place of reward or punishment), and claimed to have convincing proofs for its existence.

But they didn’t know anything about evolution, and evolutionism has evolved an “afterlife-substitute” – we are allegedly here to contribute to the survival of the fittest, protect the environment, reduce our “carbon footprint,” and thus contribute to progress on earth.

That, of course, stands in stark contrast with what has been revealed to Christians: that individual afterlife, despite all this “progress,” is not a myth. And deliberation about “The Last Things” is indispensable, even for non-philosophers.

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz is emeritus professor of philosophy at Marquette University. His most recent publications include Natural Law: an Introduction and Reexamination (2004), Five Metaphysical Paradoxes (The 2006 Marquette Aquinas Lecture), The Philosophy of Human Nature (2008), and The Existence of God and the Faith-Instinct (2010).

  • Tom Williams

    Thanks Howard,
    This is bang on as to why the culture is where it is today. Lost souls not even aware that they are lost living for today with no thought of our true purpose for being. We are created to be in full communion with God now and in eternity; to the extent we know and love Him now and engaged in “building a civilization of love” in this life is the measure that will be multiplied many times over in the life to come.
    Poor lost souls who waste their lives trying to satiate their appetites unaware of what this type of behavior (sin) reaps in the life to come, have need of our prayers. Woe to the teachers who have been ordained by God to communicate this message and have not done so.
    Thankfully there are many gifted lay people, like yourself, who are not afraid to say it like it is and challenge lost souls along with those of us who know The Truth but have been a little lazy about sharing the Good News. Heaven is real and so is Hell.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Many of the Holy Fathers, like St Isaac of Syria, insist that the final coming of Christ will be the judgment of all men.

    For those who love the Lord, His Presence will be infinite joy, paradise and eternal life. For those who hate the Lord, the same Presence will be infinite torture, hell and eternal death. The reality for both the saved and the damned will be exactly the same when Christ “comes in glory, and all angels with Him,” so that “God may be all in all.” (I Cor 15-28) Those who have God as their “all” in this life will finally have divine fulfilment and life. For those whose “all” is themselves and this world, the “all” of God will be their torture, their punishment and their death. And theirs will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matt 8:2.)

    According to the saints, the “fire” that will consume sinners at the coming of the Kingdom of God is the same “fire” that will shine with splendour in the saints. It is the “fire” of God’s love; the “fire” of God Himself who is Love. “For our God is a consuming fire” (Heb 12:29) who “dwells in unapproachable light.” (I Tim 6:16) For those who love God and who love all creation in Him, the “consuming fire” of God will be radiant bliss and unspeakable delight. For those who do not love God, and who do not love at all, this same consuming fire” will be the cause of their “weeping” and their “gnashing of teeth.”

    • RainingAgain

      Perhaps Sartre, who I have heard died a (perhaps Jewish) believer, had an accurate insight when he described Hell “as other people”, a destination one would have to share with others who have rejected God and all that is good.

      • Howard Kainz

        According to the National
        Review, June 11, 1982, Sartre’s friend and ex-Maoist,
        Pierre Victor (A.k.a. Benny Levy), who spent much of his time with the dying
        Sartre and interviewed him on several of his views, testifies to Sartre’s conversion. According to Victor, Sartre
        had a drastic change of mind about the existence of God and started gravitating
        toward Messianic Judaism. This is Sartre’s before-death profession, according
        to Pierre Victor: “I do not feel that I am the product of chance, a speck of
        dust in the universe, but someone who was expected, prepared, prefigured. In
        short, a being whom only a Creator could put here; and this idea of a creating
        hand refers to God.
        The publication of this after Sartre’s death drew down immense measures of ire from Sartre’s atheist friends.

        • RainingAgain

          Thank you.

    • Chris Ramsey

      This reminded me of two verses from the prophet Malachi (3:19-20): “Lo, the day is coming, blazing like an oven, when all the proud and evildoers will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire, leaving them neither root nor branch, says the Lord of hosts. But for you who fear his name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.”

      It’s the same “sun of justice”, perceived by some to be “blazing like an oven”, by others to be a source of “healing rays”. I can feel the full weight of the saying “there, but for the grace of God, go I”!

  • kathleen

    Our Lady of Fatima implored us to pray the Rosary. Why? It is powerful because we are reminded with every mystery of the Rosary of the Life of Christ. With every Hail Mary we pray “for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death”. And after Fatima in the 1930’s Our Lord came with an urgent message to St. Faustina – repent and believe in the Gospel, in God’s mercy, but in His Justice too. St. Faustina was also shown a vision of Hell and the souls who were suffering there. Now that we are reminded of the atrocities committed in these Planned Parenthood centers, we must not only pray for these places of evil to be shut down, but we must also pray for the people who commit these crimes. Their souls are in great peril and they need our prayers. Our Lord told St. Faustina that the prayer for the conversion of sinners pleased Him most, and is always heard.

  • RainingAgain

    The very existence of our modern leaders of fashion and “progress”, the homosexuals and their other barren colleagues, is, no matter what else we might say about them, a living refutation of Darwin’s concept of the “survival of the fittest”.

    • How true, and meanwhile the same people work actively to have everyone’s children subjected to Darwinism in the social realm, mirroring their own empty lives of course (misery love company)… They fashion a technocentric system so rigorous and inhuman, that people cannot their heads above water long enough to be able to bear their own children.

  • Manfred

    Good article! Fr. Hans Keung, no friend of orthodoxy, did admit that HUMANAE VITAE was EX CATHEDRA, i.e., binding on all the faithful. Contraception has always been a mortal sin and remains so. It was the bishops in the U.S. who decided to lighten the burden on the laity and to just ignore the subject of mortal sin. Fr. Robert Barron of the CATHOLICISM series, insists very few souls are in Hell.
    He teaches this publicly. How does he know?
    Instead of teaching Truth, the modernist church has proven itself a great danger to the souls of its members. Compare Fatima, where Our Lady appeared six times and performed the Miracle of the Sun on the last visit, to Medjugorje, where Our Lady has never appeared and people flock to hear messages from the seers which are fictiions. Catholicism is no longer recognizable.

    • Gordon Macdonald

      Have you visited Medjugorje? If not please do……

      • kathleen

        You must examine the entire story of Medjugorje objectively. There is much disobedience. Disobedience by the “seers” and the priests who advised them in the beginning. One of those priests has left the priesthood after an investigation was started, and before its completion, into some very scandalous events relating to his personal life. Our Lord told St. Faustina when she obeyed her superiors rather than do something He had asked of her that he was most pleased with her obedience to her superiors. Our Lady wherever she appears would never counsel disobedience or go against the local bishop, or contradict Church teaching. Perhaps Our Lady did appear at first to some of the children in Medjugorje but then perhaps the Devil got involved. Wherever there is confusion and disobedience look for the Devil to be involved. The Devil hates the Catholic Church because it is the Mystical Body of Christ. He seems to be having a grand old time in these times but he has already been defeated. His time is short and he is pulling out all the stops. However, the gates of Hell shall not prevail against the Church. Never. Jesus promised that, and He always keeps His promises. Keep praying. Say the Rosary every day and attend daily Mass whenever possible. Go to Confession every month at least, even if your parish priest doesn’t recommend it. It’s good for your soul, and most likely is a good witness for your priest, especially if he is one of those “modern” priests who doesn’t preach about sin and the Last Things.

  • Thank you, Howard. You helped me “re-think” the homilies I give. For some (many?) I am disliked for my homilies on sexual sin particularly contraception revealing an epidemic of selfishness. I often say that given our freedom of will we choose heaven or hell by our conduct and that man’s innate sense of justice requires punishment for evil and reward for good keeping in mind Jesus’ admonition, Who is good except my Father. Ultimately and truthfully we are called to be “meek and humble of heart” as was Jesus. If we can not comprehend or are unwilling to accept hell we should reflect on what Paul the Apostle stated, we are neither master of our lives or our deaths.

  • Bro_Ed

    In Catholic schools in the Forties, we were told that Hell was the deprivation of the Beatific Vision The “fire” was the “fire of despair” which tormented the souls thus deprived. Has this changed?

    • Bruno

      It sort of has. I have the impression that no one will deny it explicitly, but will do so with every other means available.

  • Rev Mark Pilon

    Unfortunately, I was present back in the mid 80’s at a colloquium in Rome at the Lateran University and heard a renowned theologian, Hans Urs Von Balthasar, declare that it was useless to preach on hell since very few believe in it anymore. His “Dare We believe” has a a fair tinge of universalism, though he does not actually deny the existence of Hell. Nonetheless, his teaching on hope is rather confused and can lead to a practical universalism of sorts, and if taken seriously makes it difficult practically speaking to take hell seriously and preach on it. His fervent disciples react with disdain to anyone who rejects his theory of hope as if such people were calling him a heretic. One does not have to be a heretic to have an unintended effect of the preaching and confessional practice of Catholics. I think much of his teaching is quite excellent, but one does not have to agree with everything he says, quite obviously since his disciples would say that of St. Thomas as well. Universalism has become the Christian heresy of our day, as we can see from the typical funeral homily and/or eulogy, and universalism is obviously incompatible with belief in hell.

    • lwhite

      Why waste your time with a Modernist such as Hans Urs Von Balthasar when there are so many writings of orthodox theologians, of Saints, of Fathers and Doctor’s of the Church, and holy Popes to edify the mind, heart and soul with the Truth?

      • Donald E. DeFilippo

        Our Holy Catholic church teaches us about Hell, as to why angels (to whom God gave free will) followed Lucifer is a mystery. One can speculate that he (the evil one) through jealously of the Blessed Virgin Mary knowingly saw that she, a mere mortal would be brought body and soul into Heaven to be eternally adored, tricked one third of the angels by implying that he would make them God-like.

        These angels found out that the pain they suffered, like one who touches something hot, the pain eventually ceases, theirs renews the intensity every second. Also to gaze upon the evil one as he really is, is so painful, worse than a red hot poker in the eye, that I,m sure that they regret their decision.

        Even the evil one, the incarnate of sin, cannot stand to see himself for it would destroy the image that he projects on others.

    • Julesie

      Father von Balthasar’s writings are sublime. I’m happy, Fr. Pilon, that you do make the important distinction that vB was not advocating universalism. I can see how in this age of sound-bites, sensationalism, and the deficiency of reason, a gullible person reading without discernment might be led into a misunderstanding of von Balthasar (or any of the better theologians of the past).

      That problem might reflect a general malaise of the post-modern era more than some particular flaw vB has inflicted upon theological (or philosophical) thought.

      Taking a broader view, can anyone doubt that centuries from now the profound ideas of von Balthasar will have been correctly incorporated into the faith, with right understanding?

  • givelifeachance2

    Here’s the thing, Father Barron…hell, and shame, are necessary so that their opposites may be realized. No shame, no gain.

  • grump

    “Go to heaven for the climate, hell for the company.” — Mark Twain.
    “Hell is other people.” — Sartre
    “I’d rather live in hell than in Baltimore.” — Grump

    • DougH

      Sartre got it right.

  • Fr Kloster

    Mt. 12:32 is best interpreted as he who speaks against the Holy Spirit (Holy Ghost). It is referring to an unforgivable action against the Holy Spirit. That being written, there are actually 6 recognized sins against the Holy Spirit. They can readily be distilled into two: presumption and despair.

    I regularly remind our 105 catechists in the parish that no one is above falling into either extreme.

  • In one of his talks, Fr. Pacwa makes an important point about the motivation of fear: “Everyone’s afraid of something.” He goes on to say that most are afraid of some form of rejection from peers or popular culture, but they are not afraid of offending God, which they should be.

    I’ve spent my life trying to understand the “fear of God,” and I think Pacwa gets to the heart of it. It’s not some sort of reverence or awe exactly; it is truly fear of offending Him. We fear this because hell exists, and He can send us there for denying His commandments and refusing to accept His love. As C.S. Lewis and Peter Kreeft would say, He sends us to hell because we didn’t want to be with Him.

    We should fear God as we fear our fathers. As a father love and punishes, God loves and punishes accordingly. As it’s repeatedly stated in the Bible: “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” We often can’t begin with love and understanding, but with fear, which implies respect and humility. Denial of love (despair) or punishment (presumption) leads to a sinful life, while obedience and discipline will perfect fear into love. When we reach this point, the realities of heaven, hell, and purgatory will become much more apparent.

  • Mary C-J

    If those in Hell are there because of “sins of the flesh”, one wonders where we shall find those who act for, promote AND/OR look the other way to the atrocities committed by abortion in general, and Planned Parenthood in particular. Hell-fires will be stoked for centuries, keeping the Devil warm and cozy.
    Sorry, didn’t mean to be snarky, but couldn’t resist.

  • Veritas

    The validity of Christianity is not in its claims to heaven or hell beyond our human existence, but during our lifetimes. Catholicism is a way of life, one that should be followed for the simple reason that we will self destruct if we don’t live according to its moral tenets. We can either be in heaven now or hell now.

    • ThirstforTruth

      A way of life that does not lead somewhere, is like living as a gerbil, constantly spinning on a wheel of activity, going nowhere fast! Jesus surely spoke against hell as being a
      deprivation of the Christian goal of a loving, eternal union with his Creator. Man perhaps
      might be able to “create” eventually a Utopian like life for himself here ( present times do
      not offer much hope of it) but only God creates a Heaven which exists even now. We have only to have faith, love and the hope of achieving it through the Paschal Mystery of Christ.