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, 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.