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On Hell

“Giv’em Hell, Harry,” echoed through Truman’s presidency. But generally speaking, hell has a bad name. Even if it does not exist, it still has a bad name. No one wants to go there, especially if his sins are scarlet. Indeed, no one thinks he should go there even though his sins are scarlet, or worse.

The effect of the “no one ‘deserves’ hell” position is that it makes it seem that nothing we do, to ourselves or others, makes any ultimate difference in the universe. Everyone receives his eternal reward, if one exists, just because he is who he is, whatever his beliefs or deeds.

We read in 2 Thessalonians 1, that “He will come in flaming fire to impose the penalty on all who do not acknowledge God and refuse to accept the Good News of our Lord Jesus. It will be their punishment to be lost eternally, excluded from the presence of the Lord, the glory of his strength on that day when he comes to be glorified among his saints.” Talk about a counter-cultural passage!

Though few seem to reflect on it, hell is actually a good topic to think about. It can be thought about even if someone does not or will not accept its reality. (Chapters on hell and political philosophy can be found in my books, The Politics of Heaven & Hell [1] and At the Limits of Political Philosophy [2]). Ironically, perhaps, hell can be and is a very positive teaching and reality. Its origins are not exclusively Judeo-Christian, as anyone knows who has read the last book of Plato’sRepublic.

We hear of widespread opinions among the theologians on this, to many, a troubling topic. Isn’t God cruel even to mention hell? Yet, it is difficult to read the New Testament (some still do) without concluding that Christ had no problem with hell except to keep us from going there. He also wanted to save every person. But He could only save anyone who, by the way he lived and by his own choices, did not deserve to go there.


The one thing even God cannot do is to create a free rational being then turn around and save him apart from his own choosing. The very point of living the inner life of the Trinity, to which we are invited but not coerced, is that everyone has to be there freely. No friendship with man or God is possible if it is coerced against his will. If man were simply created to live the inner life of God with no input of his own, no real reason could be found to create him in the first place.

I recall reading someplace in Hannah Arendt that the second American president, John Adams, said that the doctrine of hell was the most important Christian (and Platonic!) teaching for politics.

Why, we might ask ourselves, would Adams say such an outlandish thing? When we look at the political scene today, it does not seem quite so outlandish. The foundation of any civilized order has been undermined by a systematic voluntarism that not only allows everything, except perhaps virtue, but has insisted at every step in calling good evil.

Indeed, many have insisted on changing the being that God initially created into his (man’s) own “image,” an image that rapidly has eliminated any given intelligibility either to man’s body or soul.

The only thing to add to this recognition is that collectivities do not “sin.” They have no immortal souls. Sins are only committed by individual persons who are responsible for the rejection of both what is revealed and of what can be known by reason. Am I arguing that individual thinkers and politicians in any country, including our own, who bring these deviations about, are meant here? Indeed, I am.

One popular view is that hell exists but no one is in it. In the end, God figured out a way to save everyone in spite of their track records of sin and evil doings. Since God willed everybody to be saved, as He did, therefore everyone is saved, in spite of himself. Or perhaps at the zero hour even to the worst sinners were given the grace to repent and they did.

We can speculate on these views. They are not theoretically impossible. But the author of 2 Thessalonians did say that, if they refused the Good News, they would be lost “eternally”. The logic of this position would imply that, if they are saved, they somehow, implicitly or explicitly, accepted the Good News.

Earlier I mentioned that hell is a positive doctrine. How so? Each human person is so important that anyone who seriously sins against him (see the commandments), at any moment or place, is, if unrepentant, worthy of hell. Put positively, the reality of hell defines what our relation to each other ought to be, something noble, yes, something sinless.


*Image: The Maw of the Underword by Master of the Cité des Dames, c. 1410 [Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris]

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.