Does God Love the Souls in Hell? Then Why Do They Suffer?

Every now and then an older post of mine lights up again with a new bevy of comments. Such is the case with a post I wrote over a year ago entitled, Is God’s Love Really Unconditional?.  This sometimes happens because a link is picked up and posted somewhere and people click through. This recent bevy of comments was mostly hostile toward God and faith so I suspect that an agnostic or atheist site posted my article as an example of how naïve believers are etc. That’s OK. I am happy to be a fool for Christ.

One of the comments was rather interesting to me though, and I’d like to see what you think as well. For a little background let me print a paragraph I wrote a year ago and then give you the reader’s comment in response:

MSGR POPE: God’s love never fails. I will go so far as to say that even the souls in hell are loved by God. How could they continue to exist if He did not love them, sustain them and provide for them? God loves because God IS love and that is what Love does, it loves. We may fail to be able to experience or accept that love, and that inability may at some time become permanent for us. But God never stops loving. How could he? God does not merely have love, He IS love. And love cannot NOT  LOVE for it pertains to love that it love. God has not stopped loving the souls in Hell. How could He? They surely refused to empty their arms to receive his embrace but God’s love for them has never been withdrawn. How could God not be love?

COMMENTER:  Are you trolling Msgr? Where is the love in keeping you alive in hell? It is a lot better to just cease existing than suffer eternal torment. Is that his way of showing love? Let me put a good example. I will let some bad people torture you and your family for your mistakes. They will rape your children, slice them up, but since I LOVE YOU, I will keep them alive, to be tortured again. And you can multiply this example to a trillion, zillion, quantillion whatever illion times and it still doesn’t fit eternity. Do you think I love you?

God a monster?  Now, the likely point of our commenter is common to a lot of atheist comments I get. Namely, that our God, the Christian God of the Bible, is a monster, that he is vengeful, punitive and hateful. The point is to make God, and the whole notion of faith, seem unreasonable and untenable, cruel and despotic, especially when squared with the far more “reasonable” and “civilized” notions of humanism.

And yet our commenter has effectively presented a conundrum that can really only be resolved by a kind of nihilism. For, if God keeps the souls in hell alive, then he is vengeful and hateful. But if he slays the wicked, then it would also seem, to most observers, that  he is vengeful and hateful. So no matter what he does, God is vengeful and hateful. The only solution would seem to be a kind of nihilism in which we remove all ultimate notions of right and wrong, all notions of consequences, all notions of reward and ultimate justice. This in turn requires that we remove human freedom as well since, no matter what we did, the result would be the same.

This would seem the only way our commenter could envision a God who is not vengeful and hateful. It’s very all or nothing. Either God is vengeful and hateful or he completely removes our freedom and everything associated with it, thereby forcing one solution.

Questions to ponder – Beyond this though there are other questions to ponder, based not only on what the commenter says, but also what I have said. I want to say that I do not write these questions glibly or merely to tweak. They are not rhetorical (merely argumentative) either. What I am trying to do is take up the voice of a questioner who is authentically trying to wrestle with a difficult topic. I think many of the questions I raise have a clear answer, and propose one at the end. But I merely raise them to paint a picture of what might go through the mind of one pondering the matter. So here are some questions that might occur in terms of God and the souls in Hell:

  1. Is it really a sign of hate or vengeance, rather than love, that God sustains the souls in Hell?
  2. Does he really keep them alive merely to torment them?
  3. What is more loving, to sustain them or to slay them?
  4. Is the description of hell advanced by our commenter over the top or is it accurate? Granted, the torture of my family for “my mistakes” would be wrong since, theoretically they are innocent of my mistakes and would not be in hell.
  5. But what of the torture of guilty in hell? Is our commenter’s description accurate in this sense? Jesus after all, uses some pretty vivid descriptors of hell where the fire is never extinguished and the worm dies not (Mk 9:48). Where there is wailing and grinding of teeth (Matt 13:42) and where there is torment and thirst (Lk 16:24).
  6. Are these images of Jesus just allegory (figurative)?
  7. Are they Jewish hyperbole (exaggeration)?
  8. Or are they to be interpreted in a literalistic way?
  9. In other words, is Hell really this bad?
  10. Are the Biblical descriptions as understood literally the only way to see Hell?
  11. And if it is, is our commenter right that it would be better for God to slay the wicked?
  12. If it IS better, is God despotic and vengeful in keeping them alive in this condition?
  13. Is “killing the patient” ever good therapy?
  14. Should God just cancel the reality of hell and bring them to heaven?
  15. If He did, would this also cancel justice?
  16. If He did, would this violate the freedom and the choice of those who preferred not to live in his Kingdom?
  17. If it does violate their freedom, is killing them only thing left?
  18. Is THAT just?

In striving to resolve these sorts of questions we might start by saying that Hell is not unjust. In a way, hell has to be since God ultimately respects our freedom to choose him and his kingdom or not. That hell is eternal would seem caught up in the mystery of who we are, and that, at some point, our choice becomes forever fixed and definitive.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him….. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called “hell.” (CCC #1033). Note that we “self-exclude” ourselves in some definitive way. Mysteriously, Hell is the final choice of some who finally reject God and the values of his Kingdom, such as mercy, love of the poor, chastity, worship and so forth. It is we who do this, not God who wants no one to perish but all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9).

But what of the sufferings of Hell? Could God not at least turn down the temperature a bit?  Our commenter has surely honed in one of the great mysteries of hell: its sufferings and why God seems content to allow it. Here too the Catechism may be of some help in sorting through the problem. While acknowledging the fiery descriptions of hell in the Scriptures, the Catechism finally states: The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs. (CCC # 1035)

Note that the chief punishment is not the fire etc., but eternal separation from God, who alone can be the true fulfillment for what we long. As fleshly creatures we tend to want to focus on fire, and worms not dying, on tormenting thirst etc. But all of that is secondary, and may well flow from the primary suffering, which is the self-imposed and adamant desire of the soul to permanently live apart from God. The fire may not be literal fire and the worms etc.,  may be descriptive of a kind of fiery anger, a self consuming hatred that knows no depth. The thirst may describe the longing that results from having eternally rejected the medicine of God who alone is true and living water. The gnashing of teeth may be a symbol of the anger of the souls in Hell. But all of this results from the primary suffering the self-imposed exile of the soul from God.

The vivid descriptions of hell in Scripture are surely meant to get our attention. Here too the Catechism is helpful:

The affirmations of Sacred Scripture and the teachings of the Church on the subject of hell are a call to the responsibility incumbent upon man to make use of his freedom in view of his eternal destiny. They are at the same time an urgent call to conversion: “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few (Mt 7:13).” (CCC # 1036)

In the end the only ways for God to resolve the situation of hell would be to disregard the free choice of the damned and force them into his presence, or to kill them.

As for killing them, we live in strange times and in the culture of death wherein Death is an oft recommended “therapy.” Inconvenient children, unborn children with prenatal diagnosis of handicaps,   the suffering and the seriously sick, are all to be “treated” by death, according to many in our culture. A strange and sick therapy indeed.

And in the end if God were to kill the souls in Hell  He would be saying to them, and to us, you really only DO have one choice. Love me, choose me,  or die, cease to exist. Is that really a choice? Is that really to love God if, in the end we there is only one lasting choice?

We are left ultimately with the mysterious reality of hell and can only conclude that, in the end hell has to be.

Here’s an interesting take on similar question: