There was a lot of very good discussion on the blog yesterday about the topic of hell. I had wanted to be a bigger part of the discussion, but I’m traveling through the Puget Sound by ferry.
Given my travels and my difficulty in posting today, I thought it might be good to republish a post I wrote over two years ago on the topic of hell. The post amounts to how I would answer most of the objections raised to the teaching on hell. Although it is not extremely philosophical or Thomistic, it is more what I would call pastoral.
In it I wrestle with the question of hell and some of the objections raised. . I think we can all agree that the teaching on hell is difficult, it is one of those hard sayings of the Lord. But in the end, I would argue that hell has to be. Here then the reprint of my post:
If God is Love, why is there Hell? And why is it eternal? In a word there is Hell because of respect. God has made us free and respects that freedom. Our freedom is absolutely necessary if we are to love. Now suppose a young man wanted a young lady to love him. Suppose again he found a magic potion with which to lace her drink. So she drinks and suddenly, presto., she “loves” him! Is it love? No, it’s chemicals. Love, to be love, has to be free. The yes of love is only meaningful if we were free to say no. God invites us to love him. Love has to be free. There has to be a hell. Ther has to be a real alternative, a real choice. God will not force us to love him or to come to heaven with him.
But wait a minute, doesn’t everyone want to go to heaven? Yes, but it often a heaven as they define it, not the real heaven. Many people’s understanding of heaven is a very egocentric thing where they will be happy on their terms, where what pleases merely them will be available in abundance. But the real heaven is the Kingdom of God in all its fullness. Truth be told, while everyone wants to go to a heaven as they define it, NOT everyone wants to live in the Kingdom of God in all its fullness. Consider some of the following examples:
- The Kingdom of God is about mercy and forgiveness. But not everyone wants to show mercy or forgive. Some prefer revenge. Some prefer severe justice. Some prefer to cling to their anger and nurse resentments or bigotry. Further, not everyone want to receive mercy and forgiveness. They cannot possibly fathom why anyone would need to forgive them since they are rightand the other person or nation is wrong.
- The Kingdom of God is about chastity. God is very clear with us that his Kingdom values chastity. For the unmarried this means no gential sexual contact. For the married this means complete fidelity to one another. Further, things like pornography, lewd conduct, immodesty and so forth are excluded from the Kingdom. But many today do not prefer chastity. They would rather be unchaste and immodest. They like pornography and do not want to limit their sexual conduct.
- The Kingdom of God is about Liturgy – all the descriptions of heaven emphasize liturgy. There are hymns being sung, there is the praise of God, standing, sitting, prostrating. There is incense, candles, long robes. There is a scroll or book that is opened, read and appreciated. There is the Lamb on a throne-like altar. It’s all very much like the Mass! But many are not interested in things like the Mass. They stay away from Church because it is “boring.” Perhaps they don’t like hymns and all the praise. Perhaps the scroll (the Lectionary) and its contents do not interest them. Having God at the center rather than themselves or their agenda is also unappealing.
Now my point is this: If heaven isn’t just of our own design but things like these are features of the real heaven, the real Kingdom of God, then doesn’t it seem clear that there actually are many who don’t want to go to heaven? You see everyone wants to go to heaven (the heaven of their own design), but NOT everyone wants to live in the Kingdom, which is what heaven really is. Now God will not force any one to live where they do not want to live. He will not force anyone to love Him or what he loves. We are free to choose his kingdom or not.
Perhaps a brief story will illustrate my point. I once knew a woman in one of my parishes who in many way was very devout. She went to daily Mass and prayed the rosary most days. But there was one thing about her that was very troubling, she couldn’t stand African Americans. She often told me, “I can’t stand Black People! They’re moving into this neighborhood and ruining everything! I wish they’d go away.” I remember scolding her a number of times for this sort of talk. But one day I thought I’d make it plain. I said, “You know you don’t really want to go to heaven.” She said, “Of course I do Father. God and the Blessed Mother are there. I want to go.” “No you won’t be happy there,” I said. “Why? Want are you talking about Father?” “Well you see there are Black people in heaven and you’ve said you can’t stand to be around them. So I’m afraid you wouldn’t be happy there. And God won’t make you live some place where you are not happy. So I don’t think you want to go to heaven.” I think she go the message because I noticed she started to improve.
But that’s just it, isn’t it? God will not force us to live in the Kingdom if we really don’t want or like what that kingdom is. We can’t just invent our own heaven. Heaven is a real place and has contours and realities of its own that we can’t just brush aside. Either we accept heaven as it is or we ipso facto choose to live apart from it and God. So Hell has to be. It is not a pleasant place but I suppose the saddest thing about the souls in that are there is that they wouldn’t be happy in heaven anyway. A pretty sad and tragic plight, not to be happy anywhere. But understand this too. God has not utterly rejected even the souls in Hell. Somehow he still provides for their basic needs. They continue to exist and thus God continues to sustain them with what ever is required to provide for that existence. He does not anihilate them or snuff them out. He respects their wishes to live apart from the kingdom and its values. He loves them but respects their choice.
But why is Hell eternal? Here I think we encounter a mystery about ourselves. God seems to be teaching us that there comes a day when our decisions are fixed forever. For now we always have the possibility of changing our mind so the idea of a permanent decision seems strange to us. But I think that those of us who are a bit older can testify that as we get older we get a little more set in our ways and it’s harder to change. Perhaps this is a little foretaste of a time when our decisions will be forever fixed and we will never change. The Fathers of the Church used an image of pottery to teach on this. Think of wet clay on a potters wheel. As long as the clay is moist and still on the wheel it can be shaped and reshaped. But once it is put in the kiln, in the fire, its shape is fixed forever. And so it is with us that when we appear before God who is a Holy Fire, our fundamental shape will be forever fixed, our decisions final. For now this is mysterious to us and we only sense it vaguely but since heaven and hell are eternal, it seems this forever fixed state is in our future.
So here is the best I can do on a difficult topic. But Hell has to be. It’s about God’s respect for us. It’s about our freedom and summons to love. It’s about the real heaven. It’s about what we really want in the end. The following video is Fr. Robert Barron’s take on the matter.