This is the eleventh in a series of articles on the Four Last Things: death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell.
Today we come to the final of the Four Last Things: Hell. I have written extensively on this topic over the years, largely in response to the widespread dismissal of the revealed doctrine of Hell. In contradiction to Scripture, many presume that Hell is an unlikely destination for most. Never mind that Jesus taught just the opposite (e.g., Matt 7:13-14). In my own small way, I have tried to keep people more rooted in the sobriety of the Gospel than in the wishful thinking of the modern age. No one warned of Hell more than did Jesus. Arguably, 21 of the 38 parables amount to warnings about Hell and the need to be ready for judgment day. (I have written more on that here: Jesus Who Loves You Warned Frequently of Hell.)
In this post, however, I would like to consider why Hell has to be. Frequently, those who doubt Jesus’ biblical teaching ask this: If God is love, then why is there Hell and why is it eternal?
In short, there is Hell because of God’s respect for our freedom. God has made us free and our freedom is absolutely necessary if we are to love. Suppose that a young man wanted a young lady to love him. Suppose again that he found a magic potion with which to lace her drink. After drinking it, Presto, she “loves” him! Is it real love? No it’s the effect of chemicals. Love must be freely given. The yes of love is only meaningful if we are free to say no. God invites us to love him. There must be a Hell because there has to be a real alternative to Heaven. 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 is often a “heaven” as they define it, not the real Heaven. Many people understand Heaven egocentrically: It’s a place where they will be happy on their own terms, where what pleases them will be available in abundance. The real Heaven is the Kingdom of God in all its fullness. So 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 the following examples:
- The Kingdom of God is about mercy and forgiveness. Not everyone wants to show mercy or forgive. Some prefer revenge. Others favor severe justice. Some prefer to cling to their anger and nurse resentments or bigotry. Further, not everyone wants to receive mercy and forgiveness. Some cannot possibly fathom why anyone would need to forgive them since they are right! Recall the second son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Instead of entering the feast at the pleading of his father, he refuses to enter because that wretched brother of his is in there. He will not forgive or love his brother as the father does. In so doing, he excludes himself from the feast. Despite his father’s pleading, he will not enter through forgiveness and mercy. The feast is not a feast at all for him. Similarly, Heaven will not be “heaven” for those who refuse the grace to forgive and love their enemies and those who have harmed them.
- The Kingdom of God is about chastity. God is very clear with us that His Kingdom values chastity. For the unmarried, this means no genital sexual contact. For the married, this means complete fidelity to each other. Further, things such as pornography, lewd conduct, and immodesty are excluded from the Kingdom. Many people today do not prefer chastity. They would rather be unchaste and immodest. Many celebrate fornication and homosexual acts as a kind of liberation from “repressive” norms. Many people like to consume pornography and do not want to limit their sexual conduct. It is one thing to fail in some of these matters through weakness, but it is quite another to insist that there is nothing wrong with such behavior.
- The Kingdom of God is about Liturgy. All of the descriptions of Heaven emphasize liturgy. There are hymns being sung. There is the praise of God. There is standing, sitting, and prostrating at certain times. There are candles, incense, and 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 They stay away because the say it’s “boring.” Perhaps they don’t like the hymns and all the praise. Perhaps the scroll (the Lectionary) and its contents do not interest them or agree with their moral preferences. Having God at the center rather than themselves is unappealing.
The point is this: If Heaven isn’t just of our own design; if Heaven—the real Kingdom of God—is about these things, 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 a “heaven” of their own design, but not everyone wants to live in the real Kingdom of Heaven. God will not force any one to live in Heaven if he doesn’t want to live there. He will not force anyone to love Him or what He loves or whom 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 ways was very devout. She went to daily Mass and prayed the rosary on most days. There was one thing about her, however, that was very troubling: she couldn’t stand African-Americans.
She would often comment to 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 it seemed to have seeming effect.
One day I decided to try to make it more clear: “You know you don’t really want to go to Heaven,” I challenged.
“Of course I do, Father,” she replied. “God and the Blessed Mother are there; I want to go.”
“No, you won’t be happy there,” I responded.
“Why?” she asked, “What are you talking about, Father?”
“Well you see there are Black people in Heaven and you’ve said that you can’t stand to be around them, so I’m afraid you wouldn’t be happy there. God won’t force you to live in Heaven if you won’t be happy there. That’s why I think that you don’t really want to go to Heaven.”
I think she got the message because I noticed that her attitude started to improve.
That’s just it, isn’t it? God will not force us to live in the Kingdom if we really don’t want it or like what that Kingdom is. We can’t just invent our own “heaven.” Heaven is a real place. It 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 Hell is that they wouldn’t be happy in Heaven anyway. It’s a tragic plight, not to be happy anywhere.
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 whatever is required for that existence. He does not annihilate them or snuff them out.
God respects their wish to live apart from the Kingdom and its values. He loves them but respects their choice.
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. In this world we always have the possibility of changing our mind so the idea of a permanent decision seems strange to us. Those of us who are older can testify that as we age we get more and more set in our ways; it’s harder and 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 potter’s 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. 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 will be final. This is mysterious to us and we only sense it vaguely, but because Heaven and Hell are eternal, it seems that this forever-fixed state is in our future.
This is the best I can do on a difficult topic: 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. We know what God wants: to save us. The real judgment in question is what we want.
7 Replies to “Hell Has to Be”
Black, White, Asian, Hispanic, etc. They – who are our brothers and sisters will all be one thing in Heaven – Catholic. They will have faith. They will believe everything God has said and revealed to us, they will believe everything Holy Church has purported for our belief, because Truth Himself has revealed it. It is Jesus who unites! I’m white – my favorite Cardinal is Cardinal Sarah who is black. My favorite Bishop is Bishop Athanasius Schnieder who is white – So what? Truth, beauty, and goodness convertible terms for God are why these men are my favorites. I see truth, beauty, and goodness reflected in their works! I hate the works of the Nicoliatans. Works is the keyword there. I hate their works.
Read Revelations chapter 2 verse 6 where God says: 6 Yet this you have, you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
Who are the Nicoliatans? They are the prototypical religious ‘compromisers.’ Compromising incidentally is one big way the world finds ‘peace.’ ‘Can’t we all just get along? Can’t you just approve of my works because I believe my works and I are one?’ No. We cannot and will not just ‘get along,’ unless we begin to compromise. Enmity has been put between us. Read genesis chapter 3. I believe when you get right down to the root of things some people ‘can’t stand,’ the ‘works’ of others. Some on the other hand are racist and hate ‘people’ based on lies – false accusations by the devil. No one race has a dominance on hate and racism. Consider the case of the Rwanda genocide in the 1990’s. Two black tribes divided by the media and politicians beating the devils drum of hatred until horrible evils held sway in their land. One tribe light skinned – one dark skinned, both black. It is the devils balliwick. We must love all people. All being the key word. That does not mean we’re going to like everyone.
There were a handful of men in my old job in Law Enforcement, subordinates, peers, and bosses that I did not like. Most of those men I did not like, I did not trust. By grace, I prayed for every one of them! I prayed for their families too, that every member of their family would in fact become a great, great Saint. I prayed that they would become far holier than I might ever become, but that I should become as holy as I ought to. I prayed for their conversion and salvation probably almost as many times as I would start to get angry with them. Often the angrier I was all the more would I pray for all of these things for they and their families. I loved them. I did not like them, and I hated – yes I hated some of their ‘works.’ Thank goodness they were all the same race as I – thank goodness lest I be thought a racist in these crazy dark days in this upside down world.
Humility is the acknowledgment of the truth. We all (all races) have lots of problems, sins, lots of issues. However, today If I speak about issues in the black community – being white – that is a third rail I’m not supposed to touch. Instead I have to begin with my own race. So I start out with how a white outlaw biker through his dress, tattoos, comportment, language, and general attitude or disposition is making a statement to the world. His statement is screaming out – “I’m dangerous! Don’t mess with me!” Why wouldn’t I believe him? Why wouldn’t I accept the statement the outlaw biker is making to those around him? Should I trust him with my children? I think not! Should I trust him with my wife? I think not. So if I want to blame white people (politicians largely but the rest of us tolerate this quite nicely) for laying waste to minority families through incentives in welfare to keep a father – a good father outside the home – I guess the world would call me a racist. Yet my experience in 26 years of Law Enforcement is that the old saying: As the family goes so goes society. That saying is true! But until we can actually tell each other the truth gently, with kindness, patiently (when others lash out against you), yet the fullness of the truth never watering it down – we are not going to find any authentic unity.
Todd, very well written. I sense your frustration but your faith as well. I too have been in Law Enforcement (27yrs) and have seen many vile, evil, and disturbing things. Police officers and deputies are like any other occupation in the sense that we are made up of a cross section of society, more so now than ever. It took me a long time to pray for those I despised, and yet when I did, my feelings for them changed, I actually felt pity for them, in the sense of not having our Lord in their lives. Thank you for your message, stay strong , keep the faith, and be safe.
There are several cultural references that are relevant to this post:
1) The section on the forced love resulting from a “love potion” is a central point in the Harry Potter series. Anyone familiar with that should be well aware of the disastrous results of “forced love.” It is also interesting to note that the primary villain ends up in something very close to hell, and the protagonist “Harry Potter” after “dying” is faced with a choice.
2) One of the best examples in literature of people freely choosing hell is the “Parable of the Onion Lady” in Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karmazov.” Since I doubt many are familiar with Russian literature, this is the story:
““Once upon a time there was a woman, and she was wicked as wicked could be, and she died. And not one good deed was left behind her. The devils took her and threw her into the lake of fire. And her guardian angel stood thinking: what good deed of hers can I remember to tell God? Then he remembered and said to God: once she pulled up an onion and gave it to a beggar woman. And God answered: take now that same onion, hold it out to her in the lake, let her take hold of it and pull, and if you pull her out of the lake, she can go to paradise. The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her: here, woman, he said, take hold of it and I’ll pull. And he began pulling carefully, and had almost pulled her all of the way out, when other sinners in the lake saw her being pulled out and all began holding on to her so as to be pulled out with her. But the woman was wicked as wicked could be, and she began to kick them with her feet: ‘It’s me who’s getting pulled out, not you; it’s my onion, not yours.’ No sooner did she say it than the onion broke. And the woman fell back into the lake and is burning there to this day. And the angel wept and went away.”
Even our most popular (“Harry Potter”) and best (Dostoevsky) literature reflect the need for Hell to exist and the fact that people freely chose to go there.
I think your analogy of the love of young man for the lady is perfect. When the lady freely chooses love, it leads to wedding. Our entrance to Heaven is also a wedding where the bride joins the groom.
Thank you Monsignor. I once read that anyone in hell is there because if they were to live here on earth forever they would choose to live in sin forever.
Dear Msgr Pope,
Excellent article on a difficult subject, so thank you very much and may God bless you!
One observation: while I do understand that God respects our choices, a reader might be tempted to infer that in the end we, and not God, send ourselves to heaven or to hell, that in effect, God established the rules: if you chose me you go to heaven and if you don’t you go to Hell.
The trouble here is two-fold: a. This would suggest that our final destination is based on merit alone, when we know that it is mostly based on God’s mercy, and b. it would seem to diminish the important notion of personal judgment, where Jesus either condemns us to Hell or welcomes us in Heaven. In other words, we, no matter what we do or not do can neither send ourselves to Hell nor to Heaven. We are either welcomed in Heaven by Jesus or consigned to Hell by Jesus.
This should comfort us on behalf of our loved ones who have passed away: since it is the Lord Jesus who decides their fate, regardless of their merit or lack-of, then our prayers and sacrifices might make-up for what was lacking in their lives so that, at the moment of their death, the Good Lord floods them with a torrent of graces to make them fall in love with him at their last breath.
Knowing that the final decision is in the hand of the most merciful heart of Jesus is a great consolation.
If I’m way off here, I would love to be set back on the straight and narrow 🙂
Dear Msgr. Pope,
how do you respond to David Bentley Hart’s arguments for universalism? If you don’t know them, you can read them here:
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