Do Many Go To Hell?
by John Young
The currently prevalent view among Catholics seems to be that if hell is not quite empty, it is very sparsely populated. In examining the question we need to be careful to base our conclusions on objective grounds, not on subjective motives. Yet this is difficult, for the thought of eternal suffering is so appalling that we tend to feel it is too dreadful to be really happening to anyone.
A person can discount the danger of damnation because he doesn't want to feel worried or uncomfortable at the thought of going to hell. He knows that an uneasiness would enter his spiritual life if he really faced up to the peril of losing his soul and suffering for ever and ever. This applies particularly to someone who falls into serious sin. Even after being forgiven in confession, he may fear a further lapse. The desire to feel undisturbed may be a powerful psychological factor in his belief that scarcely anyone goes to hell.
Another motive for discounting hell can arise from knowing that a loved one died while apparently in a state of mortal sin. A parent worried about the fate of a son or daughter killed instantly in an accident after having given away the practice of the Faith will crave the consolation of believing the child is saved. Or if it is clear that a spouse or child or close friend is leading a life in defiance of God's laws, and seems to be doing it culpably, one would be agonised at the thought that the person may be headed straight for eternal misery. In such cases there is a strong psychological urge to tell oneself that God is too merciful to allow people to go to hell.
A third motive for discounting the danger of eternal loss is due to the current outlook of our society. With its materialism, its hedonism, its limited, earthly perspective, the society in which we are immersed is incapable of understanding even temporal punishment for sin. Eternal punishment is so far beyond its ken that it is stunned at the notion. But society has an influence on all of us. In this matter unless we are on our guard, it will so color our thinking that the doctrine of hell will seem unreal, even preposterous. Our faith may cause us to accept the doctrine, while the cultural pressure prompts us to decide that no one, or scarcely anyone, is ever lost.
These various influences can motivate us very strongly, but it is important to see that they are motives, not reasonable grounds for the conclusion. To the extent that a person is influenced by them he is biased. The fact that I may feel more secure if I dismiss the possibility of spending eternity in hell is no reason whatever for dismissing it, however strong the motivation may be. Likewise with the other motives: concern for those we love and the coloring of our outlook by a materialistic society. If we love the truth we should be willing to look at the question objectively.
Looking At The Evidence
Turning to Scripture, we find the doctrine of eternal damnation to be one of the most persistent themes in the New Testament, especially in the teaching of Christ himself. The Old Testament has little about life after death, but even there grim warnings are given of retribution for sin. The book of Daniel predicts: "Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt."1
Our Lord declares: " . . . whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin."2 He tells us that on the Last Day many will remind him they had done mighty works in his name, but he will say to them: "I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers."3 He warns his disciples: " . . . fear him who can destroy both body and soul in hell."4 He declares that it is better " . . . to enter life maimed than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire."5 He adds that in hell ". . . their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched."6 The parable of the net holding good and bad fish ends with the statement that the angels will separate the evil from the good "and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth."7 The same fate for the wicked is given in the parable of the tares and the wheat.8
In Christ's graphic description of the Last Judgment he tells us the sentence he will pronounce on the wicked: "Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels."9
The everlasting choices are a principal theme of St. John's Gospel. "Unless a man be born again he cannot see the Kingdom of God."10 Those who follow Christ "shall not perish forever."11
The Apostles repeated the teaching about hell. St. John does so very graphically in the Apocalypse, as when he says: " . . . the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever."12 St. Paul teaches that those who do not obey the Gospel will be condemned by Jesus when he comes again. "They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord."13 St. Jude speaks of people "for whom the nether gloom of darkness has been reserved forever."14
To reject hell is to reject one of Scripture's clearest doctrines. It is also a rejection of the infallible teaching of the Church. As the Fourth Lateran Council expressed it, all will rise at the end of time and receive "according as their works were good or bad, either perpetual punishment with the devil or eternal glory with Christ."15 This teaching is guaranteed not only by the extraordinary magisterium but also by the ordinary universal magisterium, for it has been constantly proclaimed. But attempts are made to destroy its force.
Father Richard McBrien, in his notorious book Catholicism, says: "Neither Jesus, nor the Church after him, ever stated that persons actually go to hell or are there now. He as does the Church restricts himself to the possibility."16
Some Angels Definitively In Hell
That statement manifests a tragic blindness which is only too common nowadays. Scripture and the Church warn us insistently and urgently of the danger of eternal damnation. Jesus returns to it time after time, emphasizing it with grim imagery. Yet Father McBrien and others can talk as if it were vague possibility. They have read the words, but have ignored the force of the words. The passionate warnings of our loving Redeemer are treated in a way the Church and her saints and doctors and ordinary faithful have never treated them: as though, for practical purposes, hardly relevant.
It is conveniently forgotten, too, that Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium teach definitively that some of the angels sinned and will be in hell forever. It's more than a possibility for them!
Alleged private revelations must be viewed with caution, but some are undoubtedly authentic, as the apparitions of Our Lady at Fatima. A combination of factors remove all reasonable doubt, including the balance and holiness of the three children, the stupendous miracle of the sun, the Church's strong approval. The children were given a horrifying vision of hell. Lucia dos Santos describes the great sea of fire shown them by Our Lady. "Plunged in this fire were demons and souls in human form, like transparent burning embers, all blackened or burnished bronze, floating about in the conflagration, now raised up in the air by the flames that issued from within themselves together with great clouds of smoke, now falling back on every side like sparks in a huge fire, without weight or equilibrium, and amid shrieks and groans of pain and despair, which horrified us and made us tremble with fear."17
Rejection of hell is heresy. Nor is it possible that hell is inhabited only by the fallen angels, with no human souls there. Were that so, Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium would be speaking hypothetically, without intending to say that anyone actually is lost. Now a person who puts forward that interpretation is making words mean what he wants them to mean, remaining blind to their obvious meaning and rejecting the sense in which they have always been understood. Such a person is defying the sensus fidelium.
What of the claim that we have never been told any particular individual is in hell? Even that is going too far, for Christ's words about Judas may mean he is in hell. He is called "the son of perdition"18 and Jesus says: "It would have been better for that man if he had not been born."19 Perhaps there is no implication that he is lost; on the other hand that may well be the implication.
The Narrow Gate
Does Scripture indicate there are many souls in hell? People who answer negatively often ignore texts, which suggest otherwise. Our Lord tells us: "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."20
When the possibility that many are lost is put forward, the retort is sometimes made that when Jesus was asked whether only a few are saved, he refused to answer; and the people who make this retort often give the impression that Jesus' omission to answer indicated disagreement with the idea that only a few are saved. They seem to forget what he said. His response was: "Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able."21 He went on to speak of his judgment on those who would be thrust out of the kingdom of God. Certainly he does not say only a few will be saved; but he doesn't deny it either.
It would be rash to interpret the reference to "the few" as telling us definitely that not many are saved. Jesus may be stating that few follow the right way of life. But his words, together with the force and frequency of his warnings about hell, surely suggest that many are lost rather than few.
Let us approach the question from another angle. Suppose I overheard a conversation about myself, with somebody saying: "One thing we can be certain of is that John Young will never commit a mortal sin." Having overcome my astonishment at this strange statement, I would probably take it as a hopelessly misguided compliment. Then suppose the speaker continued: "No one can sin mortally who hasn't got the necessary knowledge and freedom of will. But John Young hasn't." Instead of a compliment the speaker's view turns out to be an insult. He regards me as, in a sense, subhuman; as lacking the knowledge and will power necessary to be responsible for my actions.
In fact I have got those capacities, and am therefore quite capable of sinning mortally. Am I to see other people as so far inferior to me that they can't do so? I think I have enough experience of human nature to be able to say confidently that most people are responsible for their actions and capable of grave sin.
Take the question of contraception. Most Catholics who go to Mass know the Church condemns contraception as a grave sin. If such a Catholic nevertheless uses contraceptives are we to suppose he lacks the freedom of will requisite for mortal sin? Or are we to say he lacks clear knowledge that what he is doing is gravely wrong? If we answer yes, we are expressing a poor opinion of his understanding and/or freedom of will. Of course we can't judge individuals and should not try to. But when one considers that a large percentage of married couples regarded as good Catholics practice contraception, the only way of avoiding the conclusion that they are in a state of mortal sin is to say they lack the required knowledge or will power. Surely this cannot be asserted with any confidence.
God does not leave people without help. He enlightens the mind and strengthens the will. As the Pope says in Veritatis Splendor: "Keeping God's law in particular situations can be difficult, extremely difficult, but it is never impossible. This is the constant teaching of the Church's tradition, and was expressed by the Council of Trent . . ."22 His quote from Trent includes the well known statement: "God does not command the impossible, but in commanding he admonishes you to do what you can and to pray for what you cannot, and he gives his aid to enable you."23
Viewing the situation more generally, there are numerous people acting in gravely immoral ways who appear to have the knowledge and will power, especially when the help of God's grace is taken into account, to be responsible for their conduct. In other words, it seems many people are in a state of mortal sin. This conclusion will be resisted by those who deny that individual acts are mortal sins, confining mortal sin to the exercise of a fundamental option, which rejects God. But that view is against Catholic teaching, as Pope John Paul II has made clear. In Veritatis Splendor, quoting what he had said previously in Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, he says: "For mortal sin exists also when a person knowingly and willingly, for whatever reason, chooses something gravely disordered. In fact, such a choice already includes contempt for the divine law, a rejection of God's love for humanity and the whole of creation: the person turns away from God and loses charity."24
What of a deathbed conversion? Surely God may move people in a state of mortal sin to repentance when they are dying. True, he may, but there is no sound reason for assuming that a person who has deliberately rejected God by remaining in a state of mortal sin will be converted just before dying. Indeed, such persons sometimes resist all pleas to have a priest before they die; they seem to have lost all desire to repent.
The opinion that few or none go to hell can be due to a failure to appreciate God's greatness. Our understanding of him falls infinitely short of the reality. He does not merely have existence, truth, goodness, beauty; he is these, in one infinite, eternal act which is his very essence. He is so far above us that even in heaven, when we see him face to face, we will not fully understand him, for he can never be totally grasped by any created or creatable intellect not even by the human intellect of the Son. That is the being we offend when we sin. To commit a mortal sin is to deliberately oppose Subsistent Goodness in a grave matter. There is something infinite about mortal sin; not in the sense that it would be an infinite act (our acts are only finite), but in the sense that it insults an infinite being. The greatness of the offense must be seen in relation to the greatness of the one offended. Once we grasp this, it becomes less difficult to see that even one mortal sin deserves hell.
But if our God is too small, tending to be a glorified human father rather than what God really is, hell may seem an impossibility. What loving human father would allow his child to suffer eternally? Or what offense against a human father, or against any finite being, could deserve a fate so horrific?
An associated hindrance to seeing how hell could ever be just is the failure to realize that a lost soul puts himself there, in the sense that what he becomes by his own free will leaves no option for him except hell. It is the natural consequence of his choice, the only state he is fit for. And even in hell, theologians teach, God's mercy may ensure that the damned suffer less than they deserve.25
If faith makes some one accept hell, but it is alien to presuppositions he holds, or his outlook is distorted by motives such as those mentioned at the beginning of this article, he may compromise by deciding that scarcely anyone is lost. The danger to human beings becomes little more than academic, and the reality of fallen angels is felt as an embarrassment one should not think about. But the position is different if we put aside all bias, so far as we can, and do our best to view things in the light of God's greatness, our own dignity as intelligent, free beings, and the enormity of mortal sin.
Is it reasonable, then, to conclude that a great many people go to hell? Is this a well-founded conclusion, based on the undeniable prevalence of objective mortal sins and a consideration of human intelligence and freedom, together with the truth that God offers the grace to avoid sin? I think we should say it is not unlikely that many are lost. We should definitely not hold the opinion that few are lost.
The objection may be given that it is better not to weigh the question at all; that no good can be achieved by doing so. I disagree. We should strive to reach the truth, even though we can't settle the question definitively. To ignore it, or to assume the danger is slight, is to diminish an important motive for avoiding sin: the danger of damnation. The realization that many may be on the way to eternal misery will also stimulate us to help convert sinners by example, words, prayer and penance. This is strikingly evident in the short life of Jacinta Marto, who showed such an heroic spirit of penance. One of the reasons Lucia gave for it was that Jacinta "had looked upon hell, and had seen the ruin of souls who fall therein."26
The need to teach the doctrine of hell, and for priests to preach about it, is also clearer if we understand that many people may well be lost. In teaching about hell we will be following Christ's example, for he returned constantly to this theme. We will also be imitating Our Lady at Fatima, who showed those little children the vision of hell, and who gave us the prayer to say at the end of each decade of the rosary, in which we ask to be saved from hell.
On the other hand, we must avoid generating a morbid fear of hell or an obsession with it. It is not a fate that can overwhelm us against our will; any who go there have chosen evil deliberately. The doctrine should be seen in the light of God's greatness and our dignity as free beings. He is so great that hell is a just punishment for rebelling against him; our dignity as responsible beings is so great that we can deserve that fate.
1. Dan. 12:2.
2. Mark 3:29.
3. Matt 7:23.
4. Ibid., 10:28.
5. Mark 9:43.
6. Ibid., 9:48.
7. Matt 13:50.
8. Ibid., 13:42.
9. Ibid., 25:41.
10. John 3:3.
11. Ibid., 10:28.
12. Apoc. 20:10.
13. II Thess 1:9.
14. Jude v. 13.
15. DS 813.
16. Catholicism, Minneapolis, 1980, Winston Press, p. 1152; italics original.
17. Fatima in Lucia's Own Words, Fatima, Portugal, 1976, Postulation Centre, p. 108.
18. John 17:12.
19. Matt. 26:24.
20. Ibid., 7:13, 14.
21. Luke 13:24.
22. Veritatis Splendor, n. 102.
23. DS 1536.
24. Veritatis Splendor, n. 70.
25. See St. Thomas, Summa Theol., Supp., 99, 2, ad 1.
26. Fatima in Lucia's Own Words, p. 109.
Mr. John Young, B.Th., is associated with The Cardinal Newman Catechist Centre in Merrylands, N.S.W., Australia. He has taught philosophy in three seminaries, and is the author of an introduction to philosophy, Reasoning Things Out, published in the United States by Stella Maris Books, Fort Worth, Texas. Mr. Young writes on philosophical and religious topics for Australian publications. His last article in HPR appeared in the October 1993 issue.
© Catholic Polls, Inc. 1995.
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