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On the need for care in talk about Hell

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 13, 2020

In my review of Ralph Martin’s outstanding diagnosis of the crisis of the Church today (Mapping the Crisis: Ralph Martin’s blockbuster of a book), I commented on the author’s dislike of the theological work, and indeed the way of life, of Hans Urs von Balthasar. One of Martin’s main concerns was von Balthasar’s hope that all would be saved. On this point, I commented that (whether von Balthasar was right or wrong in this hope), “we need to be very careful in the way we emphasize Hell.”

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What did I mean?

First, some brief clarifications:

  1. I have no clue as to the relative numbers of the saved and the damned (and neither does anybody else).
  2. I consider it likely (but do not know) that many will stubbornly refuse to accept God, and so be damned, mainly because I do not consider it reasonable that Christ would have talked so much about the sheep and the goats only as a hypothetical caution—in effect a fable to spur conversion.
  3. Nonetheless, the Church has never settled this question. She repeats that obdurate sinners will end up in hell, but she makes no claim about the names or the numbers or the percentages of the obdurate.
  4. As I understand von Balthasar, he emphasized the idea of God’s plan of salvation as a great drama, and he personally believed it was unlikely to the vanishing point that anyone could resist God’s love to the bitter end. Nonetheless, he resolutely refused to state anything rendered impermissible by Magisterial teaching on this subject, restricting himself formally to justifying the hope that all would be saved.

I am not an expert on the writings of von Balthasar; I could be easily (and happily) proved wrong, if there is evidence that falsifies my general understanding. But, again, the larger point I wished to make was that, whatever the case, “we need to be very careful in the way we emphasize Hell.”

The risky use of fear in bringing others to Christ

In an age of utterly capricious “deities”, it was a great relief to Jews and Christians to be taught that God actually loved them, and that his rules were not arbitrary, but essentially ordered to (a) Natural morality; and (b) Reverence for both God and men. Putting myself (impossibly) in the position of a pagan before the rise of secularism, I would have found it a great relief—even if it were still a challenge—to learn that the one true God’s laws and punishments were, first, reasonable and predictable; second, appealing to what I might call, with any self-awareness, “my better nature”; and, third, ordered toward spiritual progress through just punishment, forgiveness, and love.

You could most likely talk to a second century, eighth century, or fourteenth century Christian or Jew about hell without too much concern that the doctrine would make people regard God as a monster. After that, perhaps, not so much. As Christian faith eroded (and it has been eroding steadily in the West now for at least half a millennium), we were left with a culture which transmuted mercy into mere kindness, grace into human liberty, and virtue into self-actualization. The result is that people find it very difficult to understand that there could be a loving God who includes eternal damnation in His program for life.

It is at least likely that the emphasis on hell in more recent centuries tended to significantly increase the incidence of scrupulosity: “God can see I’m not perfect; what if I’m not pleasing Him ENOUGH?” Of course, the totality of revealed truth makes it inevitable that some of us fallen men and women will focus too much on minor matters in fear of losing our salvation. Scrupulosity is, after all, yet another temptation of the Devil. (Accordingly, it is closely connected to the question, not unknown even to the apostles in their spiritual infancy, of “What about ME?”) But there are some cultures in which people will be far more susceptible to this problem than in others.

An examination of conscience can be a daunting task to the scrupulous. It can also seem to make a mockery of God to the irreverent—and in our culture, nearly everyone is raised without the least sense of reverence whatsoever. Thus: “If an all powerful God is seriously concerned about my every false move, and just waiting for me to fall into sin,” we may think, “then He must be a monster, and I want nothing to do with him!” Yes, this is the Devil talking once again, exaggerating and twisting as he goes. But a secularized culture makes people very vulnerable to “heroic” temptations just like this.

Brokenness and hope

The generation before mine would have been largely deaf to constant talk of human brokenness, with its emphasis on Catholicism as therapy. But how quickly things can change. My own distrust of this model (because it seems so often to trivialize our own responsibility) is not shared by the bulk of people my age, and this is still less true of the generation after mine, which has made therapeutic counseling a huge business. On the other hand, after all, is it not true that our very departure from our social commitment to Christ has led to a culture in which one evil after another, especially in families, is precisely of that kind which creates especially deep wounds—wounds that require not only faith but good sense and encouragement, often over extended periods of time, to heal?

It is just here that the essential message of Christ—that He has come to save us from our sins—becomes once again so vitally important. It is not at all wrong to recognize our brokenness, as long as we also recognize sin—in all its forms—as the fundamental cause. The Christ who saves is, after all, also the Christ who makes us whole. This cannot happen if, as is so often the case, sin is unrecognized or glossed over as unimportant. It can only happen if sin is recognized as the source of a struggle each of us faces, and a struggle which will bear its greatest fruit within the supportive community of the Church, through participation in her sacraments, and in the hearing of her ceaseless preaching of the Good News—the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Here the greater truth is realized—not that we are sinners in the hands of an angry God who hurls us into hell, but that we are estranged sinners whom Our Lord and Savior has bought back, initiating all who accept His call into the embracing Presence of His Father, by the sacrifice of His own life—which is to say, by Love.

True fear of the Lord is never a servile fear. It is rather a profound awe in which we recognize the incredible condescension of the infinite God who loves us, and so grow in a sacred determination to strive each day to love Him in return. Insofar as we may at times have a servile fear of just punishment, it can come as a welcome reminder not to grow complacent and slack about the Christian life. But if all Christianity generates in us is a fear of Hell, we will be grudging Christians—and very likely unsuccessful Christians.

The purpose of fear of hell, however it may arise within us, is to shake us out of our spiritual blindness. It should give us a humanly understandable (but still spiritually acceptable) motive to embark on a different sort of relationship with our God—the God who saves us, even from our very selves, because He is the God who loves. And, yes, we should pray often that all men and women will respond to this love. Is there not a familiar way to do this? “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.”

Conclusion

“There is no fear in love,” wrote St. John, “but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love.” And then John concludes: “We love, because he first loved us.” (1 Jn 4:18-19)

This is why I wrote, to quote myself more fully, “It remains true that God vastly prefers perfect contrition (out of love) to imperfect contrition (out of fear), and so we need to be very careful in the way we emphasize Hell.” We do not know how many souls will effectively choose hell over heaven (for it will always be their own choice), or how often God will fail to break through an obdurate human will. Von Balthasar thought the incidence of such a failure would be vanishingly small. Most theologians over the centuries have thought it will be quite large. Some, including the great Augustine, I believe, argued in one place that most would be damned, and in another place that the number would be much smaller.

The Church has never specified which passages in Scripture—of all those that seem to touch on this question—refer primarily to membership in the Church, and which refer primarily to acceptance into Heaven; or which refer to the happiness of grace, and which to the unhappiness of sin; or which are prophecies, and which are better understood as warnings. The preponderance of theologians in the Catholic tradition have thought that, on their reading of the Revelational evidence, an unspecified number—describable at least as “many”—will be damned. But even if this is so, and of course it may well be so and it is only prudent to live as if it is so, this does not mean that the best conversion tactic is to preach hellfire.

No, the primary tactic of conversion is to love those who are adrift in sin just as God does; to sympathize with whatever struggles they face; and to preach Mercy. Far better to reserve total condemnation, as Christ Himself usually did, primarily for those who should know better—faithless preachers who fail to tell the truth about what conversion means and how Our Lord is with us to make His yoke easy and His burden light (Mt 11:30). While it is true that in God justice and mercy are the same, the perception by most sinners of God’s justice should be only a prelude to encountering the very essence of God. I mean His infinitely transforming Love.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: christosvoskresye5324 - Nov. 18, 2020 2:17 PM ET USA

    Honestly, any confidence that all will be saved has a tendency to produce sloth as well as presumption. Why bother travelling to strange and uncomfortable countries where people respond with violence to missionaries? Must I be carried to the skies \\ On flowery beds of ease, \\ While others fought to win the prize \\ And sailed through bloody seas? Are there no foes for me to face? \\ Must I not stem the flood? \\ Is this vile world a friend to grace, \\ To help me on to God?

  • Posted by: ILM - Nov. 16, 2020 4:55 PM ET USA

    I was reading response No. 6 and, thinking it was not bad, looked up and saw it was you. I have many close to me for whom lots of prayers have had no apparent result. Trust in God says to count on that last moment conversion for them.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Nov. 16, 2020 1:55 PM ET USA

    In discussions on this difficult topic, I have encountered a common misunderstanding: It is one thing to say that Christ's death and Resurrection means that "all will be saved" as they are. This is the error of Universalism, which is widely shared today. It is quite another to say that Christ's death and Resurrection show the lengths to which God will go to draw us to Himself, that conversion of heart is necessary to be with God, that hell is a reality that awaits the unconverted, but that we may hope that God will succeed in eliciting the desired change of heart, even if only at the very last possible moment, from each person he pursues with his infinite love (that is, with all). The latter position (assuming I understand him correctly) was von Balthasar's. This has never been a common position among theologians who accept Magisterial authority, but neither has it been ruled out by the Magisterium. Whether this position is or is not harmful to souls would, I suspect, depend on the spiritual problems and dispositions of each one. If I am already a Christian, will a trust that God will ultimately be able to draw me to Himself encourage me against my fears, or make me complacent and presumptuous? If I am not yet a Christian, which approach to this difficult question is most likely to draw me into the Church? Will I drag my feet to remain in my sins as long as possible, or will I try to experience God's love as quickly and fully as possible? Actually, it seems that no matter where we place our emphasis, this last question receives vastly different responses!

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Nov. 16, 2020 3:59 AM ET USA

    Matthew 11:12 says: "[F]rom the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force." This verse is typically interpreted to mean that heaven is not achieved by the passive, but rather by those who purposely struggle against the zeitgeist of their age in their quest for the beatific vision. The beatific vision is not awarded to those who fail to fight against concupiscence and sin, but to those whose passion in this life is to attain it.

  • Posted by: christosvoskresye5324 - Nov. 15, 2020 7:03 PM ET USA

    It helps to know the person with whom you wish to share the Gospel. I dare say there are some even today who would be repulsed by the idea that God would, for example, welcome an unrepentant Hitler into Heaven, or that he could escape all consequence of his actions up to his suicide. Our instinctive understanding that justice is necessary still exists, and it is one of the classic arguments why an afterlife must exist. Sadly, our ideas of both justice and love are quite muddled today.

  • Posted by: ILM - Nov. 14, 2020 10:34 PM ET USA

    It is not a kindness to let people believe there is no hell or that. there is one but almost no one goes there.

  • Posted by: john.aerts6220 - Nov. 13, 2020 7:06 PM ET USA

    one cannot hope for what is not real and repudiates Truth; the Lord said several times the pharisees et al of His day were not going to enter Heaven; He already said in Divine Revelation that there are souls in Hell, that 'many find themselves there'...as well as other Revelation Scriptures of the souls lost in eternal death - and there 'will be those souls in the Universal Judgement who will rise to the resurrection of the second death" - Jesus ends this diabolical lie/falsehood against Hope.

  • Posted by: 1Jn416 - Nov. 13, 2020 6:30 PM ET USA

    It is difficult to evangelize today, and I agree that bringing up Hell is often unhelpful. This touches on a related topic though - how to evangelize when orthodox Christianity is seen as "mean" and "hateful" by so many. Any failure to accept complete sexual license is a rejection of the person, and in a world that does not believe in sin, how does one convey the need for a savior? A God that merely comforts and demands nothing is not the Christian God. An impossible conundrum. Solutions?