Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
April 23, 2007
Hell is a place we choose in the afterlife
Where we go after death depends on our choices now
On the Other Hand
SPECIAL TO THE WCR
In his March 25 Passion Sunday homily, Pope Benedict declared: "Jesus came to tell us that he wants us all in heaven and that hell - of which so little is said in our time - exists and is eternal for those who close their hearts to his love."
Benedict's comments echo those of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, who in 1999 said hell was "the ultimate consequence of sin itself. . . . Rather than a place, hell indicates the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy." Heaven, meanwhile, is "neither an abstraction nor a physical place in the clouds, but that fullness of communion with God, which is the goal of human life."
Belief in the reality of hell is essential to a functional understanding of Christianity. Jesus spoke more about hell than He did about heaven. Scriptural authority obligates belief in an eternal hell, without which a doctrine of salvation becomes nonsensical and irrelevant.
"Saved from what?" Without hell, there's no adequate response.
However many modern Christians are troubled by the idea of hell, and wonder how a loving, all-powerful God could allow the existence of eternal torment. This sentiment derives partly from sincere compassion - partly from subversion by humanist philosophy.
NO HELL HERE
Secular humanists who set the cultural agenda in postmodern Western culture hate the idea of any sort of personal accountability. In the ethos of modern liberal humanism, hell is a morally offensive concept. Consequently, hell has been pretty much dropped from the lexicon of public discourse and become just a thoughtless curse-word.
However, American philosopher Richard Weaver argued, "There is bitterness in the thought that there may be no hell, for if there is no hell, there is no justice." That is: If the ultimate reward of evildoers is exactly the same as that of the virtuous, then morality is reduced to the philistine pragmatism of "What's in it for me right now?" and the capriciousness of temporal fortune is cruel indeed.
This poses a dilemma for contemporary mainline Christians those seeking to accommodate Christian belief with secular, scientific-materialist concepts of "reality"? If the hell doctrine is true, shouldn't it be forcefully articulated and taught? After all, at stake is the eternal destiny of human souls.
And if there is really no hell, what point is there in preaching the Gospel of salvation or continuing the Church? Fudging this issue is both irresponsible and intellectually dishonest.
A "universalist" doctrine that everyone will eventually be saved has emotional appeal, but it simply doesn't square with the Gospel message or with the idea of divine justice. However, cartoonish notions of hell as a literal fiery pit, populated by pitchfork-wielding demons, aren't adequate either.
OUR OWN CHOOSING
The concept of hell developed by C.S. Lewis in his novella The Great Divorce, and similar theories of other thoughtful theologians, may prove helpful; that is, that hell is a place we choose for ourselves in the afterlife - in continuum with choices made in this life.
Eastern Orthodox theologian Kallistos Ware writes: "Self-love is hell; for, carried to its ultimate conclusion, self-love signifies the end of all joy and meaning."
Professor Jerry Walls observes in his book, Hell: The Logic of Damnation: "The idea that the misery of hell is the intrinsic consequence of choosing to become a certain type of person has a stark realism about it that is often absent when hell is depicted as the supreme torture chamber.
"It is a dreadful but credible thought that we might come fully to prefer the deformed sense of satisfaction endemic to sin, and that God will finally give us what we want."
Some argue that moral behaviour resulting from fear of going to hell is not truly morally motivated. However, this construct only works when hell is perceived as a place of externally imposed punishment. If hell is actually a place where we go because we have come to love sin, then the choice not to go to hell logically derives from repudiating sin.
Hell's inmates are not imprisoned by God; its gates are locked on the inside. St. Isaac the Syrian said: "It is wrong to imagine that sinners in hell are cut off from God." God's love is everywhere, even in hell, and he rejects no one.
But we possess the terrible/wonderful gift of free will, the ability to accept or reject divine love, which is embodied in Jesus' completed work of atonement through his death and resurrection. God honours our sovereign freedom, and will not force forgiveness on souls who don't think they need forgiving.
Letter to the Editor - 05/07/07