Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
August 30, 1999
Mercy and damnation
Several years ago, WCR columnist Father Ron Rolheiser created a minor furor when he wrote that while hell exists, it may well be empty. He challenged the notion that the great majority of people are going to hell as "a great insult to the Creator." The love of God is so powerful, he wrote, that it can melt away the lack of repentance in even the most hardened souls.
Rolheiser's column drew a couple of critical letters to the editor and an over-wrought cover story in Alberta Report magazine.
Now, unexpectedly, Rolheiser's thesis has received support from an esteemed source - Pope John Paul. In his July 28 general audience, the pope said whether any human beings are in hell "remains a real possibility, but is not something we can know" - thus leaving open the possibility that hell is empty.
The pope's point (and Rolheiser's too), however, was not to engage in idle speculation about things we cannot know, but rather to affirm the depth and power of God's merciful love. Seemingly ignoring a number of Scripture passages in which God is described as casting or sending unrepentant sinners to hell, the pope said hell "is not a punishment inflicted by God from outside." Rather, it is the final development of a denial of God's joy and mercy which a person begins on earth.
To take it a step further, the pope on July 7 had stated that only those who refuse God's offer of salvation will be condemned. One, it appears, doesn't lead a basically upright and holy life and then stumble into eternal damnation with badly-timed sinning.
To some, the pope's emphasis on God's mercy may be bad news. The argument has been made that if the Church preached more hellfire and brimstone, it would bring many people to believe in Jesus. The Church's emphasis on God's mercy, they argue, does not give people a compelling enough reason to turn their lives around. Well, maybe so, but maybe not.
The Church's main responsibility, however, is to tell people the whole truth about God and salvation as it has been revealed to us. The current pope has strongly emphasized both the existence of unchanging moral truth and the mercy of God. He has devoted major encyclicals to both those topics and has made them central to his teaching.
In fact, in his 1980 encyclical, On the Mercy of God, Pope John Paul said that to speak of God's mercy is to evangelize: "Authentic knowledge of the God of mercy, the God of tender love, is a constant and inexhaustible source of conversion" (n. 13). To know, in the depths of one's heart, that God is love is to be committed to drawing ever nearer to that love.
Pope John Paul wrote that our human notions of justice are always incomplete. When justice is made more central than God's mercy to a way of life, "negative forces have gained the upper hand over justice, such as spite, hatred and even cruelty" (n. 12). Justice is distorted when it is not understood within the context of love and mercy.
Indeed, the pope goes so far as to identify the loss of the sense of God's mercy with secularization (n. 15). Without a belief in a loving God, one can only fall into either a harsh notion of justice or a cold moral relativism which claims there is no truth.
In his audience talk, the pope counselled us not to be anxious about the possibility of eternal damnation, but to focus on trusting in Jesus. Hell is a real possibility and our actions in life ought to be oriented towards our eternal destiny. But a Christian is not someone who fears hell as much as he or she is drawn towards eternal life. This orthodox teaching; it is also good news not heard often enough in a world which pays too little attention to the loving God.
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