Friday, 24 July 2015



Few aspects of Christianity are as alien to contemporary culture as is hell. On the face of it, as rationally appealing as the Easter Bunny or Santa, the devil-infested, sulfur-infused bowels of some dystopian underground, jam-packed with throngs of grotesquely-tortured unfortunates appear to have no relevance to the challenges of today, and one might be forgiven to try and gloss over hell as a superseded artifact of a simpler, immature past.

For a Christian to do that would be a serious mistake though, since it would undoubtedly be a throwing out of the baby with the bathwater. Why? Simply because Jesus himself spoke about hell repeatedly and with great vigor, which the Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes as follows:
“Jesus often speaks of “Gehenna,” of “the unquenchable fire” reserved for those who to the end of their lives refuse to believe and be converted, where both soul and body can be lost. Jesus solemnly proclaims that he “will send his angels, and they will gather... all evil doers, and throw them into the furnace of fire,” and that he will pronounce the condemnation: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire!”” (§1034)
Jesus goes to great lengths to warn against evil, which is the absence of love and a separation from God. In fact, the Church has not been idle during the last 2000 years either and has worked to tease out what deeper truth Jesus was sharing with his followers and to keep expressing it using contemporary concepts instead of those that were current in first-century Palestine. Here, therefore, is how the 1993 Catechism presents hell:
”We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves: “He who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” (1 Jn 3:14-15.) Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren (Mt 25:31-46). To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called “hell.”” (§1033)
Hell is no longer a mediaeval dungeon, but something far more personal and self-inflicted: the “definitive self-exclusion from communion with God.” Gone are the bizarre punishments of Dante's Inferno, and in comes the absolutization of my own existential choices. My turning away from love in the here and now puts me in danger of persisting in living in its absence forever.

St. John Paul puts it very clearly:
“[H]ell is 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.” (St. John Paul II, general audience, 28 July 1999)
But how is it that hell can even be part of the new reality that comes about at the end of time? Wouldn't the existence of hell by itself make an existence in heaven imperfect? How could those who enjoy God’s presence do so in the knowledge that their brothers or sisters are suffering His absence? Here, one of the intellectual visions of the Servant of God Chiara Lubich from 1949 presents a profound insight and sheds more light on what a being in hell would be like in existential terms:
“I do not remember when I seemed to understand something of hell. It appeared to me that Jesus forsaken, in that cry that was the salvation of the redeemed, was the justice of the damned.

And that He, I do not know in what way, eternalized hell.

From Heaven, however, hell—through Jesus forsaken—would be seen upside-down, in the sense that, for the blessed, every dis-unity would appear as unity and that in Jesus forsaken hell would turn out to be the Paradise of Paradise.

Jesus forsaken having made himself “sin” had made himself hell. But He is God and in Paradise one sees God.

It seemed to me that through Jesus forsaken the duality of the Afterlife was wiped out and that Jesus forsaken was the solution, the contact between the two realms where in one Eternal Life is lived and in the other Eternal Death.

In hell nothing would have made unity because love does not exist. In hell one is in the impossibility to love.

Hell was thus like the corpse of nature, where there are eyes to see but do not see, ears to hear but do not hear, and so forth. All [is] constructed to tend to God Whom eternally it can no longer reach. And every meeting between souls was in order to become more separated in an always more tragic division.

Hot would not make unity with cold and there would never be lukewarm. Only hot or only cold. Fire and gnashing of teeth.”
Here the point about there only being hot or cold seems to me to be a precursor of Sartre’s infamous declaration of hell being other people, other people who are at odds with oneself and whose opposition to oneself result in an experience of hell:
“So this is hell. I'd never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the “burning marl.” Old wives’ tales!There's no need for red-hot pokers. HELL IS - OTHER PEOPLE!”
Since Jesus, in his suffering and abandonment on the cross, has taken upon himself sin and separation from God, it is that Jesus who will be seen when hell is viewed in heaven. A Jesus who is Love and therefore a native of heaven, and - at the same “time” - a Jesus who in himself has accepted the absence of God precisely so that he can be close to us when we don't experience God's presence. And while these experiences of absence tend to be temporary here, their eternalization is hell.

While the co-existence of heaven and hell can be understood through the person of the forsaken Jesus, the idea that anyone would actually be there makes me extremely uneasy, and - to my delight - made Christians uneasy since the beginning. One of the Desert Fathers even went so far as to plead with God that if someone had to be in hell then he wanted to be that one person, for the idea of it being anyone else was unbearable to him.

In fact, the Church today is very clear about God not wanting to see anyone end up in hell and that she herself prays for it too (note that in the liturgical text quoted below, God's “whole family” is all of humanity):
“God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end. In the Eucharistic liturgy and in the daily prayers of her faithful, the Church implores the mercy of God, who does not want “any to perish, but all to come to repentance” (2 Pet 3:9):
Father, accept this offering
from your whole family.
Grant us your peace in this life,
save us from final damnation,
and count us among those you have chosen. (§1037)

The Church prays that no one should be lost: “Lord, let me never be parted from you.” If it is true that no one can save himself, it is also true that God “desires all men to be saved” (1 Tim 2:4), and that for him “all things are possible” (Mt 19:26).” (§1058)
St. John Paul II was also very clear about the answer to this question being known only to God and that even in the case of Judas, who delivered Jesus to his executioners, Jesus showed mercy and did not condemn him to hell:
“Who will [be in hell]? The Church has never made any pronouncement in this regard. This is a mystery, truly inscrutable, which embraces the holiness of God and the conscience of man. The silence of the Church is, therefore, the only appropriate position for Christian faith. Even when Jesus says of Judas, the traitor, “It would be better for that man if he had never been born” (Matthew 26:24), His words do not allude for certain to eternal damnation.” (St. John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope)
While hope in God's mercy and in no one being so wholly devoid of love as to self-assign themselves to hell is the Church's stance, we also need to remain clear about the possibility of someone being in hell. To deny it would also be to deny the freedom with which God desires our choice of Him. Pope Benedict XVI spelled this out with his trademark clarity.
“Perhaps there are not so many who have destroyed themselves so completely, who are irreparable forever, who no longer have any element upon which the love of God can rest, who no longer have the slightest capacity to love within themselves. This would be hell.” (Pope Benedict XVI, Question and answer session with the priests of Rome, 11 February 2008)
I believe that the idea of hell and the belief in its reality are integral to the entire economy of salvation, since hell is a consequence of the freedom we have been given. If I can freely choose to love and to arrive at an eternity of life with God, the I must also be able to freely reject love and in its limit eternal life with God, as horrendous and unbearable as that would be: a corpse of nature, unable to reach God for whose reaching it was constructed.

To conclude, I would like to leave you with a quote from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s beautifully profound The Divine Milieu:
“You have told me, O God, to believe in hell. But you have forbidden me to think, with any certainty, of any man as damned.”

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