Tuesday, 8 February 2011

The reality of hell

The doctrine of the existence of hell is one of those central planks of our religion: if hell doesn't exist, what is the point of the struggle to do good? How can we deal with the injustices of this world if there is no hope of justice in the next?  And assuming there is an afterlife, if hell doesn't exist in what sense can we really be said to have free will?

Unsurprisingly given its reality, many religions and philosophies, from Ancient Egypt, to Plato's myth of Ur, to Aztec religions as well as many more recent ones share something similar to the Catholic belief on this subject.

Yet for equally obvious reasons many people do want to deny the doctrine, explain it way, or act as if it doesn't exist.

The Magisterium of me...

Take this rant from the US National aCatholic Reporter, picked up with glee by the aCatholicas in this country:

"I’m writing about hell because it is an unthinkable, horrible, destructive concept that can’t possibly be true. I frankly can’t even imagine how anyone came up with something so horrific. Could any wrong merit the terrible pain of burning in fire, while fully conscious, for a week or a year, much less eternity? What kind of a monster would inflict that on anyone? How could such cruelty and sadism be consistent with a God of love? I don’t buy it for a minute.

I don’t care if scripture mentions hell or Jesus talked about it, if saints had visions of it, or if it’s a time-honored Catholic teaching. It simply can’t be justified on any level."

Well at least the author, Carol Meyer, is honest about her position - her view is right no matter what authority might say otherwise!  Hmm, where have we heard that before recently...oh yes, a certain Melbourne priest on why women should be ordained for a starter!
But sadly, also someone who does not understand that it is ultimately our choices, not God's, that serve to condemn or save us.  We can choose the good, choose to live eternally with God - or we can choose to reject him and be excluded forever from his presence.  And doesn't understand that if we choose to sin, to hurt others and/or ourselves and fail to repent and do penance, then our actions will still catch up with us in the end.

Lessons from nature

Ms Meyer goes on to argue that punishment can't be real because God's creation is so benign:

"The bottom line in all this is the nature of God. When we look at creation (and thus at God), we see that it is essentially benevolent, kind, and nurturing. Yes, there is some pain and certainly death, but it is part of a beautiful process of life, growth and rebirth, not some never-ending punishment for being imperfect. I’m not sure where we got the idea that the meaning of life is about judgment, that it’s some kind of cosmic test almost impossible to pass. Nature is about harmony, balance, compassion, unity, interdependence, joy, and all life coming to its fullest potential."

Well, yes and no.  It is true that creation is good, and allows us by reason to understand that God is good.  But at the same time, Australians suffering over the last few weeks variously from the ravages of bushfires, floods, cyclones, plagues of locusts and heatwaves might beg to differ about the entirely benevolent view of nature!  Indeed, the Old Testament repeatedly speaks of natural events such as these as evidence of God's anger at times when his people turn away from him and worship false gods instead, a reminder that his justice must be faced sooner or later.

  Twisting doctrine
Still, in a way Ms Meyer's honesty about her rejection of Scripture and church teaching, which cannot in any way, shape or form be reconciled with Catholicism is, in many ways, a lot less dangerous than some of the other forms of denial of the doctrine in my view.
The classic example of course is the claim of Hans Urs von Balthasar  - who died unexpectedly a few days before he could be made a Cardinal by Pope John Paul II - that hell could be empty.  This view too seems totally at odds with both Scripture and Tradition.  But a theologian can argue the case with a great deal of sophistication, and by virtue of his credibility, persuade many, to their downfall.
Another less obvious form of this denial of reality is an excessive focus on righting wrongs in this world, while neglecting to remember that our true treasure lies in the next.   That views Social Justice as an alternative to God's eternal justice rather than as a complement to it that keeps it in a proper perspective.  It is the view, to use words from one of Sr Carmel Pilcher's Cathblog entries on her fellow Josephites, that lauds dying "not with their own salvation uppermost in mind, but imploring a loving God to be compassionate toward the poor and the needy".
The narrow way
It is of course the hope of heaven rather than the fear of hell that should primarily motivate us. 
But fear of hell is always a good place to start, a grounding for us in why we must strive to stay in a state of grace at all times, and prepare ourselves for the one inevitable event in all our lives, namely death!
Let us pray that all those we love may yet be granted a holy fear of hell, and be converted.


Stephen K said...

Kate, I can’t help thinking there is a colossal irony in your stressing the reality of hell and the importance of fear of it in your article but finishing with a prayer that those others you love will develop the fear...and be converted! I guess you didn’t meant it that way but it comes across as though hell is a matter of imminent destiny for others but not for you(!).

(There was also the implicit suggestion hell can be avoided by (mere) conversion; of course a conversion in the full sense would mean a full embrace of saintly - Christlike - love, and unless you say that it is only manifested in a really dramatically counter-intuitive way - like Francis of Assisi and those gems of people we occasionally encounter - that might be a tricky thing to say has or has not occurred, I’d opine.)

Another, separate issue, of course, is the place a notion of hell plays in our psyche and motivation for doing “good deeds”. I suggest that the modern dismissal of the hell of traditional imagery and its uneasy fit with other notions of the nature of God, has more to do with a recognition - or intuition, if you prefer - that the essence of Jesus’ message was love not fear, and that doing things from fear was hardly conducive to, or congruent with, the sort of conversion of heart that would lead to ignoring the barriers we put up between us and so on, than from any mere theological mealy-mouthedness. Relativity, quantum theory and new understandings of the universe also probably played their part.

No, hell in the sense you extol probably had to go - to some extent - if the neat mediaeval eschatology no longer resonated with some of the people articulate enough to think the concept through seriously and dissatisfied with the traditional answers.

Personally, by the analogy of different types of experience we might each have though our lives where we suffer the consequences of our actions without prospect of resolution or recompense or undoing, I think many of us, including those who dismiss the Gustav Dore model, know the reality of hell, and what it would mean, and does, on this earth. Some of course know the extremes of suffering inflicted by others and they understandably but wrongly call it hell, but in fact it is the former that truly constitutes it.

On the notion of justice, I think this has also to be an individual response, according to one’s lights. One has to be careful how one uses a notion of hell. Somehow (though I have no way of confirming this) I suspect that God would look less kindly on someone who helped the needy only because he or she feared damnation than someone who didn’t help the needy because of their ignorance or sincere commitment to their view. (Of course I think one must help the needy!) Doesn’t the parable of the talents apply here in some way? (Not sure).

(By the way, a propos of the problem of trying to balance aspects of the Godhead: many years ago, at a traditional seminary, a professor found himself assailed by some of his students for suggesting that it was not certain that anyone would or could be in hell - on the basis that the infiniteness of God’s mercy was not subordinate to any idea of justice. The outcriers insisted that there must be people in hell because people died in mortal sin. Or else they were arguing that if no-one ended up in hell, what was the big deal about mortal sin? It developed into a bit of verbal donnybrook, but it illustrates the dangers of trying to quarantine the attributes of God and assuming we know how sin, grace, mercy, justice REALLY work.)

All in all, a thought-provoking article. I offer you my thoughts as feedback.

Richard Collins said...

An excellent post, thank you very much.

Kate said...

Stephen - I'm afraid the irony you see escapes me.

I make no assumptions about myself - none of us can know whether we will persevere and be saved until we actually make it past the pearly gates! Indeed, that is one of the reasons we should 'fear the day of judgment', 'dread hell' and 'keep death daily before our eyes' (Rule of St Benedict ch 4). Of course, this must be coupled with the positive side of the equation, since we must also 'desire eternal life with all spiritual longing' (RB 4).

All the same, I do believe that on the face of it my chances of making it as a practicing member of the Church who believes what the Church teaches etc are pretty good. Certainly compared to someone who is an atheist, rejects church teaching and practices, is objectively in a state of mortal sin and yet disdains worrying about the state of their immortal soul.

So my position is that just as St Monica prayed so fervently to pray for the conversion of her son, St Augustine, so we should imitate her in praying for atheist parents, friends living in sin and so forth. But of course we should also pray for the grace of final perseverence and a good death for ourselves each day!

Now of course we can't know the actual situation of each individual soul and it is certainly possible for God to exercise his great mercy in ways we don't know about in some cases -we don't realy know for example how wide a leeway he gives for 'invicible ignorance', or how widely 'baptism of desire' might substitute for sacramental baptism. But given all the warnings in Scripture about how narrow the way is, and the need ot preach the Gospel and convert others, I really don't think we can afford to rely on these and related concepts or interesting theological speculation that downplay the need for conversion!

As for fear being an inadequate reason for doing good, I don't agree: better fear than not at all! What is required is that we be in a state of grace, and in order to maintain that state, strive ever to do better. Unlike fundamentalists, catholics are not 'saved' at some magical moment (except perhaps immediately after baptism, or again at the moment of hearing the words of absolution in confession after committing a mortal sin!). Rather, sanctification in catholic teaching is a gradual process. Yet so long as we die in a state of grace, we will (eventually) become saints, albeit in most cases with a little detour to purgatory first.

The classic teaching is that fear of hell is a sufficient motivation, but that over time, as we grow in charity, the motivations for our actions will be transformed through grace. St Benedict puts it like this:

"Then, when all these degrees of humility have been climbed, the monk will presently come to that perfect love of God which casts out all fear; whereby he will begin to observe without labour, as though naturally and by habit, all those precepts which formerly he did not observe without fear; no longer for fear of hell, but for love of Christ and through good habit and delight in virtue." (RB 7)

Personally I'd opine that the modern rejection of eschatology has less to do with new understandings of the universe and more with the modern notion that man controls (or should control)his own destiny! That is why we find events such as cylones and floods such an affront, why we immediately jump to solutions like 'build a bigger dam', rather than accept our dependance on forces we can't control.

And less to do with what Our Lord actually says in Scripture (where for example he pretty much says that some of the pharisees are going to hell, see for example Mt 23:13 for one of many examples) than the reconstruction of a warm fuzzy Jesus who bears little relationship to how the Gospels actually portray him.

Felix said...

Stephen K sees some “irony” because Kate stresses the reality of hell and the importance of fear of it but finishes with the prayer that others develop the fear ... and be converted. He suggests “it comes across as though hell is a matter of imminent destiny for others but not for you”.

How so? As an orthodox Catholic, Kate presumably has some degree of fear about ending up in Hell. I certainly do. And so did St Paul (see 1 Cor 9:27).

Stephen also critiques the suggestion that hell can be avoided by (mere) conversion, adding that “of course a conversion in the full sense would mean a full embrace of saintly - Christlike – love”. But let’s be orthodox and avoid simplistic dichotomies. Conversion means a turning away, ie from sin. And it’s a continuing process, properly beginning when a baby is baptised but capable of recommencing at any point in life.

Stephen proceeds to question whether the notion of hell provides a motivation for doing “good deeds”. As an ordinary Joe, I can vouch that it can motivate me to avoid bad acts, or at least repenting afterwards. And the plain fact is that Christ, the Scriptures and Catholic teaching sees fear as an appropriate beginning point (Prov 1:7). Again, let’s eschew false dichotomies – it’s not the fear of punishment vs the love of the Good.

Parenthetically, note Stephen’s inane phrase “the neat mediaeval eschatology”, a sure sign of knee jerk modernity. This is followed by a plaudit for “people articulate enough to think the concept through seriously ...” Hey, are we feeling superior to inarticulate types like Sts Augustine, Thomas et al!

Stephen then looks further at the doctrine of hell as a motivating factor. He overlooks traditional Catholic doctrine that acts are meritorious to the extent that they are motivated by the love of God. So that, yes, it’s better to act out of charity than out of fear of hell. (Stephen’s phrase “look less kindly” is an inappropriately negative formulation.)

As a finale, Stephen tells us of the professor “assailed by students for suggesting that it was not certain that anyone would or could be in hell, concluding that we just don’t know anything about all of this. But we can, if we accept the teaching of Christ, the Scriptures and the Church. And if we do, we might object that the faithful are being “assailed” by purveyors of heterodox novelties.

Anthony S. "Tony" Layne said...

Kate: Great post. I've linked back to it from my post on the same subject, because I loved the line "Magisterium of Me".

Anonymous said...

Just to be precise, Balthasar did not say that hell is empty but that it could conceivably be empty.

However, yes I agree, it is a real subtle and complicated difference and its been misinterpreted over and over leading to many being misled.

Kate said...

Fair point anon, I've corrected it.