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Reality, Belief, and Hell

November 13, AD 2012 4 Comments

Gustave Dore’s rendering of Dante’s first circle of Hell, in which lived the virtuous damned.

I’ve heard it opined by the occasional atheist that he not only believes that God does not exist, but actually desires to be right in this non-belief. A very honest opinion, that, if also erroneous. There are, of course, several reasons to have such a desire. We have a natural need to conform our intellects to the truth, to bring our beliefs in line with reality, but we may at times be mistaken as to what is and isn’t actually real. Again, there is the fact that if God exists, then there is a Truth outside of ourselves: God is always right, so we may be wrong, both intellectually and morally [1]. And yet again, a person who recognizes that if he is wrong about God’s non-existence might desire to be right about this non-existence for fear that if he is wrong, he may be heading for Hell.

The conformity of the mind to reality is knowledge, and it is an innate desire. It is how the intellect responds to truth, which is in a sense the response of the soul to Truth, that is, to God. Truth, like reality, is something which transcends us—both truth and reality are among the transcendentals. That is, they are things which are outside or above and beyond us, things which are “more” than us, and thus which we can grasp only in part and not in whole. Two types of mistake which we might make about Truth are:

  1. We can mistake our own opinion, beliefs, or even knowledge for the whole of truth
  2. We can reject those parts of knowable truth as not only inadequate and insufficient, but as incorrect because of that inadequacy.

Strange as it may seem, these two errors are not mutually exclusive. We desire to know the truth of things, that is, we desire to be able to say of what is that is is, and of what is not that it is not. However, this desire to be right can be twisted in us—such an effect of Original Sin—so that we desire to be right even when we know ourselves to be wrong. In other words, we know that our minds are not in conformity to reality, and so we know that we are wrong, but we desire to be right; but rather than change our minds, we look for ways of changing reality.

Thus we see the various attempts to find technical solutions to what are actually moral problems. We seek, for example, to cure rampant rates of STIs, out-of-wedlock births, and (worst of all) a high abortion rate by handing out free condoms. The result is not that all of these things go away, or even necessarily that any of them will be reduced; rather, the result is that these things become first randomized, then normalized, and finally trivialized. Thus do we see Planned Parenthood’s advice to people who are HIV positive is that they should decide for themselves whether or not to tell their would-be sexual partners about this little detail: after all, if they use a condom, they’ve done their part to keep sex safe.

The reality of the situation is that the person is carrying an incurable infection which can be sexually transmitted and which can certainly lower the quality-of-life of anybody who gets that disease. Such a person should consider abstinence or faithful monogamy with another person who knows, understands, and accepts the risks of intercourse with a person who is HIV positive. The offered solution is to be dishonest-or more precisely to not be honest and upfront until later–but to wear a condom and hope for the best: “safe sex” indeed [2].

Now, the mistake about reality can itself be either honest or dishonest—we might be deceived, but sometimes we go along with a deception knowing that it is less-than-reliable. We might, for example, be victims of our own pride, as when we reject an argument because somebody else thought of it and it proves us wrong. On the other hand, our concupiscence can certainly lead us to wearing moral and intellectual blinders: the evidence is there in front of us, but we do everything we can to look the other way.

As to God, without Him there is no Truth. There are still truths of the little-t variety, still a reality outside of ourselves to which we must conform our minds and which we can know at least in part. However, absent the big-T Truth these little truths are somehow less important, less relevant. Certainly, we might be considered madmen if we reject the most obvious ones as a mental state, and eccentrics if we reject them as a hobby or lifestyle choice, but there is no lasting consequence of either. The madman is sent to his asylum and the eccentric to his armchair, and neither is ultimately worse-off for it. With God, the madman becomes afflicted, wrong, a victim to be cured and not merely a ward to be confined [3], and the eccentric a new kind of sinner, in a sense the worst kind.

Many people who hope that God does not exist do so because they fear Hell and do not want to go there. Hell is envisioned as being merely a place where the damned go to suffer torment for eternity. More to the point, the damned don’t just go there, but rather they are sent there by a vindictive God: with such a conception of hell, is it any wonder that many an honest atheist does not want God to exist?

However, what our honest atheist friend has overlooked is that Hell is not necessarily a placed where we are sent by God for punishment. While orthodox Christianity is certain that the damned do suffer in Hell for eternity, Hell need not be a place so much as a state. It s the state in which the soul has utterly rejected God, and so finds that God has become absent. The first and greatest torment of Hell is precisely the loss of the beatific vision, that is, the absence of God.

The objection might here be raised that all I have done is just apply a convenient re-definition to Hell, and have therefore discarded the traditional meaning of Hell as a trick. I have done no such thing, as this meaning can be seen in the Gospels [4] and even Dante’s famous portrayal saves one level of hell for the “just damned” whose only torment is this loss of the Beatific Vision, an unfulfilled and unfulfillable longing for God:

The sighs arose from sorrow without torments,
out of the crowds–the many multitudes–
of infants and of women and of men.
The kindly master said: ‘Do you not ask
who are these spirits whom you see before you?
I’d have you know, before you go ahead,
they did not sin; and yet, though they have merits,
that’s not enough, because they lacked baptism,
the portal of the faith you embrace.
And if they lived before Christianity,
they did not worship God in fitting ways;
and of such spirits I myself am one.
For these defects, and for no other evil,
we now are lost and punished with just this:
we have no hope and yet we live in longing’ ”
(Inferno, Canto IV, 7-9, 25-42; transl. Allen Mandelbaum).

Dante’s damned exist forever without hope, which results in eternal sorrow without torment. The longing for God is very real for them, and yet they know that it cannot be satisfied, not because there is no God, rather because they have in essence rejected Him in this life, and he has honored that rejection in the next. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that

“The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, ‘eternal fire. The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs…Hell’s principal punishment consists of eternal separation from God in whom alone man can have the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.” (CCC 1035 and 1057).

This is the poena damni, the chief punishment of the damned: all other punishments–poena sensus and accidental punishments–are secondary next to this one [5].

Both Heaven and Hell begin in this life. Source.

The state of Hell (and Heaven, for that matter) can begin in this life: if we have the premise that there is no God, then it naturally follows that life must be without God, and therefore there can be no Heaven, no beatific vision, no eternal happiness. Since the loss of these things—in short, the loss of God—is Hell, then God’s non-existence does not save us from Hell, but rather ensures that we are there already. The only differences are that without God, every man is in Hell, and that Hell just not eternal, because at death we cease to exist in any meaningful sense. I suppose the “extra” suffering can be mitigated in this life—though not always, and it often isn’t—yet there is certainly plenty of suffering in the world to go round, all of which is meaningless.

In Dante’s Inferno, every damned soul in Hell has chosen to be there. To some extent each soul has chosen exactly where in Hell he will be, that is, he has been drawn to a particular state of hell and has gone willingly. Eternity, then, is a continuation of this life but with greater clarity. How we live in this life determines how we will live in the next, with the most important question being, do we live as if there is a God, or as if there is not? This is a moral and not merely an intellectual question. Or again, do we greet the possibility of God with hope and joy, or with sorrow and despair? The former might mean we are convinced intellectually that there is no God but we are saddened by that conclusion and all which follows from it; the latter might mean that we are intellectually convinced that God does exist, and so are saddened that we are not the masters of our own universe or indeed of our own lives.

God’s absence means Hell. If God does not exist, then He is essentially absent, which means that this life is already Hell. I suspect that the greatest difference between the Hell of this life without God, and the Hell of eternal life without God, is that on the one hand this life is not eternal, meaning that there can be no absolute certainty that God does not exist, and on the other that we can in this life attempt to put on a brave face by seeking happiness in other things. We may perhaps convince ourselves that we have succeeded in finding happiness: by burying ourselves in our work for the sake of money or honors or even simple knowledge; or by numbing the sorrow of despair with endless pleasures; or by attempting to love someone or something as best we are humanly able [6].

Absent God, we are ultimately faced with the realization that our happiness in this life must come to an end: in other words, that we must experience some sorrow for even our best efforts.


[1] There are other reasons which might be given, in varying degrees of honesty. Indeed, to the extent that the reason is an attempt to avoid the truth is the extent to which it is a dishonest excuse rather than an honest objection.

[2] Think about the fact that we live in a culture where “safe sex” is a part of our idiom. That we need such a phrase tells us bounds about our cultural milieu, of its rejection of the meaning of sex, of marriage, and especially of love. Is it really any surprise that in such a culture we would be embroiled in a battle over the meaning of marriage?

[3] There are, of course, other reasons to attempt a cure—such as the cost of maintaining the asylum, for example, or the grief of the madman’s family at seeing him in that state—but few which can honestly state that they are best for the victim.

[4] “Then the king said to his attendants, ‘Bind his hands and feet, and cast him into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth” (Matthew 22:13). The image is of being excluded from the wedding banquet, that is, from the eternal joy of paradise and the presence of God—and no other punishments or tortures save possibly the binding of hands and feet. Or again, “Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I say to you, many will come from the east and the west, and will recline with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the banquet in the kingdom of heaven, but the children of the kingdom will be driven out into the outer darkness, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.” (Matthew 8:11-2). There is the promise of exclusion to the outer darkness, but no other afflictions are necessarily added. Then there are the seven foolish virgins, who again are “punished” only by their exclusion (Matthew 25:1-13). The lake of fire and the worm which does not sleep may also be suffered by the damned, but this is not the chief affliction, and perhaps might be likened more to lower levels of Hell. The Gospels are not specific that every man suffers the same thing in Hell, beyond that every man in Hell is separated forever from God.

[5] The Catholic Encyclopedia, for example, notes that

“The poena sensus, or pain of sense, consists in the torment of fire so frequently mentioned in the Holy Bible. According to the greater number of theologians the term fire denotes a material fire, and so a real fire. We hold to this teaching as absolutely true and correct. However, we must not forget two things: from Catharinus (d. 1553) to our times there have never been wanting theologians who interpret the Scriptural term fire metaphorically, as denoting an incorporeal fire; and secondly, thus far the Church has not censured their opinion. Some few of the Fathers also thought of a metaphorical explanation.”

There might be literal fire in Hell, or it might be metaphorical, or it might be literal but not literally applied to all who dwell there.

[6] Of course, as I have argued elsewhere, to love someone means to desire the greatest good for that person (a point which comes to me through Blessed Pope John Paul the Great). But the greatest possible good is God, so even the act of truly loving a person must mean desiring God for that person, even if He does not exist. A convinced atheist must, if he is consistent, desire that God exists even while being convinced that He doesn’t, and must desire this for the sake of His beloved. They seldom do, however.

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About the Author:

JC is a cradle Catholic, and somewhat of a traditionalist conservative. He earned his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Texas at Austin in the summer of 2014. He is currently a tenure-track assistant professor of physics at a university in the deep south. He is a lay member of the Order of Preachers. JC has been happily married since June of 2010. He and his lovely wife have had two children born into their family, one daughter and one son; they hope to have a few more. He has at times questioned – and more often still been questioned about – his Faith, but he has never wandered far from the Church, nor from our Lord. “To whom else would I go?”