Some years ago, I joined a group of friends in their college dorm lounge to enjoy a movie. While we watched the movie, I overheard a conversation between two students in the lounge’s loft area (it was an elaborate lounge). The topic of the conversation was Hell.
The first student, a woman, stated not a disbelief in the existence of hell, but rather her objection as to its significance and her astonishment that it should exist. The second student, a man, attempted to answer her question by citing Biblical passages, ultimately demonstrating that Hell was consistent to Christian doctrine but failing to really address his friend’s specific objections. The result was that the woman did something too often observed in Christian circles: she marginalized Hell.
I am reminded of this conversation by a more recent exchange I had with an acquaintance — this about morality. Why should we be concerned with our own sins, let alone with warning others against theirs? Provided that the sin in question isn’t harming us, what business is it of ours?
In one sense, none—we can’t really judge the state of another’s soul by the public sins they do or don’t commit; our Lord is quite in His proscriptions against judging and condemning others’ souls (see Matthew 7:1-5 or Luke 6:35-42).
Sure, He also gives us instructions regarding fraternal correction (Matthew 18:15-17), and of course by nature of our baptisms we all have the prophetic charge given to Ezekiel (Ezekiel 33:5-7). But why the concern for morality and sin; why are these important? My acquaintance did not account for Death and Judgement and Hell in his philosophy of life.
The British novelist Piers Paul Read begins his essay on Hell with a reminiscence of his childhood catechesis:
“My religious upbringing began at Gilling, the Ampleworth Prep school, which I attended from the age of eight to twelve. It followed the Penny Catechism with its numbered questions and answers. To encourage us to remember the answers, we were set a ‘stick test': too many wrong answers led to a beating. It was important to get them right not just to avoid being thwacked on the hands by a ferule in this world but to escape a more terrible punishment in the next. ‘What are the four last things to be ever remembered?’ asked question 332. ‘The four last things to be ever remembered are Death, Judgement, Hell, and Heaven.’ What was Hell? Eternal punishment. What would lead to eternal punishment? Dying unrepentant in a state of mortal sin. What sins were mortal? Murder, adultery—and choosing not to go to Mass on a Sunday.”
He then asks why it seems that these things “to ever be remembered” seem to have been forgotten by the Church today.
Of the existence of Hell, there ought not to be any doubt on the Christian’s part. Yet all too many Christians pay lip service to its existence whilst doubting or even disbelieving in its existence. These people fail to attribute any importance to the existence of Hell, concluding that if it does actually exist, none save Satan and a few demons are actually sentenced to an eternity there.
How important is Hell really? Does Christianity really need a place of suffering and damnation, or is it merely a doctrine held on the basis of Biblical references for the sake of internal consistency? All too often, Christians tend to draw the latter conclusion, which then leads to a marginalization of Gehenna. Unfortunately, Hell is not such a trivial matter, and forsaking it often leaves the devil to pay.
Most people would like to think of Heaven while ignoring Hell. However, Hell’s existence illustrates some of God’s defining traits independently of Heaven. Russell Kirk once noted that without Hell, there could be no true justice in the world: Hell enables those who escape from their just punishments in this life to pay for it in the next.
People who are wicked and who win a “free pass” from justice in this life can only be led to justice in the next. All people sin against God (and man), and most of those will never be caught, thus escaping from atonement, reconciliation, atonement, justification, and even guilt. Hell allows for these things to happen.
Just as Hell gives a picture of God’s justice, it also illustrates His mercy. Mercy is, after all, the remittance of a punishment justly deserved. Thus, in not condemning some souls to Hell, God shows us His mercy, forgiving us our just reward for something else. It is only through mercy that God is able to forgive people their sins, whose betrayal of His friendship and love justly deserve His condemnation. Forgiveness, the act of mercy, means not consigning some people to the Fire for their treachery.
Ignoring the existence of Hell does even more than to hinder the acknowledgement of two of God’s qualities. For so long, Christians have known that people will ultimately arrive in one of two places in the afterlife: Heaven, or Hell. When Hell is ignored, it becomes incomprehensible to a person that he or she may be sent there after death; thus, the only option left is Heaven.
If Hell is impossible, then a person views himself as being entitled to Heaven, as perhaps earning it somehow. Thus, yet another of God’s characteristics is lost: grace. If Heaven is earned, it is not freely granted, nor is it an undeserved gift. Rather, it becomes a birthright, and God becomes a cruel tyrant for not granting it to some.
Moreover, by forgetting Hell man must necessarily lose sight of Heaven. If man is entitled to paradise, what has he to gain by living for God first? Thus, happiness on earth supersedes happiness in Heaven, and man’s own ends become more important to him than God’s.
After-life and life are then divorced from each other, and then God is forgotten. When God is denied, “He will also deny us” (2 Timothy 2:12, NAB). Thus is paradise lost.
In addition to the theological and spiritual ramifications of the denial of Hell’s significance, there are effects in daily life. Without Hell, God’s wrath also becomes insignificant, and thus God cannot be truly feared either. Damnation by God means nothing if no sentence can be carried out. What does His wrath mean if it is restricted to sufferings in the short time of life on earth when these will be but a distant memory during the eternity of Heaven?
Righteous fear of the Lord is the basis for human courage. Kirk noted that “Meek before Jehovah, Moses had no fear of pharaoh,” while those who lacked a proper respect for God’s justice, being “much at ease in Zion, were timid in the presence of a traffic policeman.” Is it any wonder then why Christians often seem so unwilling to fight for those things which are right and against those which are wrong?
This attitude can be compared against that of a man whom has the courage of conviction that God is on his side.
When asked why he is so outspoken on the toughest issues of modern times, Bishop Fred Henry of Calgary responded “…if you really believe that the Spirit of God is with you, what have you got to fear?” An outspoken bishop, Henry has even warned that there is danger in ignoring the laws of God—namely, the danger of burning for eternity in Hell.
The relationship between faith and courage is simple: “If we really believe in our baptism we’ve got to be courageous people, the Spirit of God is with us.” Without the courage of conviction, faith becomes fragile and may break when first tested. Without the fear of God and the possibility of eternal perdition, courage may be brittle; that makes for a weak faith indeed.