Hell in the Scheme of Things

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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.

Nicene Guy

Nicene Guy

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?”

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23 thoughts on “Hell in the Scheme of Things”

  1. Avatar

    Wow JC !! I remember doing number sequencing in math ie: 1, 8, 15 …? (22 of
    course) but I don’t think adultry, murder … missing mass is part of any coherant
    system. Hell is reincarnation and someday the CC will teach this. In Mk 9: 44 it
    talks about the ‘worm’ (death) dying not. Dying over and over and over – now
    that’s hell. Nice try.

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        Truly JC, I’m trying to swear off these knee jerk, ingrained reactions though I believe this to the core of my soul. Thank you for tolerating me.

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        Heh. I knew a couple of guys were friends who had a tradition of insulting each other on a mutual acquaintance’s blog. I was wondering if you guys are basically doing something like this.

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        No, don’t know this guy. He says the strangest things, so I take it as a sort of special challenge to come up with some sort of appropriate reply each time around. I guess you win some and you lose some.

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      Hebrews 9:27 says the opposite of your view: ” And as it is appointed unto men once to die, and after this the judgment…”

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        You can explain that comment right after death to the One who inspired Paul….Christ who also said, ” Of every idle word that men utter shall they give an account on the day of judgement.”

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        thank you – and a quick addendum on the previous, hoping
        JPII passed muster after putting the Buddha on the altar at

      3. Avatar

        That was the least of his problems…no.1 was not noticing that sexual crimes were rampant and that their coverup was even more rampant. Do I think him a saint? He’s had years now to get through purgatory so that if he is now in Heaven this Spring …that seems alright. Will you or I dream of imitating him generally. No. The way he faced old age sickness though was something to imitate. The way he faced the loss of his whole family by 22 years old was stunning. Those two are worthy of imitation. His cluelessness as captain of the ship during the sodomy crimes etc. caused many to leave the Church while the uneducated we were converting in Africa and Asia didn’t know about it. But they kept the statistics from being more telling.

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        Woah, that’s going a little bit far trolde.

        For what it is worth, the worm in Mark 9:48 (or Isaiah 66:24) might be taken metaphorically to represent the gnawing of one’s conscience, which never ceases to condemn oneself for all eternity. To quote Saint Thomas Aquinas’ Compendium of Theology concerning the souls of the damned (with my emphasis:

        …they grieve that they committed sins. They do not grieve because their sins displease them, since they even then will prefer to commit the sins, if the opportunity to do so were available, than to possess God. Rather, they grieve because they cannot have what they chose, and would have been able to have what they rejected. Therefore, both their will remains forever confirmed in evil, and they will nonetheless most heavily grieve about the sin committed and the glory lost. And we call this pan remorse of conscience, which Scripture metaphorically calls the worm, as Is. 66:24 says: “Their worm will not die.”

        Saint Augustine says something similar in one or another of the latter books in The City of God.

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    Interesting article on hell in a study: “People Who Believe Hell Are Less Happy”

    Strange title. Who could be happy about hell?

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      Not to be dense, but how is happiness being defined here? Because I notice when looking it up in some dictionaries, I see some definitions about its being an emotional state, but others about its being “a state of well-being,” which (despite being paired with contentment) would imply something more than mere emotion. Indeed, Merriam-Webster gives as a synonym to happiness the word “beatitude.” And I know that our host has written more than one essay elaborating on this fuller definition of happiness, a definition which does not preclude hell but only ending there.

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        Indeed. But you don’t have to go to my little-trafficked site to find this kind of discussion. There was something about this reasonably recently on The Atlantic. For that matter, one of the authors of the study cited by The Atlantic‘s article wrote an article of his own for Aeon Magaine (ok, that’s getting kind of obscure again):

        The first had to do with getting what you want and need. Not surprisingly, satisfaction of desires was a reliable source of happiness. But it had nothing — maybe even less than nothing ­— to add to a sense of meaning. People are happier to the extent that they find their lives easy rather than difficult. Happy people say they have enough money to buy the things they want and the things they need. Good health is a factor that contributes to happiness but not to meaningfulness. Healthy people are happier than sick people, but the lives of sick people do not lack meaning. The more often people feel good — a feeling that can arise from getting what one wants or needs — the happier they are. The less often they feel bad, the happier they are. But the frequency of good and bad feelings turns out to be irrelevant to meaning, which can flourish even in very forbidding conditions.

        The second set of differences involved time frame. Meaning and happiness are apparently experienced quite differently in time. Happiness is about the present; meaning is about the future, or, more precisely, about linking past, present and future. The more time people spent thinking about the future or the past, the more meaningful, and less happy, their lives were. Time spent imagining the future was linked especially strongly to higher meaningfulness and lower happiness (as was worry, which I’ll come to later). Conversely, the more time people spent thinking about the here and now, the happier they were. Misery is often focused on the present, too, but people are happy more often than they are miserable. If you want to maximise your happiness, it looks like good advice to focus on the present, especially if your needs are being satisfied. Meaning, on the other hand, seems to come from assembling past, present and future into some kind of coherent story….Perhaps the idea is to make happiness last. Happiness seems present-focused and fleeting, whereas meaning extends into the future and the past and looks fairly stable. For this reason, people might think that pursuing a meaningful life helps them to stay happy in the long run. They might even be right — though, in empirical fact, happiness is often fairly consistent over time.

        I don’t agree with all of his analysis–or his conclusion–but it is very interesting stuff. Also, this comes from a psychology study rather than from philosophical speculations or theological interpretations.

  3. Pingback: Pastoral Sharings: " Life Is Beautiful" | St. John

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