Is Hell Just?
This week's video refers to the Four Last Things. Of those, heaven would be the most fun topic. At the bottom of the Four Last Things is hell and is the least fun topic conceivable. Yet it is an important topic. Temporal pains and pleasures pale in comparison to the infinite experiences of heaven and hell. In heaven, the saints will experience eternal glory in the presence of God. Those that end up in hell will experience a disordered, eternal separation from God. But how can the all-loving, all-powerful Christian God allow anyone to go to hell?
The catechism teaches that hell "is eternal separation from God" (CCC 1035). After a person dies they will face God's judgment and will end up in heaven, purgatory (a temporary state that prepares a person for heaven), or hell. (Or possibly limbo, though limbo is not settled church doctrine.) A "lake of fire," Dante's Inferno, and the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) articulate the severity of hell. Regardless of one's literal or figurative interpretation of this imagery, hell is clearly a horrible existence.
A person ends up in hell because they did not "freely choose to love Him" (CCC 1033). God does not send people to hell, though He allows people to break the first commandment and make someone or something else their god. Committing mortal sin denies God's love. The catechism also adds that a person denies God's love if they "fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren." If unrepentant of mortal sin at death a person will remain separate from God for eternity. As theologian J.P. Moreland states: "God has made us creatures with free will and if we continuously live without our creator's purposes for us in mind, we will eventually get what we asked for, which is separation from God."
Since hell is total separation from God and God is the source of order and goodness, hell is a place of total disorder and absence of goodness. A person who ends up in hell for eternity will relate when Jesus spoke of Judas who was about to betray Him: "It would be better for that man if he had never been born" (Matthew 26:24). Catholic apologist Michael Lofton points out that Jesus spoke about hell more than any other figure in the Bible. Even the most faithful Christian can get caught up with their own selfish interests without regard to their eternal destination. It is prudent that every Christian not walk alone in their faith journey, but seek accountability through a church community and confession through their priest. Church groups like Inferno can keep Christians on the narrow path to heaven: "the way is broad that leads to destruction…for the gate is narrow and the way is constricted that leads to life, and there are few who find it" (Matthew 7:13-14).
The doctrine of hell is troubling for many reasons. On an emotional level, why would God allow a "good enough" person to go to hell? The agnostic cyclist Lance Armstrong wrote in his autobiography that if a person is good to family and friends and doesn't lie or steal, then God should reward that person with heaven. Armstrong doubles down saying he would rather be in hell than in heaven with a God that allows "good" people to go to hell. Even if you end up in heaven, imagining someone that you care deeply about in hell can be a horrifying thought.
On a philosophical level, there are many concerns with hell. Related topics are the Problem of Evil and Divine Hiddenness, though these concerns should be addressed in their own dedicated discussions. The primary concern with hell relates to the severity of the punishment known as the Problem of Hell: how could a just God permit infinite punishment for a finite amount of sin?
Addressing Lance Armstrong's emotional concern with hell that "good" people deserve heaven, goodness is not what ultimately brings a person to salvation. While sin (i.e., rejecting goodness) does separate a person from God, the grace of God allows for all people to choose Him through Jesus' death and resurrection. In fact, there are very few, if any, "good" people in this world as Jesus says: "no one is good except God alone." (Mark 10:18). Through His death and resurrection, Jesus is the sacrificial lamb who takes mankind’s place so those that accept Him can be saved from hell.
Regarding the Problem of Hell as a philosophical problem, there are multiple Christian responses. There are some non-Catholic Christian proposals such as annihilationism and universalism, though the former is at odds with the Catholic understanding of the eternality of the soul and the latter is at odds with Biblical data. Of the Christian responses to the Problem of Hell that affirm the doctrine of hell, one proposal is that even though a person only commits a finite amount of sin in one's lifetime, that person will continue to sin against God in hell. Throughout eternity, this person will accumulate an infinite amount of sin, justifying the infinite punishment in hell. Philosopher William Lane Craig argues that the Problem of Hell is actually not a problem: there is no logical inconsistency with an all-good, all-powerful God and the existence of hell.
As Catholics, we should take hell seriously. Not simply because hell is the worst possible existence, but because the greatest possible existence awaits us with life in Christ and His kingdom in heaven. While hell is an emotionally difficult doctrine, God's justice allows each person to choose or reject Him: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life" (John 3:16).
The doctrine of hell is compatible with the all-loving, all-powerful Christian God. Because of the severity of hell combined with the goodness awaiting in heaven, every person should live for Christ and the hope of eternal life united with God.