Is Hell for Real?
What kind of question is that? For those who embrace Catholicism, the answer is obvious: “yes.” But for a good portion of the Catholic world, the question smacks of medieval irrelevance. When is the last time you have heard about hell from either podium or pulpit? The reality of hell is one of many doctrines that seem to have taken a hike.
Secularism and worldly mindedness are no doubt partial causes of doubtfulness about hell. Another likely cause is overreaction to perceived exaggerations of negativity from the 1950’s and before. A more recent cause is the arguments from theologians such as Hans Urs von Balthasar, who hope that all may be saved (hopeful universalism). What are these arguments and do they work? A short article such as this must be all too brief. I go into greater detail in False Mercy: Recent Heresies Distorting Catholic Truth.
A first argument of hopeful universalists is that the Church has never defined that any particular man is in hell. True, the Church has never done that. Why? Because it is not the Church’s business to demonize wicked souls but to canonize really holy souls.
A second argument is that the Church has never defined that hell is populated by humans. True. Does that mean I can hold that hell is empty? No. Scripture and Tradition show us that hell is populated.
First, there be demons in hell. This fact undermines some arguments of Balthasar. On the one hand, Balthasar worries that should anyone whom God loves be damned, God would suffer eternal tragedy. This worry presupposes that God is mutable and that He gains from the goodness, and loses from the badness, of the world. On the other hand, Balthasar holds that if anyone is damned, then God’s universal will for salvation is feeble. But the fact that demons are damned shows that Balthasar is in error on these points. Unquestionably, God wills the salvation of every sinner; however, He makes salvation contingent upon reception and retention of sanctifying grace. Some sin against grace and never repent. Such are the demons. Better to base one’s theology on revealed facts than on dreams, however seemingly noble.
Second, revelation and the magisterium also show us that there are human souls in hell. Jude, for example, teaches us that the demons are bound in eternal chains “just as Sodom and Gomor’rah and the surrounding cities, which likewise acted immorally and indulged in unnatural lust, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire” (Jude 7). Now, following the neo-modernist Karl Rahner, Balthasar holds that all Scriptural “prophecies” of the future damnation of men are merely warnings. To the contrary, Jude asserts that those who acted wickedly in Sodom presently serve as a warning to us because they now suffer everlasting fire. The following prophecy of Jesus takes on a new hue: “Truly, I say to you, it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town” (Mt 10:15; 11:23f).
How about numbers? Jesus contrasts two groups of people and two ways of life. “The gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Mt 7:13f). Many take the way that leads to destruction, but only few even find the way that leads to life. Does this situation last? Might everyone repent who once set out on the road to hell? Not according to Jesus: “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many might works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers’” (Mt 7:21ff). Terrifying words.
To sweep away these prophecies as mere warnings makes a mockery of divine revelation. Our religion is historical, not mythical. There are metaphors and symbols in Scripture, to be sure, but no lies, not even “noble” ones. As the Roman Catechism states, “if we look to the fruit which mankind have received from [the Passion], we shall easily find that it pertains not unto all, but to many.” Referring to the same mysteries, the Council of Trent declared, “Even though ‘Christ died for all’, still not all receive the benefit of his death, but only those to whom the merit of his Passion is imparted.” Let us beware the “many false prophets” (Mt 24:11) because of whom “most men’s love will grow cold” (Mt 24:12).
O Dante, sober our drunkenness; St. Francesca of Fatima, remind us of life’s brevity.
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