Does Hell Exist?

Monday, August 18, 2003



Amongst the conservatives who frequent Catholic discussion boards, Catholic blogs, and apologetics sites, there is often a misconception that progressive and liberal Catholics do not believe in the concept of sin or the reality of hell.

Of course, the concept of hell is a difficult concept to reconcile with a good and loving God. What on earth can a person do that merits eternal punishment in a lake of fire?

Many who accept the teaching of mercy preached by Jesus wonder why a merciful God would not permit an opportunity for even a Saddam Hussein or Adolf Hitler to repent in the next life, after an appropriate time in some sort of purgatory?

As early as the second century of the common era, Christians struggled with this question. Origen believed that there would be a day when Satan would convert and hell would be emptied. To this day, the Jehovah's Witnesses agree with Origen that there will be a day when all souls are saved. In Eastern non-Christian religions, it is generally believed that a soul is reincarnated several times until the soul reaches a state of perfection where it is set free from the cycle of rebirths.

However, the position maintained by hierarchy in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches have always taught that hell is an eternal reality, and that is incorrect to believe that Satan will one day be saved. Most Protestant denominations, especially the Evangelicals and conservative mainline Protestants have also maintained the reality of an eternal state called hell. Yet all three major branches of Christianity claim that God is infinitely merciful and perfectly just in all his ways.

How can this be?

In my opinion, the concept of an eternal hell is the greatest compliment to human freedom. I know this strikes some people as a mere play on words. Yet, I am not simply playing a semantic game.

If hell does not really exist, if it is not possible to irrevocably choose against God, then I am not a free person at all. I am a puppet who is fated to do what God wants...if I don't do his will today, I will wind up doing it eventually, almost by force.

We too often get to hung up on images of hell as a place of unquenchable fire wreaking of sulfur where there is gnashing of teeth and worms that never die and a darkness that is unpenetratable. These are metaphors for a horrendous reality.

Regarding this metaphoric language, it is important not to get too caught up in literally interpreting what is meant to describe a state of being. It is true that the Church maintains that we cannot dogmatically say that hell does not involve a real physical pain or real fire. At the same time, the Church also does not maintain dogmatically that we absolutely must say these metaphors are literal. We simply do not know the physical characteristics of hell. However, all Christians have maintained throughout all ages that the greatest pain of hell is the sense of God's absence.

Why would a good and merciful God be absent to his own creation? Can the God who is Absolute Being truly be absent from his creation? Why would a good and loving God cast his creatures away from himself forever?

The answer to these questions are that God is not ontologically absent from his creatures.

Nor does God cast souls into hell!

Rather, the creature chooses to reject God, and this rejection is the state of being called hell. We taste this reality here on earth when we suffer negative consequences for sin according to the universal law of justice (what some religions refer to as karma).

In saying that an eternal state of hell exist, we are saying that the human person has been created with such freedom that we are able to irrevocably reject God, who is Absolute Goodness and Absolute Being. In effect, the creature freely chooses to reject his or her own nature, which emanates from God. God, because of her own goodness, permits the creature to do this.

The condition for the possibility of choosing God is the possibility of rejecting God. Hell is the reality of this choice, even if no soul actually inhabits the reality.

Why doesn't God simply annihilate the sinner, as the Jehovah's Witnesses maintain?

We are created in God's own image and likeness. The human person has an incomparable dignity and infinite value. It would be evil of a good Creator to obliterate the height of her own creation - a being in his own likeness. God cannot annihilate us without, in effect, admitting he made a mistake, which is impossible.

So God voluntarily has put herself in a sort of "Catch-22" situation. Having created us, she cannot obliterate us without doing evil. On the other hand, she cannot force us to love her and choose her either, because to do so would violate our freedom, which is the very principle by which we most image her likeness!

Love must be free or it is not love. God is not a cosmic rapist. He will try to entice us, perhaps even seduce us, but he will not force himself upon us. If we chose to reject him, he honors our decision. While young men in modern society may have hard time understanding that no means no, God understands it perfectly, and always respects our own free choice!

Yet, how can a single action be an eternal rejection of God?

Christ answers this question by saying that only one sin is truly unforgivable in this life and the next - namely, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit!

This sin is not a single act, but an ongoing and deliberate rejection of the goodness of God. Blasphemy of the Spirit is the willful rejection of grace. It is an habitual disposition more than a single act. Actions that we call sin, such as murder and adultery, represent a movement of the heart toward this blasphemy, but the act itself is not blasphemy of the Spirit. Indeed, blashpemy of the Spirit is not a single act, but a habitual state of the heart.

It is interesting to me that Satan is called the Accuser in the Bible (Rev 12:10). The Holy Spirit is called the Paracleet (a sort of legal advocate). Jesus is portrayed as the perfect man making atonement for us on our behalf before a judge who is our loving and merciful father. The image I see in the New Testament is that God is trying to defend humanity against the prosecuting attorney - Satan. Maybe blasphemy against the Spirit is despair of God's infinite mercy.

Despite the merciful image of Christ portrayed in the Gospels that even atheist recognize, Christ speaks more of hell than any other character in the Bible. Christ's mercy is manifested in his desire to see none of us make the choice to eternally reject God! It is precisely in his manifestation of mercy for particular acts that Christ is communicating to us that God never gives up on us. The only way to achieve eternal separation from God is by our own decision!

God is not only Absolute Being, but pure love. Where there is love, there is God.

Individual acts that we call sin have a tendency towards blasphemy of the spirit as they reveal a lack of perfect love. We were created with a natural capacity to love God with our whole mind, heart and soul, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. While conservatives emphasize our fallen state and the effects of original sin that make all of us capable of and attracted to great evil, progressives emphasize that we simultaneously have the capacity and desire to respond to grace. We were created for love!

While hell is a real a possibility, the Church has never dogmatically said any particular human person is in hell. It is our hope that as many souls as possible will be saved, and we even hold out hope that the Adolf Hitlers and the Saddam Husseins will be saved.

Conservatives often wish to emphasize God's perfect justice and therefore sometimes state that some souls "deserve" to go to hell. It is true that a good and loving God could hardly be good and just if he ignored the cry of the poor and oppressed. What kind of God lets a pedophile abuse a child with impunity? How can murderers go without suffering some consequence for their actions?

Progressives point to the doctrine of original sin and suggest that all of us are guilty of horrendous crimes, if not in act, at least in thought. If we focus solely on justice, we all deserve temporal punishment of some sort. Traditional theology says that Christ bore the penalty of sin on the cross, and conquered sin and death through his resurrection. In contemporary theology, God's suffering with us awakens compassion in the human heart. Either way, sin is not the final word, which is the entire point of the Gospel!

Progressives do believe in the law of justice. Yet we maintain that the law of mercy operates with the law of justice in such a way that justice appears to be denied to those without a God's eye view. Justice is not truly denied, though it appears to be on the surface. It is something like the way an airplane seems to defy the law of gravity because the laws of aerodynamics permit tons of metal to lift from the ground. It is not that justice is not satisfied. Just as gravity still operates on the flying plane, justice still operates on the soul of the one saved by mercy.

Any repentant sinner can attest to the pain experienced in true contrition even as we witness to the joy of knowing God is infinitely merciful. God's mercy becomes an attraction to act rightly. God's grace melts hearts of stone and changes them to hearts of living human flesh.

The ten-commandments act as a road-map to good loving. We are to worship none other than God, and to avoid using her name vainly (such as swearing to falsehood or invoking a curse on another of her children). We are to live in awareness of her presence cultivated by honoring the Sabbath. We are to give due respect and honor to our parents and elders. We are to respect human life as we value our own lives. We are to honor the sacred meaning of human sexuality and our power to share in God's procreative power. We are to respect the property rights of others and to cultivate honesty and the pursuit of truth in all we do. We are to avoid jealousy and inappropriate lust.

Living according to these principles leads to a happier existence and a growth in love in this earthly life. Thus, we begin to taste of heaven as we grow in loving communion with those around us. This growth in love forces us out of ourselves to a lively and compassionate concern for others, who image God just as we do. Indeed, it is in our freely chosen and loving relationships that we image the Trinity, three persons in perfect union!

The progressive tendency to focus on social justice issues is an attempt to take the lessons of individual morality and apply the same principles to political and economic structures and cultural symbols to discern how compassion can be further fostered and nourished while sin is further discouraged. Conservatives often see this shift in focus from individual morality to politics as a dangerous distraction to growth in personal character. Progressives see a communitarian aspect to the Biblical revelation that makes it necessary to always look beyond individual righteousness in order to actually become individually righteous.

In particular, the progressive seeks to name the ways in which language shapes consciousness to begin thinking of others as less than an image of the divine. Thus, progressives speak out for marginalized people and underdogs such as the poor, women in the Church, people of color in the United States, the developing nations, workers, gays and lesbians, and so forth. In doing this, we seek to imitate the way Christ reached out to the oppressed and marginalized in first century Palestine.

I was recently asked by a conservative Protestant Christian who feels some compassion for homosexuals how I can write essays that seem to encourage homosexual behavior. He asked why I am not afraid that I might be giving advice that will send a soul to hell.

My response is simply that I am more sure that I would be choosing hell for myself by mistreating and failing to love the person with homosexual tendencies than I am sure that homosexual acts always and everywhere tend toward blasphemy of the Spirit.

It is easier to judge my own actions and intentions than those of another, even if it is sometimes difficult to judge my own intentions. There needs to be some room for Christians of good conscience to admit when they are uncertain what is being said in their conscience - and that is the point of labeling oneself a "progressive" Catholic. A progressive is open to a change in direction under the guidence of the Spirit - a development of doctrine beyond the understanding of a prior generation while trying to maintain the values inherent in old ways of expressing the faith. We seek continuity with the past without necessarily seeking identity with the past.

The conservatives point out that it is precisely because of the same personal uncertainty that I admit that they feel the most humble position is to follow the teachings of those with due authority, and we Catholics believe that the Pope has authority from Christ (Protestants can substitute Biblical literalism).

Ultimately, I agree with the conservative that the primacy of Rome is based on the authority of Christ, and can even be infallible under certain circumstances. Likewise, some verses of Scripture are clearer than others.

However, the Pope proclaims and defines teachings with varying degrees of papal authority. When infallibility is not being invoked, I am still left with responsibility for my own decisions and actions based on where I discern the greater certitude within my own conscience. Certainly I will listen to the Pope's non-infallible opinion in trying to make the right decision, but if his arguments do not make sense, and he is not invoking infallibility, I will not be held accountable to blind obedience, but to whether I followed my conscience!

Once again, when I am uncertain and the Pope has not spoken infallibly and the Bible is somewhat unclear, I am thrust back to the fact that I am more certain it is wrong to mistreat and falsely or rashly judge the homosexual person than I am certain that homosexual acts are universally wrong. Thus, the issue of a threat of hell to shut me up becomes mute. Of course, my conscience may be mal-formed, but precisely because it is mal-formed, I cannot know this, and unlike human law, God considers ignorance a mitigating circumstance!

Yet, I am getting off track by getting into these specific moral debates. It does not matter who is right or wrong about the morality of homosexual acts in a discussion about whether hell ultimately exists or not.

Discussion of moral acts and distinctions between personal and social sin and so forth are interesting. Yet, ultimately, our moral choices point to a condition of the heart. The heart is either tending toward God or away from God. We all can make mistakes along the way, but there is a fundamental option being exercised in time through our habits. Whatever sin is, it is ultimately aimed at describing the reality of moving away from God. This is what hell is - the decision to move away from God.

Thus, my main point in this essay is that I agree with conservatives that hell is a reality. Being a liberal or a progressive Catholic is not a denial of the existence of the reality of a state called hell. We can move in a direction that is continually away from God, and if we cannot, we are not free beings!

I sometimes like to think that maybe God will put all of us in the same physical place after we die. To a person who loved greatly, like a Mother Teresa of Calcutta or a Ghandi, there will be great joy. Afterall, we all made it! To someone like Hitler, there may be distress because all these Jews are here. Hell is our own creation by our own choice....not a punishment imposed by God from without!

Yet, hell is real!

Perhaps there is nobody "in" that reality we call hell (we can only hope nobody inhabits it as a phisical place).

However, the state of hell's very existence is necessary, for if the state of being called hell does not exist, I am not free to reject God, and if I am not free to reject God, I am not free to love God in any meaningful sense of the word!

Peace and Blessings!


Readers may contact me at


posted by Jcecil3 2:30 PM

This page is powered by 

Blogger. Isn't yours?

Weblog Commenting by