The Cardinal's Column
Back to Archive 2003

May 25, 2003

Will those who ‘raise hell’ end up there forever?

The feast of the Ascension of the Lord comes with Jesus’ promise that we will not be left orphans. The Lord will send from his place at the Father’s side the Holy Spirit to give us life now and to keep alive in our hearts the hope that Jesus will return in glory at the end of time. Picturing his return in glory, Jesus says that the dead will rise. Some will be with him forever in glory; others will be separated from him forever in hell (Mt. 25:31-46).

There is something in us that fights the notion of eternal punishment. We like to hope for the best, so we are open to the proclamation of new life and to the concept of eternal life. But just before the consecration of the bread and wine in the Roman Canon of the Mass we pray that we might be saved from eternal damnation. There is a hell, and evidently we are candidates.

That’s part of the rub. Even those who know that the profession of faith includes belief in eternal punishment generally tend to put others there but never themselves. Until we recognize that, if abandoned by God to our own resources, there is no sin that we personally could not commit, we have not begun to advance in holiness. We are in danger of going to hell because of our sins. If one denies mortal sin, obviously there is no reason for hell. But if there is no deadly sin, Jesus’ death was unnecessary.

Hell’s existence is corollary to human freedom. God desires our eternal happiness and gives us, through Christ’s death and resurrection, the certain means to attain it. But we can refuse. Our freedom is our glory and our risk. We pray to the Father: “Thy will be done.” We are at liberty to say: “Not thy will but mine be done.” The choice is ours; and it determines our eternal destiny (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1861).

God does not send us into eternal exile from himself. The terrible torment of being forever apart from him is not something devised by God’s outrage; it is the inevitable outcome of our free choice to embrace sin. God continually calls us to himself in tones of tender mercy, but he does not take away from us the freedom that is part of being human and which includes the power to reject God’s love. By our free choice, we determine whether the unfailing love God has for us becomes our supreme joy or our unending misery. God gives those in hell all the love they are willing to accept—his justice.

Last week I spoke to a small group of grade school teachers about how they teach the faith. The subject of hell came up, and one of them told me that seventh and eighth graders have a deep sense of fairness. For children of that age, eternal punishment seems the counterpart of eternal reward. God is fair, so hell exists.

The seventh- and eighth-graders’ instincts are expressed in more sophisticated rhetoric by Pope John Paul II in his book, “Crossing the Threshold of Hope”: “Is not God who is love also ultimate justice? ”

So who’s in hell? Certainly, the fallen angels who have become demons. For the rest, no one knows for sure. Given the infinite depths of God’s mercy and his desire that Jesus’ work for our salvation be universally successful, one can truly hope that no human person is in hell. Still, we pause before the eternal fate of the apostle who betrayed the Lord, Judas Iscariot, and before that of the Roman Emperor Nero, who began the centuries of persecution of the early Church. In our own age, who would want to wager on the salvation of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin or Mao Tse Tung?

Through the ages, the considered opinion of teachers like St. Augustine held that the majority of those not baptized most probably went to hell, along with a good number of the baptized. Medieval painters and poets pictured popes in hell. In the past generation, opinion has shifted toward hope for the salvation of all; but how many of us have a short list of those we’d like to see in hell? This desire is not, it goes without saying, a sign of spiritual good health! We are to pray for our enemies, and our prayer should include a petition for their eternal salvation. And yet.

St. Paul tells us to “work out our salvation in fear and trembling” (Phil. 2: 12). St. Augustine writes, “Do not presume; one of the thieves on Calvary was lost. Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved.” At the very least, meditation on hell and the possibility of eternal damnation lend depth to our daily decisions. Actions now bear consequences for eternity. Because the faithful live simultaneously in both time and eternity, there is nothing superficial about our lives. Because God wills our salvation, there is no reason to be super-serious about our lives either. The possibility of damnation does not diminish our joy in the Lord. Rather, it helps us to understand God’s mercy.

Fundamentally, all can hope for heaven because God is eager to forgive our sins. Not everyone finds this a realistic hope. In the United States, everything is permitted, even encouraged: “Go for it, try it, do it,” we are urged, no matter what the “it” might be. But, while everything might be permitted, practically nothing is forgiven. By contrast, in the Church much is not permitted: “If you love me, keep my commandments,” Jesus says (Jn. 15:10). But, while much is not permitted, everything can be forgiven. Our culture pulls us towards vengeance; our faith towards mercy.

Does hell exist? Yes. How many are, in fact, condemned to eternal punishment in hell? We don’t know for sure, one way or the other. How do we avoid hell? By living even now “in Christ” and serving one another. Praying for another is a form of service that gives hope for everyone’s salvation. In praying for someone else, we bring God’s blessing both to the one we pray for and to ourselves. I count on your prayers; you and those you love are in mine.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Francis Cardinal George, OMI
Archbishop of Chicago


Back to Archive 2003