November 16, 2012

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Year of Faith: Catholics believe that hell exists

John F. FinkAs I continue my discussion of the Four Last Things, I’ll take my cue from Dante Alighieri. In his masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, the ancient Roman poet Virgil conducts Dante through hell, then purgatory and finally to heaven. So I’ll treat them in that order, too.

Does the Catholic Church really teach that hell exists? Yes, it does. There are too many references to hell in Scripture to just pretend that it doesn’t exist.

It’s a place of eternal damnation for those who used the freedom God gave them to reject God’s love. It’s the state of persons who die in mortal sin in a condition of self-alienation from God.

Blessed Pope John Paul II asked, “Is not hell in a certain sense the ultimate safeguard of man’s moral conscience?” How else is human freedom to be respected if it doesn’t include the right to say no to God?

We believe that God gives everyone the graces necessary to accept God’s love and live according to his precepts, but he also gives everyone the freedom to reject that love.

Two questions about hell need to be addressed—the nature of the sufferings inflicted and the number of those condemned to endure them.

Perhaps this statement from the German bishops’ conference sums up the answer to the first question. They wrote, “Just as heaven is God himself won forever, so hell is God himself eternally lost. The essence of hell is final exclusion from communion with God because of one’s own fault.”

But what about the fires of hell that we see in various images? This is a metaphor for the pain of eternal separation from God, which must be the most horrifying pain of all. There won’t be physical fire, which wouldn’t affect a spiritual body anyway.

And who is in hell? Blessed Pope John Paul II spoke about that, too. On July 28, 1999, he said, “Eternal damnation remains a real possibility, but we are not granted … the knowledge of whether, or which, human beings are effectively involved in it.”

The Church has said infallibly, through the process of canonization, that certain people are in heaven, but it has never said that certain people are in hell.

There is an ancient controversy known as universalism, which was embraced by the great theologian Origen, which taught that everyone will be saved. The Second Council of Constantinople condemned it in 553.

There’s a difference, though, between teaching universalism and speculating about it, as Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, Cardinal Hans Urs von Balthasar and Blessed John Paul II did in relatively recent times.

Here’s what John Paul wrote in Crossing the Threshold of Hope: “In Christ, God revealed to the world that he desires ‘everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth.’ If God desires this—if, for this reason, God has given his Son, who in turn is at work in the Church through the Holy Spirit—can man be damned, can he be rejected by God?”

Only God has the answer to that question. †

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