How to look on Hell
This is the kind of thing people say:
“Many Christians still believe in Hell. They claim that sinners will be tortured there in an unquenchable fire for all time to come. Surely this is not only ridiculous, but reveals traits of sadism. What glory can God derive from a sinner’s torments? And, however shocking human crimes can be, could they ever deserve punishment for all eternity?”
There are many popular misunderstandings about the Christian concept of hell – which explains why about twice as many people believe in heaven as in hell (according to the European Values Study, heaven 41%, hell 23%.).
To begin with, the fire of hell is a scriptural image, not a literal description. The image derives from the valley of Gehinnom outside Jerusalem where rubbish was dumped and burnt. Hell, the place where the misfits of humanity end up, was called after it: Gehenna. The scriptural authors did not claim to know the actual form and shape which hell would take; as little as they claimed to know this about heaven.
Secondly, and perhaps most of all, it is wrong to think of God as the one who is responsible for assigning people to hell. Christian doctrine throughout the centuries has always stated that it is the sinner himself/herself who refuses to accept God and thus condemns himself/herself to hell. God, with generous and merciful love, is always prepared to forgive.
The sinner chooses damnation by rejecting goodness and love. “It is not God who casts off the sinner. He casts off himself.” (see: St.AMBROSE, Commentary on Psalm 43).
Hell is much more a condition of painful separation from God, the source of all goodness, which people impose on themselves. As Christopher Marlowe’s devils confess in Faustus, they carry hell with them wherever they go.
Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed in one
self place; but where we are is hell, and where
hell is there must we ever be. And, to be short,
when all the world dissolves, and every creature
shall be purified, all places shall be hell that
are not heaven.
Final separation from God’s love, i.e. `hell’, is one of the alternatives a person can choose. It is an alternative simply because God takes human freedom and autonomy utterly seriously. If some people live on in God after death because they opted for what is good, others can opt to be separated for ever from that love. Belief in heaven and hell underlines the importance of the life we live now and our fundamental moral choices.
In the third place, since we talk about fundamental choices, we should not imagine that many people end up in hell. The vast majority of people basically mean well. They make mistakes through a mixture of weakness, cowardice and ignorance. There is an ancient conviction among Christians that such sinners are given a last chance. Before meeting God they are purified – perhaps, through a final act of shame as they see their life in its true light. This is known as purgatory, a process of punitive cleansing.
In fact, many theologians are convinced that, though hell exists as a real possibility, in fact no single human person will be consigned to hell on account of both mitigating circumstances in the crimes committed and of God’s great mercy. There is much to recommend itself in this view, especially the insight that God differs from us: “I am God, not human. I am the Holy One. I have no wish to destroy” (see: Hosea 11,9).
Finally, to clear up a last misunderstanding: Hell is sometimes thought to be the place which God reserves for pagans, heretics, members of other religions. Nothing is further from the truth. Every person determines his or her final fate on the basis of one’s own conscience. I am sure that in heaven we will meet people from all beliefs and Churches, and also many who declared themselves atheists and agnostics.
“God will reward every person according to what he or she has done.
Some people patiently do good, seeking what is splendid, honourable and immortal; God will grant them eternal life.
Others are selfish. They refuse to obey the truth and turn to evil. They will inherit anger and fury.
There will be upset and pain for all who do evil . . but glory, honour and peace for everyone who does good . . . For God shows no partiality.”
The text in this chapter is from How to Make Sense of God by John Wijngaards, Sheed & Ward, Kansas City 1995. Tom Adcock designed the cartoons. The Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada awarded the book a prize on 25 May 1996.
View the following film on the meaning of God as Love