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Making Sense of Hell

Eternal damnation has never been a wildly popular doctrine, but it seems to be coming under particular pressure at the moment. Public intellectuals like Stephen Greenblatt shake their heads at the teaching; eccentric theologians think up arguments against it; when Church leaders are asked about it, they often respond with ambiguity and embarrassment. No wonder the New Yorker’s Vinson Cunningham was recently moved to ask Catholics: “What modern believer wouldn’t want to cast off this old, sadistic barrier to faith in a loving God? What kind of deity draws such a hard line between his friends and his enemies, and holds an eternal grudge? Surely the loss of hell—even the idea of such a loss—should come as a bit of a relief.”

My gut reaction is sympathetic to Cunningham’s point, and such reactions shouldn’t be simply dismissed. But they should be tested. When an emotional response can’t be given a logical foundation; when it relates to something about which we are, necessarily, very ignorant; and when its implications are untenable—then it’s safe to conclude that the emotion is misleading.

Start with the logical foundation. Sin deserves punishment; in life we can always turn back toward God’s mercy, but the philosophers tell us that at death, the soul can no longer change its ways. Before death we can be swayed this way and that by our feelings and habits. But when the soul is separated from the body, this changeability ends and we are left with a single orientation. If we have turned toward God before death, we will find happiness; if we have chosen something else instead, we are in mortal sin, and our just punishment will continue for as long as we reject God—that is, forever. The inhabitants of hell go on choosing their fate: “The damned are so obstinate in their sins,” writes St. Alphonsus Liguori, “that even if God offered pardon, their hatred for him would make them refuse it.”

The attempts to pick holes in this argument are not, as far as I can see, successful: Interested readers can find a useful series of refutations here. The real objection, I think, is less logical than intuitive: Even if some punishment is necessary, isn’t hell excessive?

Read more at First Things. 

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