November 01, 2017

Hell: a most unpopular idea

By Bishop Arthur Serratelli *
Credit: Pexels
Credit: Pexels

For the last twenty-five years, the moral landscape of our country has been changing. More and more people argue against the death penalty as a legitimate form of justice. Some strenuously argue that every individual has the right to determine when and how to end their life. Divorce has become more common. Many now accept cohabitation before marriage as an acceptable preparation for marriage. And, activist groups have been able to alter our laws to reflect their agendas on family, human life and the very notion of the human person.

In such an environment, it is no surprise that more and more people are no longer comfortable with the idea of hell. Actions and choices that once were accepted as sins are now presented as morally good. When sin is no longer seen as sin, any consequence for sinful acts is sidelined, most especially any punishment beyond the grave. As a result, only about half of Americans believe that hell is the fate of those who live morally evil lives. 

Fifty years ago, when the distinctions between good and evil were sharper, it was certainly much easier for preachers to speak of the eternal consequences of serious sin. But, ever since the moral teaching of Christians has been blunted in some theological circles, preachers have consistently steered away from ever mentioning from the pulpit any doctrine that makes people uncomfortable in the pews. Religion, for some, has become a therapeutic moralism for happy living. 

Involvement in social issues, good in itself, has moved center stage and has gradually diminished the spotlight on individual sin. Some preachers across the lines of church affiliation concentrate their teaching solely on the love of God. This truth can never be emphasized enough. But the whole preaching of Jesus cannot be limited to one truth. The sheer number of recent bestsellers on heaven and hell reveal a keen interest in the afterlife on the part of many. 

In speaking of hell, we should not be distracted by any caricature of hell as the place where the wrath of God is unleashed in fiery flames on sinners. Even beyond rejecting this understanding of hell, many have serious difficulty in reconciling the biblical teaching of an all-loving God who sends his Son to save us with any concept of a God who allows sinners to be punished for all eternity for their sins. The early Christians wrestled with this very same problem. 

In the second century, Tatian taught that “We who are now easily susceptible to death will afterwards receive immortality with either enjoyment or with pain.” Irenaeus, one of the most important theologians of the second century, believed in an eternal hell of suffering for the lost. Origen, a third century theologian, had a more benign view of the afterlife. He taught that the wicked were punished after death until they repented for their sins and then were saved. This doctrine is called universalism and it holds that even Satan will be redeemed in the end. This teaching has never been accepted by the Church.

To reconcile the love of God with the justice of God in dealing with those who die in a state of rebellion against God, some Protestant theologians resort to the doctrine of annihilationism. According to this theory, those who die alienated from God are not subject to any kind of eternal punishment. For them, death means the total end. Their very existence is extinguished. They no longer exist. They are not suffering the torments of the damned, nor are they given eternal happiness in heaven. 

To tell the truth, many people hold the very idea of God judging as abhorrent. God does not judge. He understands. He forgives. He is the indulgent parent whose love means that he always accepts what his child does. But, the corollary to God’s love is his hatred of sin and the disastrous effects sin has on us and on our relationship to him. 

Speaking of hell, Pope John Paul II said that it is “the ultimate consequence of sin itself … Rather than a place, hell indicates the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy.” Hell, therefore, is not something which God vindictively decides for sinners. Hell is the choice that serious sinners themselves make and God honors their choice.

During his public ministry, Jesus spoke more about hell than anybody else in Sacred Scripture. His sayings on hell exceed all the other sayings of the Bible combined! For Jesus, hell meant the eternal punishment meted out to sinners. If speaking about hell mattered so much to Jesus, can we be faithful enough to him by never mentioning hell, even if it is, for sure, a most unpopular idea?

Bishop Serratelli is the bishop of Paterson, New Jersey.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.