Newsletter of the District of Asia

 November 1997


by Romano Amerio

1. The triumph of justice.  Hell.

Catholic Christianity sees eternal life or reprobation as the highest expression of absolute justice; these things are difficult for the mind to accept, as we have said when explaining how our moral status can vary from moment to moment; and people who don’t believe in a future life obviously don’t believe in salvation or damnation at all.  They object to the idea that this life needs any fulfillment in another world.

The idea of hell was almost completely neglected by Vatican II; some council fathers complained of the fact during the LXXX congregation, when the eschatological character of the Christian vocation was being discussed.  Hell is never mentioned by name in the council’s texts, but is referred to once indirectly as “eternal fire.”1  Nothing was said about the actual doctrine of hell.

Paul VI complained that “the subject of hell is not heard about any more.”2  His complaint should have been about the priests who fail to mention it; how can the faithful hear about it if the clergy say nothing?  Having vanished from teaching, hell has vanished from the belief of most people,3 its eternity is denied by some theologians and it is reduced by others, as it was by Epicurean philosophers, to the status of a myth expressing the suffering caused by a bad conscience.

The French bishops as a body have pronounced against the doctrine of hell, thus reinforcing what is taught by many of their parish priests: “Hell is simply a manner of speaking that Christ used when addressing people whose religious outlook was somewhat primitive; we have developed further since.”4  Hell is here clearly referred to as an idea believed in by crude or childlike peoples, and which today’s Catholicism rejects.  Catholic theology condemns the reduction of dogmas to myths.  The French bishops however do not hesitate to reject the doctrine head on.  Hell remains, for all that, the final assertion of justice, rising eternal above the ashes of man’s justice; an eternal sanction maintaining the difference between right and wrong.

“To see in hell a punishment that God imposes on someone who is aware of his faults but refuses to repent of them, is unacceptable.  Also unacceptable is the fear engendered by the view that if death should overtake us in the state of mortal sin, then we are damned.”  But this is precisely what is taught by the Councils,5 and thus the attack the bishops make on it involves the whole question of the infallibility of the Church.  It is part of divine and Catholic faith, that is, truth divinely revealed and formally defined by the Church, that hell exists; and it is part of divine faith merely, that is, divinely revealed but not formally defined by the Church, that some people go there.  The latter proposition is supported by Christ’s words about Judas, “the son of perdition who had to perish,”6 about the last judgment,”7 and about the wheat and the tares in the parable.

Authors counted as Catholics have rejected hell as repugnant to reason.  Jacques Maritain’s denial of hell in his posthumous work Approches sans entraves8 is worthy of consideration; he maintains that Satan will finally be pardoned and consigned, by the prayer of Christ, to the natural happiness of Limbo, together with infants who died without baptism.

Karl Rahner, maintains that the denial of the eternity of punishment and the assertion of universal salvation are a new development due to Vatican II, and constitute a milestone for the faith of the Church.

These are the fantasies entertained by Victor Hugo in his La Fin de Satan.  Following in his footsteps Maritain says: "One day all the inhabitants of Hell... all the reprobate will be pardoned."  This hosanna that goes up to God from hell has precedents, all of them heretical, including Origen’s famous theory of apocatastasis, if that is what it does in fact involve.  Many theologians have devoted themselves to deepening the philosophical and theological meaning of hell, and many others to emptying it of meaning.  Theological literature even contains defenses of the devil; the many modern ones have a precedent in the curious work of Bartolo of Sassoferrato in the fourteenth century called Tractatus Procuratorious.9

2. Defense of Hell.

The errors worming their way through eschatological teaching prompted the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to send out a corrective document to episcopal conferences.10  It draws attention to a “slow corrupting and progressive dissolving of some articles of the Creed” in opinions common among the faithful.  It says the cause of the problem lies in an excessive liberty of speculation, and an undue publicity given to disputes among theologians, but in the usual euphemistic was, it says nothing about the fact that many bishops connive at this false doctrine.  The document reaffirms the very important doctrine of the resurrection of the bodies of the dead at the end of time; it reasserts the traditional belief in the survival of a conscious and willing element in man after death; it defends the word “soul,” by which the Church has always referred to that element, and it denies there is any need to change this terminology; it reiterates the doctrine of a life beyond this world, in which the just enjoy eternal life in paradise, and the reprobate inherit an eternal absence of such life, which is referred to as a second death.

The eternity of happiness seems reasonable and proper to the human mind.  Reasonable, because the intuition of infinite truth and the possession of infinite good exclude the possibility of falling into error or wanting any good independently of the Good that includes all others.  Our objections arise when it comes to an eternity of punishment.  Abbadie’s acute observation is relevant here.11  Self-love finds nothing disproportionate about eternal happiness, but eternal punishment disgusts it.  Why so, he asks, if not because self-love likes to deceive itself?

Nonetheless, difficulties in coming to terms with hell are not simply the expression of superficial feelings; there are deep problems to which the solution has to be sought at a deep level; here supremely Democritus’s adage rings true, namely that truth lies in the depths.

The French bishops say that hell “is a scandal for God himself, a source of suffering for him, a block to his saving love.”12  This sort of objection to hell flows from certain metaphysical assumptions.  People conclude that because the providential plan for the universe includes certain evils, the system itself is bad and thus incompatible with a divine love that is free to will into being whatever it wants, and which is good in all its works.  But hell is nevertheless the product of love; Dante does not hesitate to join “eternal suffering” with “the primal Love”:

Giustizia mosse il mio alto Fattore;

Fecemi la divina Potestate,

E la somma Sapienza e il primo Amore.13

All existing things are good in themselves, but the finite and interlocking nature of things means that something can be good or bad in relation to other things.  The act of adultery is a good inasmuch as it is an exercise of one’s living power, and is itself productive of life; but it is an evil if considered in relation to the moral law and to the damage it inflicts on one’s neighbor’s rights.  There can be no evil in God, because evil exists in relation to some set of finite things, and God is infinite and unrelated to anything else in that sense; He is good in Himself and in relation to all creatures.  These latter are existent and intelligible and good by participation in his Existence, Truth and Goodness.  From God’s point of view death and hell are not evils; the latter is good for punishing evil and vindicating justice, and the former is good for allowing one thing to be made out of another, for sustaining the cycle of life within nature, and for displaying God’s immanent infinity in a quasi-infinite series of limited existences in the material world.  There would only be a flaw in the system, that is an absurdity spoiling the rationality of the whole, if hell were an accident spoiling the divine plan.  But in fact it is an integral part of the whole of reality, and that whole is good; its goodness is made up of parts that, taken individually, are either congenial or antipathetic to each other but which, taken together, form a compositive whole that is excellent and which God wills to exist by the power of his perfect will.

To conclude this brief apology for hell, I might say something to remove, as far as is possible, the general difficulty attaching to the notion.  The Catholic conception of hell ought to be presented in its theological essentials; fantasizing about it ought to be left to the free play of private imagination.  Man’s imagination can attain to great heights in the matter, as Dante and Michelangelo are enough to demonstrate.  But Catholic teaching on hell does not present it as a sort of perpetual paroxysm “in which one suffers every evil without any good” as some catechisms have put it, though not the well-known one written by Cardinal Gasparri.  Such a state of existence is metaphysically absurd because it excludes the divine mercy, which operates even in hell, and it leaves out the sense of order born of the fact that the lost soul is in its appropriate place within the moral scheme of the universe.

3. The eternity of punishment

One only thinks of hell as a flaw or an irregularity if one has fallen into the error of anthropocentrism.  If human beings were the centre of the world, creation would itself fail to attain its own end if certain human beings did not attain heaven; and this would be a flaw.14  But in reality the goal of God’s action in producing creatures is no different from the “goal” of his own existence, namely Himself; all creation exists for the glory of God, not for the glory of man.  One could say that the goal of God’s creation is man, but only in the sense of being Christ, the God-Man who recapitulates within Himself the whole of creation.

The denial of hell springs from anthropocentrism, and as Abbadie says, its root is human self-love, which forgets that God does not perish because some men do.  But mankind itself does not perish anyway, inasmuch as it is saved in Christ.  The fundamental point of Catholic theodicy is that one must have an overall view of reality before one can make judgments about a particular creature and its purposes.  Death is a negative thing, but it fits into the order of the world nonetheless, because all things are meant to have only as much life and goodness as God gives them; even hell itself is good, because it is given existence by God.

The liturgy gives clear expression to this truth in the invitatory verse of the Office of the Dead: Regem cui omnia vivunt, venite adoremus, which echoes Luke: omnes enim vivunt ei.15  That individuals do not exist for themselves, but are directed out of themselves towards God is taught even more clearly in Romans: “None of us lives as his own master, and none of us dies as his own master.  While we live, we live as the Lord's servants, when we die, we die as the Lord's servants; in life and in death we belong to the Lord.”16  This complete and permanent subordination of man to God means that even if an individual does not attain the heavenly happiness God has offered, the goal of his existence is still not frustrated, because he exists for God’s purposes and not for the realization of his own maximal perfection.  To recur to an Augustinian analogy, contrarieties within the universe, including evils and hell itself, are like semitones in music and shadows in pictures; that is, they are beautiful as part of a harmony and as an overall picture, even though in themselves they are absences of a tone or of light.

There remains the objection to the eternity of hell.  It would seem at first sight that an eternal penalty and an unchanging unhappiness for any soul are at odds with the purpose of punishment.17  In this view, a punishment only works insofar as it reestablishes the moral order of things by correcting a moral fault.  Admittedly it is not just the evil men should be happy; the universal voice of conscience continuously asserts that fact loud and clear.  But, on the other hand, if the same punishment is inflicted permanently, it must mean that it is failing to effect a moral reformation in the man being punished and is therefore failing to work as a punishment should.  It may in fact continue as a form of suffering, but degraded to that level it becomes irrational and unworthy of a perfect God.

The reply to this objection is that even though the damned are not reformed by their punishment, the order of justice is reestablished nonetheless.  It is helpful here to remember the hard truth that one’s moral state exists at a point in time, that is, it exists in the present.  Man owes obedience to God all the time.  Now, in that special kind of duration in which souls exist in hell, which is a kind of participated eternity, man’s guilty will permanently refuses the obedience that God demands of it, and a corresponding punishment is thus inflicted on it continually.  It is not true therefore that the punishment continually fails to work; on the contrary it works all the time, achieving what it is meant to achieve, and the reason it continues is because the act of defiance continues.  A lost soul continuously makes due satisfaction to divine justice, and is not exempted from doing so in the future by the fact it does so at present, any more than we in this life are obeying him today.  Eternal loss rests on the same grounds as eternal beatitude; one way or another, homage is paid ceaselessly to God’s infinite excellence; not intermittently by oscillating human souls, but continually by souls that have no desire to sin or no desire to repent.

4. Hell as pure justice.

In hell there is consequently no secondary function attached to punishment, such as the reformation of the guilty or the defense of society; what remains is the essential reason for punishment, namely the vindication of justice.  The damned do not repent, nor does heaven need to be defended from them; they have found their place in the final order of the world, not exactly by their free choice, but again, not as the result of coercion either.  The last judgment merely manifests the moral state of the world, and opens up men’s consciences to a self-knowledge that was previously hidden from them by their own evil.  The Bible refers to this process under the image of the opening of the books.  This is in reality an intellectual operation that occurs within the minds of those who are judged, and involves the remembering of their own actions and the revealing of those of others; the last judgment is also a spontaneous thing, because the wicked are accused not by some external agent but by the interior action of their own consciences, conflicting among themselves as Romans profoundly expresses it: “Their conscience utters its own testimony, and when they dispute with one another they find themselves condemning this, approving that.”18  The immanent hell experienced by a bad conscience and described by Epicurus and Bossuet is very real, but it is only an anticipation and foretaste of the hell to come.

Mystics, theologians and poets have emphasized the spontaneous element in damnation.  In Dante’s hell, souls are impatient to throw themselves into their punishment:

e pronti sono a trapassar lo rio

che la divina giustizia li sprona

st che la terma si volve in disio.19

The reason is this.  The lost souls dislike being lost because it is a radical disorder in their being, which latter has missed out on the prize it was offered.  But they desire their punishment because, at least extrinsically, it brings some order to their radical disorderliness.  St. Catherine of Genoa says that “if the soul did not find at that point an order proceeding from the justice of God, it would be in a greater hell than it is, due to the fact of finding itself outside that order.”  In this sense even hell itself is a work of mercy.  This idea of an impatience to undergo punishment being greater than the fear of punishment, shows yet again that man’s purpose lies outside himself; he is part of the order of the world.

So if punishment does not reform the lost, does it therefore fail in any way to improve the state of things?  Not at all.  God’s operations not only conserve things in being, but also perfect them; this necessity applies to the lost as well, so that some good is brought out of their evil.  This does not happen because each being is perfected but because, through all the good and ill involved, being as a whole is perfected.  In regard to the lost, this means that the universe receives an added perfection because their eternal punishment is, as we have seen, an eternal assertion of justice.  Even the damned give an added meaning to the world, because though they are never themselves reformed, they serve a purpose with respect to the whole in that the blessed see, and rejoice over, the divine justice as it is displayed in them: “The just man will rejoice when he sees the punishment.”20 and also in that they see the evils from which the divine mercy has preserved them.

There remains the obvious objection that there is a disproportion between a sin of limited duration and a sanction for it that lasts forever.  The answer is that the proportion does not have to do with the time it took to commit the sin, but with the moral condition created by that sin.  Even in matters of earthly justice, penalties are imposed not in proportion to the time involved in the committing of crime, but to its seriousness.  This is the classical answer to this difficulty; it has been given before but is none the worse for that.  When viewed existentially as an action occurring within the context of someone’s life, a sin is an event that takes place within a finite period, but it is not finite when viewed as an event by which a creature actuates or negates its own relation to the infinite principle of value, namely God.  In this sense even the most fleeting act of will, if it really is an act of will, is imbued not only with the moral importance proper to its transient character, but with a kind of surcharge by which it gives expression to higher realities that put it in touch with the archetypal and eternal world.  In the Christian view it is this relationship that is the basis of man’s moral dignity and of the seriousness of his moral life.  This gives a timeless quality to morality that was appreciated by Stoics and Epicureans.  The latter thought, wrongly, that happiness could be real without being lasting.  But in fact to be real, happiness must Last.  Kant thought a lasting happiness could not be proved by reason but had to be deduced from feelings instead, but in the Catholic view the happiness of heaven is part of the law by which rational creatures are related to their Creator; the law by which finite goods are related to God, the source of goodness.  The bestowal of eternal happiness is thus the point at which the transcendent world of the archetypes intersects with the finite creation.

The limitless quality of the life to come whether for good or ill, is in the last analysis a trans-temporal expression of the absolute importance of the soul and its life.  It is connected too with the difference between the nature of things, that is, the different essences of different things, that have been referred to so often in this book.  These different qualities in things would go on existing only within the mind of God if they could not survive the end of the world; and that they can only do if heaven and hell do not end up being the same thing.  The argument is obvious but of irresistible force.  It is not a question of punishing an offense to an infinite God by a punishment that lasts an infinite time.  It is, rather, a matter of maintaining the difference between one kind of moral behavior and another and of proclaiming that no amount of time can abolish it.  If all things will return happily to God, by an apocatastasis of an Origenist sort, then after the passage of a sufficiently long time, virginity and prostitution will come to the same thing and the past action of all human beings will be of absolutely no importance, given that what we care about is not what we were, but what we ultimately will be for the rest of eternity.  The permanent reality of heaven and hell means that even though the whole temporal order, and the sequence of events that occurs within it, will be gone at the end of the world, the values of right and wrong cannot be done away with.  True, the good exists unchangeably in God; but if moral goodness were not also woven into or stamped upon the order of the world as well, then the whole content of time would not alter the final state of things, and might therefore just as well not have existed.  Justice, no less than mercy, is a good that must be conserved forever.  The Jew from Auschwitz remains in eternity the Jew who was in Auschwitz, and the executioner Eichmann remains in eternity the executioner Eichmann.  Hell is the difference between the one and the other; it is the preservation of the moral distinction between them, and thus of their moral natures.  The only thing that can be destroyed is guilt, which is wiped out by forgiveness and which comes about through God’s mercy and man’s repentance, but not without that repentance.

Iota Unum, ch. xli, pp. 695-706

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1  Cf. the cited Concordantiae. [See Lumen Gentium, 48. Translator’s note.]

2  O.R., 29 April 1971.

3  From statistics published in the Osservatore Romano of 19 November 1970, it appears that 50% of the people of Rome calling themselves Catholics believe neither in heaven nor hell.

4  In Des eveques disent la foi de l'Eglise, Paris 1978.  The chapter on hell is by Mgr. Favreau, the auxiliary bishop of La Rochelle.

5  The principal statement touching on hell approved expressly by a general council seems to be that contained in the Byzantine Emperor’s profession of faith, read out at and approved by the Second Council of Lyons in 1274: “The souls of those who die in mortal sin, or merely in original sin, descend at once into hell, but (the two categories) to be punished by different kinds of punishment.” Denzinger 464 or 858.  This doctrine was solemnly reaffirmed in identical terms by the general council of Florence in 1439. Denzinger 693 or 1306. [Translator’s note.].

6  Cf. John, 17:12.

7  Matthew, 25.

8  J. Maritain, Approches sans entraves, “Unshackled Approaches,” Paris 1974.

9  The denial of the existence of hell is paralleled by the denial of the existence of the devil.  Cardinal Suenens delivers a remarkable palinode on this subject in the Osservatore Romano of 20 November 1982; after having said nothing for a long time about the existence of the devil spirits as one of the principal truths of Christianity.  “I do not hesitate to admit not having given enough emphasis, during my pastoral ministry, to this role of the Spirit of Darkness.  I feel my duty today to draw attention to it.

10  O.R., 16-17 June 1979.

11  Traite de la verite de la religion chretienne, Vol. II, p. 402.

12  French bishops, op. cit., p. 292.

13  Inferno, III, 4-6 “Justice moved my high Maker; the divine Power made me, and the supreme Wisdom and the primal Love.”

14  The encyclical Humani Genesis of 1950 emphasizes the fact that no created spirit, whether angel or man, is called by nature to the Beatific Vision.  Thus for a human being not to attain heaven is not a frustration of his nature at all, but his supernatural vocation in Adam. [Translator’s note.]

15  “Come let us adore the King for whom all things are alive.”  Echoing Luke, 20:38, “For Him all men are alive.”

16  Romans 14:7-8.

17  The idea that any punishment is legitimate only if it is directed towards the improvement of the guilty party is becoming common in contemporary penal law.  If it is accepted, the only alternatives are to believe in an end to the punishments of hell at the point at which the offense has been purged, or else in a progressive diminution in infinitum of those punishments, and thus in a hell which is eternal but forever getting less bad, as Gioberti maintains in his Filosofia della Rivelazione, Turin 1856.  In that case, just as heaven is an unending and never exhausted growth, so hell would be an unending reduction both of guilt and of its punishment.  Gioberti, p. 351.

18  Romans 2:15.

19  Inferno, III, 124-126.  “And they are ready to cross the river, the divine justice urging them on, so that their fear turns into desire.”

20  Psalm 57:11.

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