On the Necessity of Hell

“Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here.”

These are the words above the gates of Hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy.  And that is the true horror of hell: the loss of all hope.  Even here in this valley of tears we call Earth, we can hope that things may get better: that disease may be cured, that lottery ticket may be a winner, or ultimately that we can one day find joy in Heaven.

Hell is the loss of all of that.  Hell is forever.  It is the loss of all love and joy and pleasure eternally.

Does this idea freak you out, too?

My greatest fear of all is that I am judged to Hell.  I trust in the mercy of God, but I also examine my conscience every night and am fully aware of how little I deserve that mercy.

To think about Hell too long is to have your mind filled with terror.  You can construct all the imaginary punishments of imps and flames or the force-feeding of all the donuts in the world (sorry, I had to throw in a Simpsons reference).  But I think that even all of that is endurable as long as we imagine its end.  How horrible is a sickness when we can see no end in sight to give us relief?  And there is no relief in Hell.

It is permanent midnight for the soul.


Why does this unspeakable horror exist in a universe made by a good and loving God?

The answer is simple:  Because it has to.

As I wrote about purgatory being a necessity for the soul, so too is Hell.  It is necessary theologically and logically.

In terms of theology, Hell must be real because Jesus told us that it was.  The ancient Jews of the Old Testament were very sketchy about the afterlife.  This is why some of them (the Sadducees) did not belief in life after death.  There are references to the netherworld and the like, but nothing as concrete as what we get from Jesus.  There are over 160 references to Hell in the New Testament.

In Luke 16, we have the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, where the wicked wealthy are torment in flames.

Matthew 25 casts those who are wicked “into the everlasting fires prepared for Satan and his angels.”

The scariest of all is Matt 7:13-14 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

I once talked with a young lady who said that she didn’t believe in Hell.

I asked her, “Do you believe in Heaven?”

“Yes, of course,” she replied.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because,” she said, “Jesus told us we can go to Heaven.”

“But that same Jesus told us that we can go to Hell.  If we believe Him about Heaven, why don’t we believe Him about Hell?  Or if we don’t believe Him about Hell, why in the world should be believe Him about Heaven?”

Hell must be believed by all Christians or Jesus is a liar.  But that doesn’t answer the question of “why?”

C.S. Lewis hated the idea of hell.  He said that if there was one Christian doctrine he could get rid of, it would be this one.

But of course, our beliefs are not matters of popular vote (if they were, I think many of us would have voted down the 6th Commandment).

The key too understanding Lewis’ point is that word “if.”  But he knew that he did not have that option.  Logic prevented him from casting Hell aside. He wrote,

I would pay any price to be able to say truthfully ‘All will be saved.’  But my reason retorts, ‘Without their will, or with it?’  If I say ‘Without their will’ I at once perceive a contradiction; how can the supreme voluntary act of self-surrender be involuntary?  If I say ‘With their will,’ my reason replies ‘How if the will not give in?’

In other words, God does not send anyone to Hell.  We choose it.  We make a choice.  In the end, God will give us what we love the most: either Him or Me.  If it is Him, then we get Him forever.  It is me, that that is all I have for eternity.

But couldn’t God make it so that we only could choose Him?  No.

It is true that nothing is impossible for God, but that which is a logical contradiction is not a thing.  As Lewis makes clear in The Problem of Pain, a logical contradiction is nonsense.  It would be like saying couldn’t God exist and not exist at the same time.  That is nonsense.  Can God count the yellow in a musical chord?  This question makes no sense, so the answer is no.

God can’t make us only choose Him because then it would no longer be a choice.  I cannot say that I choose to quit a job right after I get fired.  The choice has been made for me.  I cannot say I choose God if I have no choice but to do so.  That was Lewis’ point in the above quote.

But couldn’t God take away our free will?  Yes, he could have made us without that pesky freedom that doesn’t seem to burden the rest of nature.  But then we wouldn’t have the one thing we were made for: love.

Love is a choice.  If I programmed a computer to constantly say, “I love you, W.L. Grayson,” it would not be love.  The computer cannot love me because it can only do that which it is programmed to do.

Love has to be free in order for it to be love.  When I proposed to my wife, I did not order her to marry me.  I asked.  And she had the freedom to say no.  That is the only way I could know her love was real; it had to be free.

So, yes, God could remove our free will.  But then he would have to get rid of love.  If love exists in us, there must be freedom.  In that freedom there must be choice.  In that choice there must be an alternative to love.  And that alternative is Hell. Get rid of Hell, and you get rid of love.

Hell is the ultimate sign of God’s respect for us.  Our choices matter.  I think a part of us wishes that they didn’t.  We would like to be children playing kick-ball with an infinite amount of do-overs for our mistakes.  But that is not so.  God respects us enough to let our lives, particularly our choices, have consequences.  Therefore what we do has meaning.  What I do matters.  How I live matters.

I matter.

God is a lover, not a tyrant.  He invites us to joy, He does not subjugate our souls to Him.  Love is self-donation.  We are sons, not slaves.

And yet, we feel great sadness for those who are damned.  As I mentioned before, Christ said that wide is the path to destruction and many find it while narrow is the path to salvation and those are very few.  What a sorrowful view of the human race this is.

But then one day Dr. Peter Kreeft put it all into perspective for me.  He said that God is a good parent.  If a parent has 10 children, one child lost to sin and self-destruction is too many.  Nine children happy and holy are too few.  God wants us all.

Every soul lost is a tragedy.  But that tragedy is one of our own choosing.

Copyright © 2012, W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

I am a devoutly Catholic theology teacher who loves a popular culture that often, quite frankly, hates me. I grew up absorbing every movie, TV show, comic book, science fiction novel, etc. I could find. As of today I’ve watched over 2100 movies and tv shows. They take up a huge part of my life. I don’t know that this is a good thing, but it has given me a common vocabulary to draw from in order to illustrate whatever theological point I make in class. I’ve used American Pie the song to explain the Book of Revelation (I’ll post on this some time later) and American Pie the movie to help explain Eucharist (don’t ask). The point is that the popular culture is popular for a reason. It is woven into the fabric of our lives and imaginations, for good or ill. In this blog I will attempt to bring together the things of heaven with the things of earth. Of course this goal may be too lofty for someone like me.

2 responses to “On the Necessity of Hell”

  1. […] we also need to not be annoying about it. WE are not responsible for selling anyone on anything. Free will, […]

  2. […] we also need to not be annoying about it. WE are not responsible for selling anyone on anything. Free will, […]

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