Over the last 20 years, the number of Americans who believe in the fiery down under has dropped from 71 percent to 58 percent. Heaven, by contrast, fares much better and, among Christians, remains an almost universally accepted concept.
Underlying these statistics is a conundrum that continues to tug at the conscience of some Christians, who find it difficult to reconcile the existence of a just, loving God with a doctrine that dooms countless people to eternal punishment. “Everlasting torment is intolerable from a moral point of view because it makes God into a bloodthirsty monster who maintains an everlasting Auschwitz for victims whom he does not even allow to die,” wrote the late Clark Pinnock, an influential evangelical theologian.
Some evangelical theologians, including Edward Fudge, are proposing what is called annihilationism, suggesting that, once a sinner dies, he is terminated, nonexistent. That would be more merciful than eternal suffering. That idea is not new. Irenaeus of Lyons proposed that in the second century.
In the third century, Origen held that one day Hell would end, and all the souls there would enter Heaven. That, of course, would not be Hell but Purgatory. However, the Church condemned this idea, declaring that the punishment of Hell would last for all eternity (Fourth Lateran Council). This was no doubt based on the use of the word “eternal” or “everlasting” in Scripture when describing the punishment of Hell (Matt. 25:41 and 46; 2 Thess. 1:9).
Saint Augustine wrote, “[Hell] is not a matter of feeling, but a fact…. There is no way of waiving or weakening the words which the Lord has told us He will pronounce at the Last Judgment.”
So what did Jesus say? “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Mt 7:13–14).
And in the parable of the sheep and goats: “Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink” (Mt. 25:41–42).
St. Teresa of Ávila relates the following:
While I was at prayer one day, I suddenly found that, without knowing how, I had seemingly been put in Hell. I understood that the Lord wanted me to see the place the devils had prepared there for me and which I merited because of my sins….
I felt a fire in the soul that I don’t know how I could describe. The bodily pains were so unbearable that, though I had suffered excruciating ones in this life, and according to what the doctors say, the worst that can be suffered on earth (for all my nerves were shrunken when I was paralyzed…), these were nothing in comparison with what I experienced there. I saw furthermore that they would go on without end…. This, however, was nothing next to the soul’s agonizing: a constriction, a suffocation, an affliction so keenly deeply felt … that I don’t know how to word it strongly enough.St. Teresa of Ávila The Book of Her Life, in The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Ávila, vol. 1, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez, (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1976), 213.
St. Maria Faustina relates a vision she had of Hell:
Today, I was led by an angel to the chasm of Hell. It is a place of great torture; how awesomely large and extensive it is! … I would have died at the very sight of these tortures if the omnipotence of God had not supported me. Let the sinner know that he will be tortured throughout all eternity, in those senses which he made use of to sin. I am writing this at the command of God, so that no soul may find an excuse by saying there is no Hell, or that nobody has ever been there, and so no one can say what it is like.Diary, no. 741.
Granted, the visions of the saints do not carry the same weight as Sacred Scripture and the teaching of Church councils. Nonetheless, their visions should be carefully considered, especially since they seem to be quite compatible with Scripture and Tradition.
Anglican theologian C. S. Lewis has a good answer to those who doubt the scriptural description of Hell:
In the long run, the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of Hell, is itself a question: “What are you asking God to do?” To wipe out their past sins, and at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing over every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what He does.C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan, 1967), 130.
There is in the end only one type of person who will end in Hell: the one who refuses God’s mercy.
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a chapter in Fr. Morrow’s latest book, Overcoming Sinful Thoughts: How to Realign Your Thinking and Defeat Harmful Ideas. It is available from your favorite bookseller or online through Sophia Institute Press.