The Consuming Fire

Who among us, at some point, has not been asked how a God Who is All-Good could ever send anyone to hell?  And who among us has not responded with the completely unsatisfying response that “God doesn’t send anyone to hell.  People choose by themselves to go to hell and God just gives them what they want”?  It is time that we reexamine this question and take a different approach; one that reveals more about the Goodness of God than merely explaining away a legitimate question.  This question truly needs to be reframed.  The question needs to be “how could a God who is All Good not send some people to hell?”

First of all, we must come to grips with the fact that some people will end up in hell.  Because of the emphasis in Vatican II on the positive aspects of our faith, certain theological schools have arisen which suggest a universalism in which all men are saved.  The truth however is that hell has more than just angelic residents.  While the Church has never engaged in negative “canonizations” declaring a particular person in hell, Sacred Scripture seems to imply (and most of the Fathers agree) that Judas ended up in hell.  In particular, Matthew (Mt. 26:24) declares that it would have been better never to have been born; which certainly would not be true if he were among the blessed.  Even if you do not accept that, the man who is the false prophet of Revelation (see Rev. 20:10) ends up in hell.  We also can make little sense of Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 if there is no actual separation between the two groups at the end of time.

While it is true that some people are in hell, this becomes little more than a theological exercise if I do not at the same time admit the real possibility that not only do I belong there, but there is also a real possibility that I will end up there as well.  This must be more than just a pious expression.  God sent His son on a rescue mission to break anyone out of prison that wants to come, but it will be dangerous and pious sentiments will not keep me from giving up.  The danger of an eternal Stockholm Syndrome confronts us all if we forget that we are still inside the prison walls.

Once we accept these two things as given, namely all of us deserve hell and some of us will get what we deserve, we can address the question as to why God cannot both be All-Good and there be no men in hell.  The first reason can be expressed as a syllogism.

Justice is an essential attribute of Goodness

God is all-Good

Therefore, God must also be just.

 

In other words, if some men deserve eternal punishment and God does not give it to them then God is not all-good because He lacks justice, which belongs to goodness.

Now, immediately I can see the objection arise in your mind—“but God is not only just, He is also merciful.”  To that I would respond that hell is not simply a result of God’s justice but the inclusion of some of mankind it is a sign of His mercy.  Yes, that is what I said—His mercy.

One of the other prevailing sentiment in today’s theological climate is the manner in which we can tend to tame God.  But the author of the Book of Hebrews says God is a consuming fire (Heb 12:29).  This image at the very least ought to terrify us.  What this means primarily is that God is so good that all that is lacking in goodness is consumed in His presence.  Anything that is sinful will be burned up.

For the righteous who die in a state of grace this means that all that is imperfect in them will be burned away prior to entering His presence.  On the other hand, those who are in a state of mortal sin cannot enter God’s presence because they would suffer the pain of annihilation.  To see this, we have to understand what mortal sin does to us.  It changes us into something else.  In fact it makes us into sin.  So then, rather than suffering the pain of annihilation that would come from being in the presence of God, the sinner is mercifully sent to hell (St Thomas cites Ecclesiastes 3:14 for why God will not annihilate anything He has made).  The reason why we say that the “sinner chooses hell” is because sin has so disfigured them and their wills have become so twisted that they could literally not stand to be in God’s presence.

Dante in his Inferno captures these two things points in a way that adds a great deal of clarity.  As Dante and Virgil descend the depths of hell it gets colder and colder (away from the fire of God) and in each ring of hell, the inhabitants have literally become their sins.

 

Now it is your turn.  Why do you think so many people struggle with balancing hell, God’s mercy and His justice?  Comment below…

 

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