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What did Jesus teach us about Hell?

Bill Toner  ::  Recently I read a new translation of 25 letters written in the 17th century by Jesuit Superiors in Ireland to the Jesuit General Superior in Rome. These annual letters describe the activities of the Jesuit priests in Ireland.

For me, the most striking thing in these letters is the preoccupation of the priests with saving souls from eternal damnation. Both priests and people of the time believed strongly in hell. What the Jesuit priests mainly provided was the opportunity to go to Confession. A typical account would say that on a certain day Fr. X heard 50 Confessions, many of them General Confessions, without having time to eat or say his prayers; that the people came from 20 and 30 miles away to confess; and that many of these people had not made a good Confessions for maybe 10, 20, or 30 years. It is clear from the letters that the Jesuits saw themselves saving souls from hell.

In fact, some of us are old enough to remember the long queues for confession as recently as the 1950s and 1960s. But now, in Europe and in the U.S. only about 2% of Catholics go regularly to confession, and three quarters never go, or go less than once a year. In many parishes, confession is only by appointment. Confession boxes are often a storage closet for vacuum cleaners and brushes.

We could look on this as a very bad thing, as a sign that Catholics are falling away from the faith. Another way of looking at it is to consider that Catholics have become repelled by the traditional image of hell. It is seen as a kind of torture, but exceeding in duration and severity any torture dreamt up by humans. Over many centuries Catholics were told by their priests that if they died with even one mortal sin, they would suffer the flames of hell for all eternity. However, from about 1800 onwards an increasing distaste for cruelty and unfair treatment began to take root in Europe and beyond. In this new climate it became impossible for many people to believe that a loving and merciful God could inflict or allow such dreadful torments on his creatures. As theologian John Maquarrie expressed it:

Needless to say, we utterly reject the idea of a hell where God everlastingly punishes the wicked, without hope of deliverance. Even earthly penologists are more enlightened nowadays.

Undoubtedly in some cases the traditional teaching on hell made some Christians turn away from God, but perhaps more often they turned away from confession. Many theologians and ordinary priests began to ‘dilute’ the horror of hell. Some said that although Hell existed there was nobody in it. Others put forward the old theory of Hell as annihilation, according to which God obliterated souls that were not worthy of everlasting life in heaven. A lot of emphasis was put on God’s mercy.

Jesus probably did not set out to give any new teaching about Hell and certainly did not introduce the idea of Hell. I remember arguing with one of my theology professors that Jesus could not be said to have brought the Good News, when his comments on Hell were decidedly bad news. But the descriptions of Hell used by Jesus in his preaching may have come into the Jewish religion from various external sources including Greek philosophy, and represented beliefs about the fate of sinners common to various religions. The ‘hell of fire’ figures hardly at all in the Old Testament. ‘Sheol’ is the abode of all the dead, and the life of the dead is depicted as a shadowy existence, without value and without joy, from where the dead will never rise.

But four hundred years before Christ, the Greek philosopher, Plato, wrote his greatest work, The Republic, and the very last section is called ‘the myth of Er’. In this story the character Er had what we now call a ‘near-death experience’ and recounts what we saw in his brief journey to the other side:

There were, close to each other, two gaping chasms in the earth, and opposite and above them two other chasms in the sky. Between the chasms sat the Judges, who, having delivered judgement, ordered the just to take the right-hand road that led up through the sky, while they ordered the unjust to take the left-hand road that led downwards. He then saw the souls, when judgement had been passed on them, departing some by one of the heavenly and some by one of the earthly chasms. There were some fierce and fiery-looking men standing by who seized some and led them away and said they were to be flung into Tartarus.

This image strikes a chord, for it is rather similar to the account of the last judgement in Matthew Ch. 25.

Zoroastrianism (the dualistic religion of ancient Persia) also proposed several possible fates for the wicked, including purgation in molten metal. A number of scholars believe that Zoroastrianism influenced other religions, including late pre-Christian Judaism.

It is possible that Jesus borrowed these images of hell, which many of his listeners may have known, but he did not invent them. Jesus came to tell people about salvation, not about hell. The main message of Jesus is what he says in the 10th chapter of St. John’s Gospel: I come that they may have life and that they may have it more abundantly. Undoubtedly the images of hell capture our imagination, much more that the abstract accounts of heaven. Inferno is the most popular and widely studied section of Dante’s Divine Comedy; hardly anyone reads Paradiso.

Something that is relevant here but very difficult for us to understand is the humanity of Jesus. Although he was divine he took it upon himself to endure the common lot of humanity, and that included not knowing everything about everything. As St. Augustine puts it: “The very godhead could empty itself in no greater humility for us than by taking on man’s nature with its human weakness” . This meant that he had to learn things just like we learn them and that, particularly at the stage of knowledge in which he lived, some of the things he learned from his culture were erroneous. The English Jesuit John Ashton, writing about some prominent theologians of the present day, stated that because of them “it is now possible for the Catholic, without compromising any of his fundamental beliefs, to hold that Christ also suffered from ignorance and doubt, uncertainty and fear, and that he never attained a clear objective knowledge of his own divinity”. If this is true it must be at least possible that Jesus did not have a clear idea of Hell, and that what he said about it was based on the common Jewish beliefs of the time.

In a recent edition of the Tablet (16 Nov. 2019) the Eastern Orthodox writer, David Bentley Hart, suggests, but does not fully explore, other reasons why the doctrine of hell has survived stubbornly through the ages. Hart has recently written a book entitled That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell and Universal Salvation. Hart explains:

The argument advanced in my book is that what has come to be the traditional Christian understanding of hell (a state of eternal conscious torment for rational beings, either imposed or permitted by a loving and just God) is warranted neither by Scripture, nor by the history of doctrine, nor by logic, nor by theological reason. In fact…the only version of Christian belief which is internally logical…is one that proclaims universal salvation.

Hart comments that on its release the book was subject to savage criticism by some readers, who “have taken it as an assault on something unutterably precious to them… I have become acquainted with a number of Christians who not only cling to the idea of an eternal hell of torment, but do so with a fierce protectiveness and emotional vehemence that practically no other aspect of their faith could elicit from them”. Presumably what is behind this is the very strong human attachment to punishment as a way of enforcing proper behaviour. The fear of hell is seen as the ultimate deterrent, and hell itself as a balancing of the books.

The general message of the New Testament is that thanks to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ there is an eternal life of great joy awaiting us when we die. However, pace David Bentley Hart, it is hard to escape the conclusion, from the forcefulness of Jesus’ teaching, that this eternal life of joy is also one we could miss out on if we turn away from God by rejecting his saving grace. What that ‘missing out on’ involves is unknown to us, though our faith teaches us that God is infinitely merciful. It may be true to say, however, that, thanks to the more nuanced theology of today, the Sacrament of Penance need not be sought as fearfully or administered as obsessively as it was in the 17th century. But it could make a great difference to its acceptance by the faithful if the Sacrament could be presented, not as a way of evading eternal punishment, but as an encounter with God, as way to find healing from one’s own sins, as a help to living a good life, and as a step on the road to eternal life.

We could leave the last word to James Stephens as he expressed it in ‘The Fullness of Time’, a remarkably daring poem in the Ireland of 1912:

On a rusty iron throne
Past the furthest star of space
I saw Satan sit alone,
Old and haggard was his face;
For his work was done and he
Rested in eternity.

And to him from out the sun
Came his father and his friend
Saying, now the work is done
Enmity is at an end:
And he guided Satan to
Paradises that he knew.

Gabriel without a frown,
Uriel without a spear,
Raphael came singing down
Welcoming their ancient peer,
And they seated him beside
One who had been crucified.