Modern-day heretics have fallen on hard times. All the really good heresies are taken – you can invent some new kind of science fiction religion like Scientology (snort), but heretically speaking, the best you can do is to reinvent the ancient wheel. When 21st-century Evangelical pastors go rogue and deny the existence or the eternity of hell, they are stepping into a heretical tradition that goes back at least to the 3rd century. The Catholic Church has condemned this view as being contradictory to both Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition. The writings of the Church Fathers of the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th centuries make clear the traditional Christian understanding of hell:
Corrupters of families will not inherit the kingdom of God. And if they who do these things according to the flesh suffer death, how much more if a man corrupt by evil teaching the faith of God for the sake of which Jesus Christ was crucified? A man become so foul will depart into unquenchable fire: and so will anyone who listens to him. St. Ignatius of Antioch, early 2nd century
We have been taught that only they may aim at immortality who have lived a holy and virtuous life near to God. We believe that they who live wickedly and do not repent will be punished in everlasting fire. St. Justin Martyr, mid 2nd century
Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Savior, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, ‘every knee should bow, of things in heaven,, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess’ to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send ‘spiritual wickednesses,’ and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning of their Christian course, and others from the date of their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory. St. Irenaeus of Lyons, late 2nd century
All souls are immortal, even those of the wicked. Yet, it would be better for them if they were not deathless. For they are punished with the endless vengeance of quenchless fire. Since they do not die, it is impossible for them to have an end put to their misery. St. Clement of Alexandria, early 3rd century
The grief at punishment will then be without the fruit of repentance; weeping will be useless, and prayer ineffectual. Too late will they believe in
eternal punishment, who would not believe in eternal life. St. Cyprian of Carthage, mid 3rd century
…if a man is a sinner, he shall receive an eternal body, fitted to endure the penalties of sins, that he may burn eternally in fire, nor ever be consumed. And righteously will God assign this portion to either company; for we do nothing without the body. We blaspheme with the mouth, and with the mouth we pray. With the body we commit fornication, and with the body we keep chastity. With the hand we rob, and by the hand we bestow alms; and the rest in like manner. Since then the body has been our minister in all things, it shall also share with us in the future the fruits of the past. St. Cyril of Jerusalem, mid 4th century
Of course, the “traditional Christian understanding” of anything isn’t really of interest to your average Evangelical pastor – if it were, he couldn’t comfortably remain an Evangelical pastor, since traditionally Christians have believed in the Real Presence, the necessity of final perseverance, baptismal regeneration, Purgatory, the veneration of saints, etc., all of which he as an Evangelical rejects. “The Bible alone” is the yardstick by which all of his beliefs are measured. Jesus did happen to mention hell once or twice, though:
His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. Mt 3:12
But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. Mt. 5:22
And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Mt 10:28
The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will remove from his Kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. And the angels will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Mt 13:41-42
… throwing the wicked into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Mt 13:50
And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. Mt 18: 8-9
You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? Mt 23:33
Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels …’ Mt 25:41
If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better to enter eternal life with only one hand than to go into the unquenchable fires of hell with two hands. Mk 9:43
A lot depends, though, on how you choose to take Jesus’ words. Did He mean for His teachings on hell to be taken literally? Should we not rather understand them figuratively? How did His followers understand the doctrine of hell?
This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering— since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might…. 2 Thess 1:5-9
…God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment…. 2 Pet 2:4
These are hidden reefs at your love feasts, as they feast with you without fear, shepherds feeding themselves; waterless clouds, swept along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever. Jude 12-13
And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name. Rev 14:11
And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who in its presence had done the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur. Rev 19:20
And they marched up over the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, but fire came down from heaven and consumed them, and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. Rev 20:10
But the dirge of eternal torment strikes some people as distinctly off-key. Are we to believe that an unfathomably merciful God, a God Who is Love, will allow people to suffer eternally? What about the verses that appear to claim that all people will be saved?
“in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor. 5:19).
“as one trespass led to condemnation for all people, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all people” (Rom. 5:18). Like Jesus’ statement,
“When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32).
To advocates of universalism (the belief that all will be saved in the end), there may be a hell, but whether or not anyone actually goes there is the question. Even if some folks do end up in hell, in the end they will get out. Picture hell as a version of Purgatory, if you will, only less pleasant. Those who reject God in this life will be tormented until they have been punished sufficiently for their sins – and then admitted to eternal bliss. Proponents of the annihilation theory, on the other hand, believe that those who rebel against God will cease to exist, rather than suffer for all eternity. Either way, while the flames of hell may be eternal, there’s no reason to believe that one’s suffering might be. After all, they ask, how can the Good News be good if it boils down to “Believe in Jesus or God will send you to hell to suffer forever”?
Jesus did seem to dwell on the topic of hell, though; it was presumably important to Him to warn His listeners concerning the reality of what He Himself referred to as “everlasting fire.” So how to understand these verses?
Protestants have been arguing over the “plain meaning” of Scripture since about 5 minutes after Luther nailed his Theses to the door. Where can they turn if a brother will not understand Scripture the way they understand Scripture? One Evangelical website attempts to straighten universalists out by referring them back to the decisions of Church councils:
Universalism was taught by Origen (185-254 A.D.) but was declared heresy by the Council of Constantinople in 543 A.D. It became popular again in the 19th century and is gaining traction in many Christian circles today.
How exactly does that statement strengthen the Evangelical argument against universalism? Many Church councils made many declarations which are rejected lock, stock and barrel by Evangelical Protestants – the declaration of Mary as the Mother of God by the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D. comes to mind. Since when do the pronouncements of Church councils carry any weight with Evangelicals? Evangelicals referring heretics back to the Church councils is like a rebellious teenager insisting that his siblings shut up and do what Mom says. In an Evangelical context, you are stepping outside your own self-imposed boundaries if you call upon the decisions of Church councils as proof that your understanding of Scripture is correct. You can’t reject the conclusions of the councils when they disagree with your “Bible alone” conclusions, and then trot them out to make others behave.
So, how are Catholics in a better position? Protestants don’t have a corner on universalist teachings; there are Catholics who have questioned the existence and the eternal nature of hell just as persuasively.
Catholics have the teaching Magisterium of the Church. Church teaching is informed by the words of the Old and the New Testament, the writings of the early Church Fathers, the decisions of Church councils, and the teachings of the popes, as well as the theological understanding of the saints down through the ages. The last paragraph of the Athanasian Creed (c. early 6th century), for example, proclaims the eternity of hell:
He shall come to judge the living and the dead; at His coming all men have to arise again with their bodies and will render an account of their own deeds: and those who have done good, will go into life everlasting, but those who have done evil, into eternal fire.
The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) had this to say about those consigned to hell:
All of them will rise with their own bodies, which they now wear, so as to receive according to their deserts, whether these be good or bad; for the latter perpetual punishment with the devil, for the former eternal glory with Christ..
St. Thomas Aquinas also wrote that hell exists and will last eternally:
Scripture repeatedly tells us that the punishment of hell is everlasting. For instance, St. Matthew says that “the wicked shall go into everlasting punishment.” As reward is measured to meet merit, so punishment is measured to meet guilt. But the guilt of mortal sin is the guilt of completely rejecting God and offending him whose majesty is infinite. The guilt of such a sin deserves unending punishment.
Pope Benedict XII discussed the Beatific Vision in his Benedictus Deus (1336); he had this to say about punishment in hell:
Moreover we define that according to the general disposition of God, the souls of those who die in actual mortal sin go down into hell immediately after death and there suffer the pain of hell.
As Avery Cardinal Dulles summed it up: “The constant teaching of the Catholic Church supports the idea that there are two classes: the saved and the damned.” In addition to that “constant teaching,” when the eternal nature of punishment in hell is called into question Catholics can quote from a more recent pope, Blessed John Paul II:
God is the infinitely good and merciful Father. But man, called to respond to him freely, can unfortunately choose to reject His love and forgiveness once and for all, thus separating himself forever from joyful communion with Him. It is precisely this tragic situation that Christian doctrine explains when it speaks of eternal damnation or hell. It is not a punishment imposed externally by God but a development of premises already set by people in this life. The very dimension of unhappiness which this obscure condition brings can in a certain way be sensed in the light of some of the terrible experiences we have suffered which, as is commonly said, make life “hell”.
In a theological sense however, hell is something else: it is the ultimate consequence of sin itself, which turns against the person who committed it. It is the state of those who definitively reject the Father’s mercy, even at the last moment of their life.
Can God, who has loved man so much, permit the man who rejects Him to be condemned to eternal torment? And yet, the words of Christ are unequivocal. In Matthew’s Gospel he speaks clearly of those who will go to eternal punishment (cf. Mt 25:46).
No mincing of theological concepts there. According to Blessed John Paul, those punished in hell are punished eternally. His successor, Benedict XVI, was equally forthright:
Jesus came to tell us that He wants us all in heaven and that hell, of which so little is said in our time, exists and is eternal for those who close their hearts to His love.
No surprise, then, that the Catechism speaks bluntly of hell:
We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love Him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against Him, against our neighbor or against ourselves: “He who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from Him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are His brethren. To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from Him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called “hell.”
Jesus often speaks of “Gehenna” of “the unquenchable fire” reserved for those who to the end of their lives refuse to believe and be converted, where both soul and body can be lost. Jesus solemnly proclaims that He “will send his angels, and they will gather . . . all evil doers, and throw them into the furnace of fire,” and that He will pronounce the condemnation: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire!”
The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire.” The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.
The affirmations of Sacred Scripture and the teachings of the Church on the subject of hell are a call to the responsibility incumbent upon man to make use of his freedom in view of his eternal destiny. They are at the same time an urgent call to conversion: “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”
Since we know neither the day nor the hour, we should follow the advice of the Lord and watch constantly so that, when the single course of our earthly life is completed, we may merit to enter with Him into the marriage feast and be numbered among the blessed, and not, like the wicked and slothful servants, be ordered to depart into the eternal fire, into the outer darkness where “men will weep and gnash their teeth.”
God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end. In the Eucharistic liturgy and in the daily prayers of her faithful, the Church implores the mercy of God, who does not want “any to perish, but all to come to repentance”: Father, accept this offering from your whole family. Grant us your peace in this life, save us from final damnation, and count us among those you have chosen.
And there’s the answer to the question “how can the Good News be good if it boils down to ‘Believe in Jesus or God will send you to hell to suffer forever'”?
He who does not love remains in death. 1 Jn 3:14
The truth is that we are all dead in our sins with no hope of Heaven. The Good News is that there’s a way out of that condition. There is an escape from eternal death: Him!
You don’t have to go to hell! But you will if you don’t follow the Way out….
So when Father Errant assures your congregation that they can stop worrying – there’s probably no hell, and if there is a hell nobody’s in it, and if somebody is actually in it, he’ll get out sooner or later, ask Father which part of “The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell” he doesn’t understand. The existence of hell and its eternity are dogmas of the Faith. The Magisterium does not teach us to believe that Jesus was wasting His breath warning that you might end up in hell when, in reality, God is too much of a cosmic softie to allow that eventuality to occur. To teach otherwise is to lead the faithful astray.
And make sure you pray for Father Errant, that God may grant that he not be among those to whom St. Pio, whose feast we celebrate today, was referring when he quipped:
They’ll believe in hell when they get there.
On the memorial of St. Pio of Pietrelcina
Deo omnis gloria!