S: Hey Fr. Chris! Tonight I am teaching the RCIA class in my parish and I was hoping you could pray for me!
F: Sure thing Sara. What topic are you covering?
S: Heaven and the modern view of Hell
F: The modern view of Hell…what do you mean? Has hell changed recently?
S: Very funny Father. Well, you know how St. John Paul II talked about how hell isn’t a place, but a state of relationship…
F: Ah, yes. Good. I wasn’t sure if you were going to say that hell doesn’t exist anymore.
S: Well, one day it will not, if what St. John Paul II said is true. I loved his view of hell and heaven. It veers away from this outdated fear-based way of evangelizing. You know: Love God because the consequences of not loving Him is that he will torture you for eternity. Whoever believes in that cannot believe God is love at the same time, you know?!
S: Oh Father, I know you believe hell is forever, but really…who believes that anymore?
F: Well for starters: those who are in hell.
S: Says who? How do you know what they know?
F: Have you read the parable in scripture on Lazarus and the Rich-man?
S: Oh I remember that one. But again, its Old Testament stuff
F: Sara…it’s a parable that Jesus gave…in the New Testament.
S: I know, but Jesus was appealing to their fire-and-brimstone mindset. It doesn’t apply anymore.
F: Two things Sara: 1) Scripture always applies, its God’s word and a gift to us, and 2: Jesus’ parable is meant to teach us something today. Have we advanced, in your opinion, beyond the Master and Author of life?
S: You are so funny Fr. Chris. Of course we haven’t advanced beyond Christ. But we are “developing” a much broader theology.
F: Development of doctrine does not mean we contradict what was previously held, Sara, it means the truths of it are applied in a more complex manner, just as a tree becomes more complex as it grows larger. It remains, nonetheless rooted in the ground from which it sprang.
S: You are saying, then that if Hell is a place where we are forever, that it will never change? Yet, we once believed it to be a place, and now it is no more. Isn’t that a contradiction?
F: I’m not sure which dogmatic claim suggests that Hell is a geographical place per se, but in either case, we might understand the imagery of hell to be analogical or allegorical, just as Christ’s own words are known to us as a parable.
S: Exactly. So none of it is literally true.
F: What would be the point of a parable if there was no truth to it at all? Does Lazarus exist, literally? Probably not. But does it matter? Did you notice how Jesus doesn’t give the Rich-man a name? Perhaps he did this because the Rich-man could be any of us? Or perhaps because his name is not written in heaven?
S: I understand what you are saying…I think. You are suggesting that the parable that came from the mouth of Christ speaks a particular truth that is undeniable, and because it is Christ and His word, it cannot be denied, though it can develop. Furthermore, that it cannot develop into something that contradicts it as it was originally. For example, an Apple tree can evolve, but it will never become an orange tree?
F: Couldn’t have put it better than that. That is an excellent analogy. Can I use it later?
S: Of course Father: thanks!
F: I still think there is something unresolved in our discussion here Sara.
S: What’s that?
F: Well you seemed to express a common-opinion amongst our contemporary people, that it seems unjust for God to send a soul to hell for not loving him. As if it were something unjust or even unloving.
S: It does seem that way. But being that Christ said it to be true, it must be good and loving and just.
F: I appreciate your faith without understanding. That is a virtue severely lacking in our society today. Rarely do people assent to a claim without having to first understand it themselves. Rarely do we defer to the wisdom of God. Rather people exalt their own judgment above the infinite wisdom of God.
S: Thanks Father.
F: You are welcome. But since you are going to be teaching on this, I’d like you to perhaps reflect on the reasons why Christ and His Bride, the Church, teach that hell is a radical possibility, as much as is love.
S: That would be appreciated Father.
F: You said it seemed as if God were unjust if he allowed a soul to perish in hell for all eternity.
S: Yes. It seems as if God would have to be pretty resentful for that to happen. It’s as if He is full of revenge, saying, “You didn’t love me, so I won’t love you.” And that doesn’t really fit into what Christianity teaches, especially about loving your enemy.
F: I think that is a fair point. I think it is important to examine your first premise. I would agree with your conclusion, that God does not ever lose His love for anyone, including those who are His enemies, and I’d add, even for those people in Hell.
Your first premise seems to carry with it a few assumptions. The first assumption is that God wants to torture someone, almost as if His feelings are hurt, and therefore tries to get-them-back. Is that a fair way to characterize your point?
S: Yes. Otherwise, it would seem to make sense that God would allow such a soul in heaven, especially when they ask for forgiveness. You notice the Rich-man wanted to get out of hell. It doesn’t seem to be true – what C.S. Lewis said – that Hell is locked from the inside. If it was, the Richman could have left as he seemed to want to.
F: I appreciate you reflecting on the parable to illustrate your point. The problem is you are dead wrong about your reading of the parable.
S: Gee… thanks Father.
F: You are welcome.
S: You are so funny Father.
F: What I mean Sara, is that while the man regretted his actions, he only regretted them because of the consequences. Not once did he say to Abraham: “Tell Lazarus I’m sorry for neglecting Him.”
S: Interesting point. I never thought about that. So are you saying that regret and hatred for hell does exist in the damned?
F: Absolutely. It wouldn’t be torment if the soul regretted nothing and enjoyed hell, would it?
S: That is a really good point…haha
F: So as St. Thomas Aquinas teaches, a soul in hell can repent of His sin, only insofar as he regrets the logical consequences of it. But never does his heart change. Not once does he begin to Love Lazarus. And that is the infinite chasim Abraham speaks of. The shear inability for a damned soul to actually regret their sins because of the malice and cruelty within them. And if they never regret that cruelty and malice, they haven’t changed. And if they haven’t changed, if they ask for forgiveness, are they really asking for forgiveness?
S: I guess not. It is like when I was a kid and my mom grounded me from going to the school dance. I screamed: “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” And she responded: “No you are not: you are sorry you got caught.”
F: What a wonderful example. I might use that another time?
S: Of course Father. But don’t use my name…haha
F: Fair enough!
S: What if someone asks, Father: “Why can’t a soul regret in hell what they can regret on earth?”
F: That is a tremendous and devastatingly complicated question.
S: Does that mean there is no answer, and it’s a “mystery.”
F: Well, in some ways the tip of my nose is a mystery, as is everything in the universe. However, I think I can try to answer it. But don’t be expecting sound-bites.
S: Sound-bites? What do you mean Father?
F: I mean that often times when people examine deep theological questions, they often want things to be very simply understood. The problem is as complex beings, when trying to understand what is simple, we often make a mess out of it.
S: So are you saying that it’s simple, but as a result hard to understand?
F: Let me explain it to you, and I’ll let you be the judge of that question.
S: I’m waiting.
F: Okay…Well I’d like to first describe to you how the Angel’s make decisions, because there is a certain parallel between what happens to them and what happens to us after we die.
S: Angels! I love angels! I used to watch “Touched by an Angel.”
F: Oh dear Lord have mercy! While I’m sure that TV show often had a good message, it rarely evoked the name of Jesus. Furthermore they had a tendency to humanize angels, making them base like us, rather than as magnificent and terrible as they truly are in their nature.
S: Don’t knock a good TV show Father. And what do you mean by “terrible.”
F: Well if you are expecting a warm and soft light to surround an angel with gentle music in the background, I think you are missing what we normally see in scripture when real-angels encountered people. They were struck by terror and fear. Some were punished and made mute. Others were carrying swords set ablaze, another destroyed and killed all the first born in Egypt… Angels are powerful creatures, and we should have some reverence for them.
S: But they aren’t terrible in the moral sense, right?
F: Some of them are: Lucifer for instance.
S: Right. He was an angel. But now is a demon.
F: When we say he is a demon, we don’t deny that he is still an angel. It is just a term we use to describe a bad angel. His nature is angelic, his moral character is demonic. Make sense?
S: Sort of. You are saying that he still has the same nature as an angel, but is an evil one.
S: So in what sense do you mean “terrible” when speaking of the good angels?
F: Again, I mean it in the sense that angels are powerful. They have a great deal of power over our lives, and we should recognize their power with a sense of healthy fear. We don’t want to get in their way.
S: How would we get in their way?
F: It is a little off topic. However, I’ll respond. We can get in their way by getting in the way of God. Angels serve us because God has asked them to. Their ultimate service is towards God.
S: What might a good angel do if we disobey God?
F: In this life they will defend the glory of God, and perhaps try to humble us. That of course is a good thing. But after this life, it is the Angels, according to Christ that sift the wicked from the righteous. Angels will deliver us to hell if we have failed to obey God.
S: I never thought of an angel as doing something like that.
F: Probably because you watch too much TV? Our faith is very sentimental today, and it is that way because it is safer for the ego, but not for the soul.
S: Oh man, you really hate that TV show, Touched by an Angel…eh?
F: I don’t hate it. But I do think there is some good theology really missing in it. It is a generational problem.
S: So what is missing in it, other than the terrible nature of the good-angels?
F: I mentioned that the show humanizes angels. A great deal of movies do this. Angels are very different from humanity. Some movies attempt to portray angels as being capable of conversion either from goodness to evil or vice-versa. But that is not how angels make decisions.
S: They can’t repent, like we can’t repent in Hell?
F: We are getting warmer to an answer here. In a sense. Angels cannot repent for their sins primarily because they are “pure-spirits.” They are not fickle and as complex as we are as human beings. When they make their first decision, all other decisions adhere to the vice or virtue of their first decision.
S: That doesn’t make sense to me Father. Not because I perceive a contradiction, but I just don’t understand it. What do you mean by “pure-spirit?”
F: Sorry…it is difficult. Pure-Spirit means that they are Pure-intellect. They have an intellect, but no “quantity” or physical dimension to them.
S: How do they know anything if they don’t have a body? We know through sense-experience, right?
F: Yup. We know through our senses, but we also create abstractions…something that beasts cannot do. So we have a spirit too, but not to the degree of an angel.
Angels on the other hand are infused with knowledge by God. Their knowledge comes directly from God. Of course, they don’t know everything that God does, but whatever God entrusts to them for their purpose, mission and happiness.
S: So if they know everything they need to, in order to be good, why would some of them choose to sin?
F: Well, when you drive faster than the speed limit, do you know you are driving faster than you should?
F: Exactly…so you know how to avoid doing something evil, but you do it anyways. That makes your actions sinful. Mind you, if you drove improperly and weren’t aware, you’d still be responsible since you had the capacity to know and responsibility but you choose not to. That is where humans are a bit different.
S: I’m following.
F: Angels, when they sinned or were obedient to God, they adhered to that fundamental decision and will adhere to it for their entire existence, because of their nature as pure spirits. They are absolute…they swallow their decision, whole, and adhere to it forever.
S: That is difficult to comprehend, but I sort of understand your point. You are saying that angels make a decision based upon information they see clearly and perfectly. As a result of this they do not repent of their decisions, except in perhaps the way you mentioned before?
F: Exactly. Now with human beings it’s a bit different. But to some degree we have established that because of the nature of an angel it is impossible to repent. Can we both agree that this doesn’t remove free-will from the angels?
S: I think so. Angels have a free-will, but it can be enslaved to evil as a result of their own decision?
F: Very good.
S: So how are humans different, and yet the same?
F: Well, in the current mode of our existence –
S: Stop…speak English
F: haha…sorry. Well as human beings we live in time, moving from one moment to another, right?
F: Angels exist in a different type of time than we do. That I can’t explain with great clarity. But it is different. They do not exist in the same “Eternity” as God, since God alone exists in that sense.
S: Interesting…go on.
F: As human beings, within time we are fickle, changing our minds all the time, constantly given new information through sense experience, but also rationalizing our way out of truths for egocentric reasons. Agreed?
S: We have a hard time being honest with ourselves?
F: Sure we do. The truth can hurt, and it can challenge us.
S: That is true….haha…see what I did there!?
F: Not the wittiest remark I’ve heard before…but good.
F: Let’s move on. What happens to us when we die? Do you know?
S: Our soul leaves our body?
F: Sort of. I prefer to describe it in this way: our soul is torn apart from our body.
S: That sounds a lot worse. Nothing romantic about that.
F: Death, according to our nature, is certainly not romantic. It is our destruction, it is an evil, and if you remember, it is the consequences of sin.
S: That is true. So the soul is ripped apart from the body.
F: Yes. And as a result our body turns back into dust, but our soul still exists.
S: Why does our soul still exist? Isn’t it dependent upon matter to exist?
F: That is a discussion for another day…but there is an answer to that.
F: So…the soul is separated from the body and as a result we for a time are nothing more than spirit.
S: Oh so we are an angel!
F: No…and please don’t ever suggest that to anyone.
F: Our spirit is unique and is constructed to only make sense with a body. Angels are pure-spirits which means they exist naturally without a body.
S: So are you saying that death is bad for the soul?
F: Absolutely. Death is a horrible tragedy that happens to us. We may not experience physical pain, but spiritual frustration is certainly part of death.
S: Oh, I get it! This is why the Resurrection is so important. That makes sense out of a lot! So the resurrection is what fixes that problem!
F: Precisely. Now, without a body, it is impossible for us to have a conversion…would you agree with that?
S: I guess so. If our soul needs a body in order to discern and think and make choices – using the organ of the brain to accomplish all this – then I suppose without that, no one could make a decision. But that proves nothing to me. Because don’t we believe as Catholics in the Resurrection of the body? Don’t we believe one day we will have a body?
F: Yes, we do believe that we will have a glorified body! Good for you, for remembering that. Very important. But one thing that is important to recognize is that body will no longer be the same as it is now. It will be different.
S: How do you know that?
F: Jesus’ own resurrected body seemed to transcend space and time without contradicting either. He was able to eat fish with the disciples, to be touched and sensed, and yet would disappear and appear simply by willing it.
S: So in what sense is the “glorified body” different from our human body, and how will that affect our ability to repent?
F: Let me first begin by asking you a question: do you think it is sensible that in heaven we will never die?
S: Yes. If we died, it would seem to suggest that the Resurrection was only a temporary solution to an on-going problem.
F: Masterfully stated! Now, let’s follow the logical consequences of your statement. If we will not die, that would mean that our bodies would be devoid of any form of corruption: correct?
S: They are incorruptible? Yeah, that makes sense.
F: So you agree that there would be a sort of permanence to our nature that was unchangeable?
F: Great. Now here is a side-stepping question: do you believe that virtue and vice are bodily or spiritual realities?
S: They are bodily?
F: Incorrect again!
S: Father, I can only laugh at you so much…
F: Sorry. It was a trick question. The answer is both. Basically what I’m saying is that because the body in the next life is incorruptible, the vice is permanently a mindset within us. Vice, as you know, makes us stupid, it darkens our mind and makes us unable to see what needs to take place in order for us to do better. Virtue on the other hand is a type of enlightenment and disposition towards truth and justice. And so our mind, heart and soul are perpetually opened to God’s divine light.
S: So you are saying that because virtue and vice are bodily realities, and that the bodily reality is concrete and incorruptible, that it is impossible to change, since to change would imply a sort of corruptibility?
F: Yes. But I would add the nuance that with an open heart, soul and mind, our soul remains open to God’s light for eternity, open to a “type” of movement from God.
S: I can understand why people don’t believe others go to hell for eternity.
F: Sara, you didn’t believe people stayed in hell for eternity a little while ago.
S: My point is, Father, that not many people have this type of education and have pondered the …
F: Metaphysics, eschatology, ontology, and scriptures?
S: exactly…whatever that is.
F: Right. So what we have today are a group of strongly opinionated arm-chair theologians who have nothing more than sentimentalities, emotive sensibilities and as a result come to sweeping conclusions without following the logical consequences of the bodily resurrection, the nature of virtue, the nature of the will, and the word of God.
S: It just seems impractical for me to have to communicate all of this to the people in RCIA.
F: It is very impractical to teach them a great deal of this content. RCIA is not meant to be a theology class. But those who are teaching it should not be arm-chair theologians…I don’t say that to hurt your feelings or to demean the efficacy of a good testimony that you could share with the people in RCIA, but I say it because you or others might lead others along the same path of a simple-faith that doesn’t understand the deep theological consequences that come from various beliefs commonly held.
S: And I think it also goes back to what you were saying about being able to trust in God and His Church without necessarily having a fundamental understanding of all the teachings at the moment.
F: Exactly. Faith is so important, and a deep trust and abiding obedience in Him and His Church are rather essential.
S: Is it fair to conclude that God does not want anyone in hell, but respects their freedom to choose it as such?
F: Yes, and as C.S. Lewis stated: the door is locked from the inside. The souls are permanently darkened by vice, just as concrete has been hardened over time in an obscure and ugly fashion. That makes this life very important, it truly is a time of mercy and repentance! What a wonderful gift that we as human beings have received from God!!
S: So it seems as if our world has come up with yet another heresy Father!
F: Actually it’s not new. This heresy existed in the early Church and was coined by Origen as apokatastasis. It is funny how every generation considers itself wiser than the one preceding it. More often than not, we are actually forgetful and backwards rather than progressing and upright.
S: Father, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me about this.
F: I don’t think we are done. I’d like to examine why it is actually just for a soul to be condemned to hell. There are more ways than one in looking at this issue. But for the time being, take a break. I also want to thank you for your honest dialogue and provoking questions. But above all your faith. It makes these discussions much easier.