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In these “Enlightened” Times Should the
Concept of Hell be Dismissed as Outmoded?

I hold it to be the inalienable right of anybody to go to hell in his own way.

Robert Frost

I think only cruel people could have invented hell. People with humane feelings would not have liked the thought that those who do on earth things which are condemned by the morality of their tribe will suffer eternally without any chance of amendment. I don’t think decent people would ever have adopted that view... The essence of what you might call a stern morality is to enable you to inflict suffering without a bad conscience, and therefore I think it’s a bad thing.

Bertrand Russell (Interview)

Father Healy was, in short, my good priest, without whom it is impossible to get a toehold on Peter’s rock: a man of such archaic integrity that younger readers will just have to take my word for it. He taught Sunday school pretty much by the book, as he had to. He didn’t weasel about hell or purgatory or the terrifying risks of mortal sin: if the Lord ordered up brimstone, brimstone it was. But his manner completely undercut this part of the message. He could deliver the most hair-raising information in such a kind, it’s-going-to-be-all-right voice that it still seemed like a religion of love.

Wilfrid Sheed

[The first passage from Fr. P. J. Kelly’s 1968 book, So High the Price, follows the old traditional reasoning in trying to justify the horrific torments of hell as the appropriate punishment for sin. Whether the reasoning makes you laugh or shudder, it is interesting to note the explicit appeal to logic. The second passage from Fr. Groeschel takes a much more recent—and vastly different—approach. It is also less explicitly logical. How does it compare with the old argument in terms of plausibility?]

The optimists object: “Can it be possible that God punishes a momentary sinful pleasure with an eternity of pain?” It is not only possible, but it is right and just. The offence given by the sinner to God when he transgresses His holy laws involves infinite malice, since it is an offence to infinite Majesty. Therefore, it deserves an infinite punishment. But since man, being finite, is incapable of undergoing punishment that is infinite in intensity, God punishes him with a chastisement infinite in duration. In acting thus, God acts justly.

Fr. P. J. Kelly

What you must know about hell is that hell is part of Divine Mercy. God does not make hell. God cannot make anything bad. Hell is a place where those, who are turned away from God forever, hide from Him. They are least miserable in hell: not most but least.

Fr. Benedict Groeschel

[In hell] will the condemned in cruel rage and despair turn their fury against God and themselves, gnawing their flesh with their mouth, breaking their teeth with gnashing, furiously tearing themselves with their nails, and everlastingly blaspheming against the judge. . . Oh wretched tongues that will speak no word save blasphemy! Oh miserable ears that will hear no sound but groans! Oh unhappy eyes that will see nothing but agonies! Oh tortured bodies that will have no refreshment but flames. . . We are terrified when we hear of executioners scourging men, disjointing them, dismembering, tearing them in pieces, burning them with plates of red-hot metal. But these things are but a jest, a shadow compared with the torments of the next life.

Fray Luis De Granada (1505-1588, author of The Sinner’s Guide)

I certainly could not have become a Catholic if I had been forced to accept as de fide the highly-coloured and to my mind repulsive views of the torments of hell which [C. E. M.] Joad quoted in our correspondence from Catholic writing in an older and vanishing tradition.

Arnold Lunn

[The New England Puritan, Jonathan Edwards (1703–58), is famous for his 1741 sermon in Enfield, Conneticut, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (MP3 file format), which is a classic of the genre. (If, like some unfortunate individuals, your temperament is such that you are pathologically suspectible to the fear of divine punishment you might want to give this sermon a pass, because it is relentless.) Though typical of the sermon, the following quote is from one of his written works.]

The pit is prepared, the fire is made ready, the furnace is now hot, ready to receive the wicked: the flames do now rage and glow. The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much in the same way as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect, abhors you and is dreadfully provoked. He will trample them beneath His feet with inexpressible fierceness; He will crush their blood out, and will make it fly, so that it will sprinkle His garment and stain all His raiment.

Jonathan Edwards

We are not punished for our sins but by them.

Anne Perry

It was long believed that punishment was a particularly efficacious means of education. Religion itself was thought to contribute to the education of children and the maintenance of the social order because its teachings contained terrible threats of punishment for the “wicked.” I have heard altogether reasonable men say, “If the Bible didn’t teach the existence of Hell, we would have to invent it to preserve social order and peace.” We have only to look at the paintings and sculptures of our cathedrals to realize the primordial role threats of hellfire played in the education of our ancestors.

Nor is it necessary to go back to the Middle Ages. In the very recent past, Lenten preachers and parochial missionaries hoped to convert the lukewarm and sinful with detailed descriptions of the torments of Hell. Fire, cauldrons of boiling oil, and Satan and his demon helpers were taken as fundamental religious truths. Most ministers of religion today follow the general direction of modern pedagogy and no longer believe in the moral efficacy of fear. Thus they no longer preach on Hell. Yet the concept continues to haunt many imaginations. Certain Protestant sects such as the Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses still hold the fear of Hell to be the best means of converting sinners.

Fr. Ignace Lepp (psychologist)

[Educated at the elite Jesuit run Colegio de Belén in Havanna, Fidel Castro was deeply influenced by his teachers who, he says, ‘valued character, rectitude, honesty, courage and the ability to make sacrifices.’ He did not, however, respect ‘the mechanical, dogmatic, irrational methods that were employed’ in their approach to religious education. His description of a retreat, which he gives in this excerpt from a series of interviews with Brazilian priest Fr. Frei Betto, will unfortunately ring familiar with many who passed through Catholic schools before Vatican II.]

When we were 16, 17 or 18, our spiritual exercises included meditation. During those three days of the religious retreat, we meditated on philosophical and theological topics, but usually the theme was punishment—which was most likely, according to all indications, in the circumstances—and reward. The reward didn’t inspire our imagination, but the punishment was described in such a way as to do just that.

I remember long sermons for meditation on hell—its heat and the suffering, anguish and desperation it caused. I don’t know how such a cruel hell as the one that was described to us could have been invented, because such severity is inconceivable, no matter how great a person’s sins may have been. Moreover, the punishment for venial sins was way out of proportion. Even to doubt something that wasn’t understood regarding a certain dogma was a sin. You had to believe it, because if you didn’t and had a fatal accident or died for any other reason while in that state of sin, you could be condemned to hell. There was really no proportion between the individual’s sins and eternal punishment.

The idea was to arouse the imagination. I still remember an example that was often given in those spiritual exercises... We were told, “so you may have an idea of eternity, my children, imagine a steel ball the size of the world [and I tried to imagine a steel ball the size of the world, with a circumference of 40,000 kilometres] whose surface is grazed by the proboscis of a fly once every 1,000 years. Well, the fly will wear away the steel ball—that is, that steel ball the size of the world will disappear as a result of the fly’s slight touch once every 1,000 years—before hell ends, and, even after that, it will go on forever.” That was the nature of meditation. I’d describe it as a form of mental terrorism; sometimes those explanations turned into mental terrorism.

It’s near the end of the twentieth century, and, not so long—only 40 years (I’m amazed at what a relatively short time)—ago, one of the best schools in our country provided this kind of an education. I don’t think it was a good way to foster religious feeling.

Fidel Castro (from Fidel and Religion, 1987)

Thoughts about Hell

All sins tend to be addictive, and the terminal point of addiction is what is called damnation.

W. H. Auden

Hell is not a punishment imposed externally by God, but the condition resulting from attitudes and actions which people adopt in this life.

Pope John Paul II

I will tell you a great secret my friend. Don’t wait for the Last Judgement. It happens every day.

Albert Camus

Every action is a judgement.

Many might go to Heaven with half the labour they go to hell.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

If there were only some shorter and more direct route to hell it would save an awful lot of time and trouble.

No hell, no dignity.

Flannery O’Connor

A God all mercy is a God unjust.

Edward Young

Presumably the suffering of hell is something that people are able to bear because they have chosen it.

Where we go hereafter depends on what we go after here.

John Henry Newman

Strange as it may appear, I am quite content to live without believing in a bogeyman who is prepared to torture me for ever and ever if I should fail in coming up to an almost impossible ideal.

C. S. Lewis (before conversion)

It doesn’t matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the soul away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick... The safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.

C. S. Lewis (after conversion)

The most frightening idea that has ever corroded human nature—the idea of eternal punishment.

John Morley

Nothing burneth in hell but self-will; therefore it hath been said, “Put off thine own will, and there will be no hell.”

Theologia Germanica (Anonymous, circa 1350)

The self one has to live with can be one’s own greatest punishment. To be left forever with that self which we hate is hell.

Fulton Sheen

Hell is oneself; Hell is alone, the other figures in it merely projections. There is nothing to escape from and nothing to escape to. One is always alone.

George Eliot

The Son of Man will give charge to his angels, and they will gather up all that gives offence in his kingdom, all those who do wickedly in it, and will cast them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping, and gnashing of teeth.

Matt 13:41-42

There is a dreadful Hell
A place of aches and pains,
Where sinners must with Devils dwell,
In fires and shrieks and chains.

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