TOC Previous Next A+A-Print


Chapter 18: The Way of Sin to Death

Question G: Do impenitent sinners end in hell?

1. Scripture seems to say so. Various passages suggest that some people do persistently refuse to surrender themselves to God’s love (see Mk 9.43–48; Jn 5.27–29; 2 Thes 1.7–10; Rv 20.9–15; 21.8). As everlasting happiness is promised those who do the works of love, so everlasting punishment is promised those who fail to do them (see Mt 25.31–46). There is no reason to take one of these promises seriously and treat the other as a mere figure of speech.23

2. Nevertheless, some theologians have recently proposed that hell is a terrible possibility, but only a possibility—one which could turn out never to be realized. In support of this, they say the Church has never definitively taught how many people will go to hell or that any particular individual (for example, Judas) is in hell. Thus, they suggest, hell might turn out to be like a three-dollar bill: a real possibility yet never actually real.24

3. Against this suggestion stands the teaching of the Church, which faithfully reflects the data of Scripture (see DS 76/40, 411/211, 801/429, 858/464, 1002/531, 1306/693). Not only in her more formal teaching, but in the whole history of Christian teaching and preaching, the Church has proposed hell as the real fate of impenitent sinners.25

All Christian teaching until now has proposed hell as a possibility which, unfortunately, sometimes is actualized. If this teaching were inaccurate, the faithful would have been massively misled on a matter of great interest and importance. One can imagine such a deception being practiced as a noble lie by someone not perfectly faithful and true; one cannot imagine it practiced by Jesus, teaching both in person and through his Church.

4. Moreover, contrary to the view that the Church has not definitely taught that anyone is in hell, a solemn statement of the Fourth Lateran Council asserts that the damned will suffer perpetual punishment with the Devil (see DS 801/429; cf. Mt 25.41). In other words, the Devil is in hell. Vatican II continues to affirm the reality of Satan, together with the truth that Christ has freed us from his power (see SC 6; LG 16, 48; AG 3, 9; GS 2, 13, 22). If some nonhuman person really is in hell, however, there is no reason to suppose no human person will join it.

One also must ask: How real a possibility is hell if it is a possibility which never is realized? If theology can provide any reasons whatsoever for thinking the possibility is never realized, these reasons actually will be arguments for the unreality of hell. For instance, to argue from God’s love to an empty hell actually is to argue that God’s love is incompatible with anyone ending in hell, and this is to argue for the impossibility of hell. If hell is to remain a real possibility, there can be no theologically convincing argument against populating it, because we have no independent source of evidence on this matter.

5. Furthermore, the alternatives to a populated hell are theologically unacceptable. To suppose that hell will turn out to be empty is to suppose either that everyone will repent before death, or that those who fail to repent before death will do so after death, or that those who have not repented will be annihilated, or that those who have not repented will be included in heavenly communion despite this.

6. There is no reason to think everyone repents before death. As for repentance after death, this hypothesis is incompatible with the Church’s teaching. Moreover, it is also incompatible with the character of freedom of self-determination. Paradoxically, it is only because we are imperfectly integrated, existentially not all of a piece, that we are able to repent—able, that is, to reverse the thrust of our self-determination contrary to the thrust of a previous immoral choice. But we are imperfectly integrated only during this life, and so the possibility of repentance is also limited to this life (see S.t., sup., q. 99; S.c.g., 4, 95).

If those who are eternally opposed to Jesus are in this state by their own choice, why can they not alter their choice? Is this fixation, at least, not a punishment arbitrarily imposed by divine power? The answer is “No.” Freedom of choice is a capacity of self-determination (see 2‑H). As such, one’s free choices of themselves are constitutive of a self and are permanent. The present possibility of changing one’s mind depends upon the present complexity and variability of human nature. A person completely integrated with his or her freely chosen self would have reason to continue in it and no reason to alter it. Presumably, after death persons are in this situation; therefore, they can no longer change their minds (see S.t., 1, q. 64, a. 2).

7. The hypothesis of annihilation also is incompatible with the Church’s teaching, as well as with God’s love of all that is good (see Wis 11.24); for, although the damned abuse their freedom, their reality and their freedom remain great goods. Finally, the inclusion of the unrepentant in heavenly communion is ruled out by God’s love itself. The unrepentant sinner is self-limited against God’s goodness; and God would not force himself on one who freely rejects him.

Even if there were some sort of case to be made for the theory that hell might be empty, still there is no room for any Christian to accept such a theory as a practical supposition for living his or her own life, or to propose it to others for living their lives. There is no room for a practical supposition of this sort because for us, here and now, salvation is a task to be worked out.26 One who looks at matters practically cannot assume that a real possibility is not really possible for oneself. And only a person obdurate in sin and tempted to presumption is likely to think of things in a different practical perspective. For with genuine hope, one can wait without anxiety, confident that God, who has brought one to repentance, will preserve one in his love until the end (see Rom 8.35; 2 Tm 4.8).

23. See Jean-Marie Fenasse and Jacques Guillet, “Hell,” Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 2d ed., 233–35, esp. “Christ Speaks of Hell” (234).

24. See William J. Dalton, S.J., Salvation and Damnation (Butler, Wis.: Clergy Book Service, 1977), 75–83.

25. For a brief, clear dogmatic treatment of hell: E. J. Fortman, S.J., Everlasting Life after Death (New York: Alba House, 1976), 157–81; also Michael Schmaus, Dogma, vol. 6, Justification and the Last Things (Kansas City: Sheed and Ward, 1977), 249–59. A classic apologetic treatment, still worth study: Paul Bernard, “Enfer,” Dictionnaire Apologétique de la Foi Catholique, 1:1377–99. A fuller treatise: M. Richard, “Enfer,” Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, 5:28–120. An evangelical Protestant work, popularly written, but worthwhile as a witness to the post-Reformation tradition and departures from it: Jon E. Braun, Whatever Happened to Hell? (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1979), 80–129.

26. Karl Rahner, “Hell,” Encyclopedia of Theology, 602–4, wishes to insist at least on this practical possibility on which the Christian must count “without any sly look at a possible apocatastasis” (604). At the same time, he disposes of the teaching of Jesus rather too easily as being “in keeping with the theology of his time” (602). He also seems to assume without argument the incompatibility of a threat with a realistic statement about what will happen if the threat is not heeded, when he says that “what Scripture says about hell is to be interpreted in keeping with its literary character as ‘threat-discourse’ and hence not to be read as a preview of something which will exist some day” (603). The very logic of any honest threat seems rather to require, among other things, a preview of something which may well happen.