1. God does judge. And hell is a punishment, in that it is a real evil consequent upon wrongdoing and deservedly suffered. It appears, then, that God sends sinners to hell. But is this so? And, if so, in what sense?
2. God chooses to impose other punishments besides hell. These are medicinal, intended to discourage persons from self-injury by wrongdoing and to encourage them to rectify their lives. Sin is separation from God and violation of his loving plan; punishment shows sinners what they are doing to themselves. Thus God permits humankind to experience the consequences of sin. The terrible reality of death brings home to us what sin means. Unlike the angels, we experience something of the reality of hell in this life, while we still have the opportunity of avoiding endless separation from God.
3. God also corrects in the sense of bringing it about that the disorder inherent in sin, which disturbs the harmony of humankind’s relationship with him, is rectified by the proportionate work of the redemption (see S.t., 3, q. 48, aa. 2, 4; q. 49, aa. 1, 3). Jesus knew punishment, not as if he himself had sinned, but because he suffered sin’s consequences and reconciled humankind with God, restoring the harmony sin had destroyed (see Is 53.4–12; Mt 20.28; Col 1.19–20; 2.14; Heb 9.24–28; 1 Pt 2.24). One who accepts a share in the redemption experiences a judgment of expiation accomplished in Jesus (see Rom 3.25–26; 2 Cor 5.19).
4. Nothing, however, requires us to suppose that hell is imposed on sinners by God’s choice, except insofar as God accepts this outcome as incidental to his creating of persons who have the great dignity of freely determining themselves either to accept communion with him or reject it.
A legalistic outlook leads to the view that hell is a punishment God arbitrarily threatens and might equally arbitrarily waive. If one sees in moral requirements true conditions of human fulfillment and in moral choices self-constitution, then hell is seen as the persisting self-mutilation of moral evil. In other words, the Christian appreciation of human dignity in the freedom to love God by respecting the truth of one’s own humanity implies as its reverse the ultimate seriousness of persistent immoral choice. Moreover, in the Christian context, to deny hell is to deny that one’s faith in Jesus or rejection of him makes any ultimate difference.
5. Without excluding created freedom, God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tm 2–4; cf. S.t., 1, q. 19, a. 6, ad 1). Jesus comes to save, not to condemn (see Jn 3.17; 12.47). His teaching discriminates only because it compels everyone to make a decision. By his words Jesus does judge between those who accept and keep them and those who do not (see Jn 5.22; 9.39). But the principle of discrimination is the truth, and the agent of condemnation is the individual who rejects it (see Jn 12.47–48).
6. This understanding of the sinner’s self-condemnation is already suggested in the first nine chapters of Genesis, which make it clear that God creates everything good, that evil comes from creatures’ abuse of their freedom, and that punishment for sin is not arbitrarily imposed by God. Human punishment often has the character of a more or less vengeful reaction, but God’s punishment can have nothing of this character.
7. Nevertheless, hell as a punishment can be understood by analogy with the ultimate in human punishment. Sometimes society accepts the determination of criminals to live as outlaws, nonmembers cut off from participation in society itself. This acceptance is fair, and its fairness is the principle which justifies such practices as permanent imprisonment, banishment, and capital punishment. (The latter is not unfair, but seems to violate the good of life and can be ruled out on this ground.) The freedom of criminals who cut themselves off from society is respected in treating them as nonmembers.
8. Hell is similar, except that God has no choice to hold or not hold persons responsible. If a created person constitutes a self which is not open to his or her own good, that self is not compatible with heavenly communion. God can do nothing about this without either coercing the individual—and so destroying freedom and the self which it has constituted—or else annihilating the individual.29 However, evil is the privation, while the freedom and the being of the damned remain good to the extent that they are real; and God, loving these goods which manifest his own goodness, cannot destroy them.
9. Might God not temper his justice with mercy toward the damned? Perhaps by easing their suffering, but not by ending their hell, for mercy presupposes a choice, and with respect to their alienation from him the damned leave God no choice. His justice ultimately consists in being faithful to his gifts of being and freedom, and God simply cannot be unfaithful (see 2 Tm 2.12–13). God tries every means to win the love of sinners who initially reject him but still might repent (see S.t., sup., q. 99, aa. 2–3). In our Lord Jesus we see how far he goes: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (Jn 3.16). Anyone who ends in hell simply refuses to yield to the powerful wooing of this divine love.
29. See Joseph A. Bracken, S.J., “Salvation: A Matter of Personal Choice,” Theological Studies, 37 (1976), 410–24, for an unfolding of this line of thought. Although somewhat weakened by an acceptance of final option and by an inadequate grasp upon the principle of morality (evil conceived as gross egoism), Bracken’s discussion is helpful in respect to the central point: Hell is not a punishment arbitrarily imposed, but a condition of the sinner freely persisted in forever.