Updated: Apr 16, 2021
It is not hard to imagine or indeed wish for an eternal Hell for Hitler and Stalin, but what about the ordinary person or the marginal case? If “the Way” is narrow with few finding it, whereas the road leading to destruction is broad, then this is dreadful news for everyone. Even if you are one of the lucky few who escape eternal torment, how could eternity be blissful if all of your friends and loved ones were being simultaneously tortured?
Hell has been called the most damnable doctrine of the Christian faith. How heavenly it would be to theologians if they could remove this divisive subject. Unfortunately, some think they can. That is not the approach taken here. Instead, let us approach eternity with a reverent fear of the One who created all things and attempt to understand His mind a bit better than before.
Does the punishment fit the crime?
Imagine a man is having a drink at a bar and another man across the bar really gets on his nerves. Ultimately, coming to their wit’s ends, they come to blows, and the first man punches the second man in the face.
While this may have created an eventful day for all parties, nothing truly terrible has happened. What would be the punishment? Likely, bystanders break up the fight and the offending parties are kicked out of the bar. Fair enough. At most, assault charges may be filed, but a judge won’t be terribly interested in leveling harsh punishments for such a minor event.
Here is the twist: the next day the same man bumps into the Queen of England at Buckingham Palace. She, too, grates on his nerves. Again he responds with his fists. Yes, he has now punched the Queen of England in the face.
It is the same action as the night before- but now the bystanders are armed royal guards with weapons drawn. The judge has nothing of greater importance on his docket and prosecutes the man. The charge is no longer “mere” assault and battery, but has been elevated to assault of a sitting monarch. This latter crime carries with it the penalty of death.
The night before, he had offended one other guy, and maybe a few others that were looking for a tranquil evening. Today, he has offended the entire United Kingdom and quite possibly the whole world.
What this comparison reveals is the principle that the gravity of the offense is proportional to the dignity of the one offended.
Punching an ordinary man versus a monarch is the difference between a slap on the wrist and a public hanging. And yet, the man at the bar and the monarch on the throne share the same human nature. Such is the breadth of offense that can be found in crimes against the human kind. If he had punched a tree or a rock his sentence would have been nonexistent.
What if instead he turned his malice towards an objectively higher order being? What if the offense were against an Infinite Being? Keeping to our principle, the offense against the infinite God would be infinite in gravity.
Objection: But I have sinned against God, and my moral intuition does not indicate I am guilty at this insane level.
Quite frankly, whose fault is that? Have you considered that if you knew God, your intuitions would change? If the man in the bar punched a king or queen, while wholly unaware of their identity, wouldn’t his intuitions also deceive him about the severity of his crime?
You have never even seen God; you have only the faintest idea of who or what He is. Not even in principle can you, or any finite being, ever grasp the infinity of any of His attributes. Therefore, not even in principle can we imagine our moral intuitions accurately communicating the gravity of our offenses.
Objection: If God is so far above us, how could I ever sin against Him? Sure, I can sin against my neighbor, but nothing can ever be taken from an Infinite Being. He can never be harmed, so how could I offend Him? Furthermore, if He created me and I offended Him by my sin, it seems this is His fault- not mine.
If you punch a child, have you not immediately offended and angered her parents? True, the parents did not feel the pain. But the parents brought that child into being and therefore have special care and affection for her. If God brings all things into being out of love for His creation (since no other explanation could be given for creation, since an infinite God cannot benefit from creation), harming His creation is an attack on Him. That’s why God states in Scripture, “What you have done to these little ones, you have done to Me.”
Why are we at fault? The answer is simple: we did the crime. If a national government forms state and local jurisdictions, it’s true the federal level is supreme. It’s true the federal level has the ultimate authority. But what this does not mean is that the state and local governments, each charged with executing justice, are synonymous with the federal government. Why? Because authority can be delegated. God is supreme and He uses His sovereign power to delegate authority to us, in order to execute justice. Failure to enact justice is failure at our level, not His, just like the failure of a local government to act justly is not a failure of the state or federal government.
If your objection is that your sin is ultimately God’s fault, consider this. Even assuming this was true, shouldn’t your response be gratitude? He gave you the gift of existence and real power of choice, despite your foreseen rebellion against Him. It seems this objection goes a lot further in proving God’s forbearance than His culpability, since again, it is you who commits the sin and He who has generously loved you into being- despite your sins against Him.
People don’t seem evil enough to go to Hell
According to tradition from the Church Fathers, at the moment of angels’ creation they made a choice for or against God. The good angels are now “frozen” in righteousness and the evil angels are now totally evil, through and through.
That’s not how it works with mankind and we ought to be enormously happy about this. Angels have no bodies; they move at the speed of thought. Although us humans think discursively, one tiny step at a time, they understand things all at once.
Nevertheless, like the angels we, too, have spirits. Unlike the angels, we are created as a hylomorphic body-and-soul creature called man. God saw fit to place us, immaterial spirit and all, into material creation.
Imagine for a moment that all mankind has been placed into a massive pool full of thick gel. On one side of the pool is God, who is pure goodness Himself, and on the either side is evil. With every choice we make, our wills direct our bodies a few challenging inches closer to one side or the other.
We look around the pool and see that Hitler, through determined effort and constant advancement, has traveled 20 ft away from the rest of us and towards evil. On the other end, we see the saints striving 30 ft closer towards God. Those of us in the middle have turned back and forth many times. Maybe when New Year’s resolutions come around, the bulk of people in the middle of the pool push toward the good side for a short while, until our wills give up and we float a bit backward once more.
The result? No one in the gel reaches absolute goodness or evil. Not even close. Interestingly, spending time in the gel has habituated our wills to move nearer or farther from good. The wills of the greatest saints and the greatest sinners have become powerful through this type of resistance training.
At the moment of death, our souls are separated from our bodies in the gel. Hitler’s soul bolts athletically away from God, charging farther and farther from His goodness until, unable to go any farther, he finds his place in the deepest depths of Hell.
Not so with the saints. The light of goodness that called them closer in the pool is brighter than ever before. In fact, the closer they get, the brighter it gets, and their souls speed faster and faster towards the goodness of God, stopping only when they crash headlong into the very heart of His divine essence.
Some people think it’s unfair that a horrible, evil murderer could repent at the end of their life, come into the Church, and live eternally in heaven. What this fails to take into account is that the distance we travel in the pool is nothing compared to the real distance between evil and God. If people in the pool could zoom out to a satellite’s view, it would look like all of humanity is one little ant-sized dot in a vast ocean. That 20 ft towards evil Hitler journeyed during his life could have been backtracked supersonically by his soul- if he turned back fully to God before his death.
Some say, “I know Christians who are terrible people- look at the sexual abuse crisis”, or, “Many atheists live better lives than Christians.” The only honest answer is yes, this can be very true. Some people are placed closer to God in the pool with others placed farther away. Some, through no merit of their own, have found themselves slowly swept towards God. Others, through no demerit of their own, encounter a current dragging them nearer damnation.
Trying to make out who is good or bad according their position in the pool is like trying to make out who is strong or weak in a gym based on the position of the weights. Over there, Melvin has the weight over his head. Over here, Brad is straining with the weight barely up to his nose, grunting and snorting. Who is stronger? We can only answer the question if we know what resistance each person is fighting.
There will be surprising people, both in Heaven and Hell. Here on earth, we can know what is good and evil, and who is practicing good and who is practicing evil, but we can’t really have access to the striving of a person’s heart. Only God can. After death, we might find Melvin, who lived his life with his hands holding up nothing but his own pride, is now crushed by the truth of his own sinfulness. But Brad, who had been training to failure all of his life, is now ready to lift his hands to God and receive the weight of glory.
Question: does your boss pay you fairly? Many people may think a bit of a pay raise would be nice. But in large part, most people think their boss is fair enough.
So, granting that your boss knows you reasonably well and is tolerably fair with compensation, imagine that he or she is given a new task. Your boss will now be following you around and paying you for every good and virtuous thing you do…and docking your pay for every evil or selfish thing you do.
What do you think your fellow sinner of a boss would pay you per year? Bear in mind how many hours a week you work at your actual job and how much training, schooling, and investment you have made to qualify for this work. You may have bought a house to be near your job. You own a car in no small part to get to work. You have ordered most of your life around work, and you know the wages this has earned you. With this comparison in mind, what would a fellow sinner pay you for your good works? Go ahead, pick a number.
Could the wages of this second job even pay for your earthly retirement? What would that retirement look like? How many years could you fund such a lifestyle? 20, 50, 100 years? If Heaven could be seen as an “eternal retirement” plan, how many years of absolute bliss and paradise do you think your work of doing good on earth has earned you? If there are mansions in Heaven, how long could your virtue rent out a room?
Imagine for a moment you received far better than expected wages. Maybe your virtue IRA is making dividends and you can in fact fund that eternal retirement. What sort of life, if extended eternally, doesn’t become torment? What repetitive pleasure doesn’t become Hell after an eternity? Imagine your favorite food. Now eat it every meal; you will come to despise it. Granted, you could eat it every 1000 meals, but over the course of infinity you will come to despise each and every one. To live forever with anything other than perfect goodness will sooner or later become Hell.
Christian tradition has a name for this perfect goodness. His name is God. This is why the options for eternity are binary. You are either in the presence of God and in perfect communion with He who is perfect goodness Himself, or you get anything less than that, which is called Hell. Anything less than infinite is finite. Funny enough, the gap between the finite and the infinite is infinite. Having anything less than God for all eternity is therefore infinity removed from having God. If you are infinity removed from having God, this is Hell.
Viewed in this light, it becomes clear that we all deserve Hell of some type. Furthermore, we could never deserve Heaven. If that wasn’t problematic enough, only an Infinite Being could somehow accrue the infinite merits necessary to earn infinite goodness for an infinite time. The only such Being is God Himself. Therefore, God would have to earn Heaven for us. But how could He earn it for mankind if He isn’t a man? Enter in Jesus, who solves this problem. He is God, so the merits of His life, death, and resurrection are of infinite value. But he is also man, so those merits accrue to mankind!
Let us circle back to the people in the gel of material creation. Jesus represents a person powerful enough to push through the gel, all the way across the vast ocean, to God. Through the sacraments of the Church, we just have to hold on to Him and we can get there, too.
To summarize this discussion, we can conclude that Hell is not arbitrary. Rather, it is fair. At best, our merits earn us a less awful Hell, but Hell nonetheless. No, none of us seem bad enough for Hell right now, but when our souls dart towards or away from God at death, they either flower in the light of goodness or atrophy in the dark coldness of Hell. It is a grace that our movement away from God is blunted by this material creation He calls “very good”. It creates opportunity for repentance and spiritual exercise to strengthen our wills for the impending flight towards Him at death.
Hell is not a damnable doctrine. It is good that evil is punished. It is good that God never “unmakes” us by removing the gift of existence He lent us. It is good that He delegates real powers of moral choice even when it can be used against Him. It is best of all that, in view of His justice, He upends the “natural course” of human destiny with the merciful offer of Christ’s narrow way to the heart of the Father.