A Lecture delivered at Theology on Tap, Bridgeport, Ct., May 2003; at Wyoming School of Theology, August, 2003.



James V. Schall, S. J.

  Georgetown University, DC, 20057-1200




                  “After they have been carried along to the Acherusian lake, they cry out and shout, some for those they have killed, others for those they have maltreated, and calling them they then pray to them and beg them to allow them to step out into the lake and to receive them.  If they persuade them, they do step out and their punishment comes to an end; if they do not, they are taken back into Tartarus and from there into the rivers, and this does not stop until they have persuaded them they have wronged, for this is the punishment which the judges imposed on them.”

                                                                                                                                                                   – Plato, The Phaedo, 114a-b.


                  ... Et qui bona egerunt, ibunt in vitam aeternum, qui vero mala, in ignem aeternum....  Haec est fides catholica, quam nisi quisque fideliter firmiterque crediderit, salvus esse non poterit.

                       Symbolum ‘Quicunque’ {quod vocatur ‘Athanasianum,)’ 400 A. D., Denziger, #40.1


                  “Between us and heaven or hell there is only life, which is the frailest thing in the world.”

                                                                                                                                                                             – Pascal, Pensées, #213.



                  The doctrine of hell scandalizes the modern world, and not a few in the contemporary Church.  It is modernity’s most neglected doctrine.  I have often wondered why.  After all, it is an ancient teaching found in Plato, found in Scripture, found in many religious and philosophical sources.   It has its own iron logic, the denial of which leads to very unpleasant consequences for human worth.  Pascal tells us that between heaven or hell stands only “life,” the “frailest” of things.  Evidently, Pascal thought that after even our frailness is destroyed, our sole alternative is either heaven or hell. 

                  This passage in Pascal echos that found in the Gospel of Matthew, wherein, in the final Judgment, all are pictured as being inevitably separated into those who are saved and those who are finally lost.  “Next he will say to those on his left hand, ‘go away from me, with your curse upon you, to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’” (Matthew,  25:41-42).  Augustine made this same distinction between the City of God and the City of Man, to neither of which city can any one belong involuntarily. 

                  And John Adams, the second American president, held that hell is the Christian doctrine most necessary to politics, for without it, the state would conceive as its own mission fittingly the duty of punishing all vices, secret and public.  But to do that would require a divine mind and a totalitarian state apparatus.  Therefore, Adams implied, politics is limited, as St. Thomas also said, to the external forum, to dealing with the most public and dangerous crimes.  In any state, many crimes will go unpunished.  This is why, even from Plato, the doctrine of hell has also a political origin, for the human mind cannot accept the idea that ultimately terrible and numerous crimes will go unpunished.

                  Following Plato’s theological imagery in The Phaedo, however, we like to think that, no matter what we do, there is always a second or third or one hundredth chance.  No decision about hell, we like to think, can really be “final,” except perhaps the desperate, though not totally heretical, wish that no one in fact is in it.  Sooner or latter, we like to think, someone will come to our rescue to declare that what we did was not wrong after all.  Or that we need not acknowledge its heinousness.  Or again someone will forgive us, either in this world or the next, without our having to do anything.  Some re-incarnation theories, besides being intimations of a desire of resurrection of the body, as opposed to theories of immortality of the soul, are designed so that we do not have to face squarely the doctrine of the eternity of hell.  They postulate an unending series of re-incarnations, even into animals, of new choices, until we finally get it right, presumably somewhere down the ages.  Thus, eventually, no one is lost. 

                  This thesis apparently saves God from the presumably unwanted necessity of carrying out His own stern rules.  A God who cannot or will not by His wisdom or power save everyone, no matter what, is said to be an inferior, a less than all-powerful, an insensitive, God.  Yet, such theories, when spelled out, deny us the reality and finality of our choices and hence the drama on which our dignity is based.  They propose a semi-eternity of choosing not to choose our final fate in which we rest in either a paradise or a hell.  Yet, it is the purpose of human life to make this very choice.

                  Salvation does not depend only or wholly on ourselves, of course.  Any honest self-reflection reveals that we are each finite, limited beings.  We did not give ourselves either being or life, nor did we give ourselves what-it-is-to-be-ourselves, the kinds of being we find ourselves to be.  We are at bottom receivers, even of ourselves.  What causes us to be human beings and not turtles, if you will, our natures, are likewise not products of our own willing.  This does not deny the fact that we can will to reject even what we are. 

                  Divine omnipotence, it is sometimes maintained, can always change its mind about our troubled record, or even about its own eternal intentions.  In pure voluntarist theories of the Godhead, God is pure will.  Thus, He is said not to be limited by His own rules or even by the principle of contradiction, the first law of being.   God is absolute freedom, limited by nothing even by the distinction of right and wrong.  Even the famous French philosopher, Jacques Maritain, speculated that maybe God could or would reduce Lucifer’s eternal punishment.  But if Lucifer’s final status could be changed, how much more human conditions?  Eternity, on this hypothesis, turns out to be rather more changeable than we at first been led to believe.

                  These are what I call “sympathetic theories” about hell.  They look on hell from the hypothetical viewpoint of the one said to be simmering there because of God’s rigid judgment.  The contemplation of pain often dulls the sense of justice.  Suffering, even just suffering as punishment for terrible deeds, causes compassion.  A God “inventing” or “willing” a hell appears to be a harsh God.  We say something like, “if I were God, I would not make any one so suffer no matter what he did.”  The implied conclusion to this line of reasoning is, thus, “if I would not do something, neither would God.”  God ends up looking remarkably like ourselves, that is, rather arbitrary and wishy-washy.  We do not conform to God’s world, but He to ours.  If we insist on looking on hell from the point of view of the condemned qua sufferers and not qua guilty, I suspect, we will never understand the depths of this most interesting and perplexing of doctrines and what is the logic behind it  – and there is a “logic” behind it.  It is to that logic that we address ourselves here.  If we smugly declare our superiority to God by claiming that we would not do what He did, we can suspect that we did nor really understand the implications of the divine purposes for the world in the first place.


                  Plato had it right, of course.  Our sins could be forgiven, though only if we acknowledged them.  But also, in Plato, the victim who suffered from them specifically had to forgive us.  Our deeds still mattered.  Plato implicitly emphasized this latter point in his picturing the damned pleading from the river with those whom they injured or killed.  Thus, he seems to have understood that salvation does not primarily depend on us, even when it also does depend on us, on our pleading for forgiveness. 

                  The Christian gloss on this Platonic position is that sin not only harms both ourselves and usually someone else, but it “harms” God in harming one of His creatures.  Sin is not just between myself and the one I offend.  Thus, forgiveness takes on a divine dimension.  God in loving us can, as it were, “feel” the harm that others do to us or we to them.  This is part of the dynamic of love that ends eventually in the Crucifixion of the God-man, in what is called the Atonement.  Ultimately, by ourselves, we cannot escape our own sins.  For this, we depend on the love and sacrifice of another.  We must, in other words, acknowledge our own inability to stop all the evils we let loose in the world.  Sin has a contagion to it in its influence on the wills of others, though out of it can come both good and evil.  Because I sin, it does not follow that you must sin; because you do good, it does not follow that I cannot do evil in return, such is our freedom.             

                  Plato’s notion of punishment, moreover, connected as it is with the question of forgiveness, is that we should want to be punished for our sins and crimes precisely to restore the order we violated in committing them, an order whose validity we now acknowledge by our repentance.  Plato, explaining the extremes of vindictiveness in the Gorgias, stated that the worst punishment we could inflict on someone with a serious crime on his soul was not to punish him.  Thus, he would remain eternally unrepentant.  He would be stuck in his soul’s permanent disorder and punishment, condemned to a place called Tartarus, or Hades, or hell. 

                  Hell is never to repent, never to choose what is not ourselves.  This was a theme found also in Hamlet, the waiting to kill a man precisely when he was in the act of  seriously sinning, deliberately giving him no time for repentance.  To follow this vindictive course was itself, of course, a grave sin, the extreme of the refusal to love our enemies, who in turn refused in his deeds to love God.  In this sense, the eternity or even the punishment of hell has nothing to do with hell, but with the will of the person who decides to go there by his refusal to acknowledge that what is right is, after all, right..

                  In Scripture, the principal occupant of hell, as we have intimated, seems to be a fallen angel by the name of Satan or Lucifer.  We should not miss the symbolism of his name, Lucifer, the “light bearer.”  He was among the most intelligent of the angels.  He remains an angel even in hell.  This fact alone should alert us to reflect that the connection between spirit and evil may be much closer than the connection of body and evil, as we are more likely to think.  The whole history of the heresy known as Gnosticism, the idea of self-salvation by our own knowledge, with its Manichean codicil that marriage is evil, is a proof of this point.  Satan, moreover, has tended to steal every show or play in which he appears, most famously in Milton’s Paradise Lost.  “Why is this?” we might wonder.  Ever since Sisyphus there has been a kind of romance in the defiance of the gods, something easily projected onto Lucifer himself.  “True or atheistic humanism” is said to be found in the “rebel” who, in the name of his own unlimited freedom, rejects the natural law of what it is to be a human being.

                  Christ once suggested that the Devil’s kingdom is not divided against itself.  While that diabolic unity does not necessarily make satanic organizations ideal places in which to work, it does make them uncommonly dangerous.  At a minimum, this diabolical harmony means that such a kingdom is stronger in pursuing its dire purposes than it would be by individual disorder, a point also made by Plato in book one of The Republic when talking about the tyrant.  The children of darkness are often more enterprising than the children of light.  Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers.  And what is the purpose of this kingdom “not divided against itself?”  Evidently, its principal endeavor is to entice, cajole, or persuade rational creatures freely to cast themselves into that “eternal fire,” of which the Athanasian Creed spoke, following Matthew.  No doubt the most bemused account of this process is found in C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters.

                  Generally speaking, it has been my experience that, when everyone is pretty much agreed that this or that Christian doctrine is untenable or wrong, then it is the precise time when such a denied doctrine is most relevant and, more than that, most intelligible and most needed.  It is my view that the best case to be made for the reality of hell is to examine the views that maintain that it does not and cannot exist.  Even though the universe is full of flaming infernos of various types, no space craft has reported siting precisely hell.  We are probably, even on theological grounds, not too surprised by the failure of spacecraft to spot the “eternal flames.”  For if there existed a hell, it could, at the present moment, be occupied only by fallen angels or human damned souls, neither of which is corporeal. 

                  This information may not be particularly consoling, however, since there is such a thing as spiritual suffering, what is called sometimes “the pain of loss,” the knowing that we are missing that for which we exist.  Likewise, Scripture tells of the resurrection of the body, giving no hint that this resurrection will not also include the bodies of the damned, whoever they might be.  The alternative is either that everyone is resurrected, saved and damned, or no one is.  The denial of the resurrection of the body is often an attempt to cut off at the pass any worry about actual and eternal punishment for the particular kind of beings we are  – persons composed of bodies and souls.  But Plato had already prevented this avenue by proving precisely that the immortality of the soul was designed not to destroy the soul but to keep it so that, if needs be, it could be punished, or rewarded.

                  But someone might say, “come now, level with us, surely this doctrine of hell is a gigantic myth, a hoax, an analogy, a scare-tactic.”  I am going to approach this issue from perhaps a different angle.  Catholicism is an intellectual religion.  If it holds something to be true, it has reasons for this claim.  Faith is directed to reason and does not contradict it.  Indeed, it improves it.   This intellectual consistency means that a doctrine of revelation will find at least indirect confirmation in reason and will.  When wrestling to figure what a give doctrine means, the very effort will generally cause reason to become more itself, more reason. 

                  I am going to suggest that if we think correctly about hell, it will not seem like such an outlandish teaching as it is often pictured to be.  Someone may still want to reject it.  I have no problem with that provided I can examine the grounds of the rejection.  But I think, on analysis, that the basis for the rejection will usually be more in the order of sentiment or compassion than hard thought.  Moreover, I will suggest, paradoxically, that the doctrine of hell has something rather consoling, even ennobling, about it.  We are not really prepared for what we must give up if this doctrine is not true.  Reflection on this teaching, furthermore, will assist in putting together a number of other things for which we sometimes see no purpose.


                  Let me begin by observing that the doctrine of hell is both a philosophical position and a teaching of revelation.  This double source itself has some significance, namely, why do both sources agree?  Do they both have a common origin?  The doctrine of hell, in its complete understanding, requires that we maintain that the world, including the human world, has an order.  It is not a chaos, the opposite of order.  Indeed, we affirm with Genesis that the world and all in it are created to be good.  Neither material nor human things are, as such, evil.  Within that order an effort must be made to account for reality as it actually is.  The doctrine of hell, on reflection, is not absurd or unintelligible. 

                  To see this fact more clearly, I will begin with an observation made by the Anglican philosopher, Eric Mascall:

The doctrine of the absurdity of existence is the natural climax of the process of secularization which has increasingly characterised the thought and activity of the modern world.  That is to say, if you try to find the ultimate meaning of the world simply within it you will fail, and then, if you refuse to look for it anywhere else, you will say that the world does not make sense.  If you develop a neurosis as a result, this will be the effect of your conclusion rather than its cause.2

Existence is not absurd.  The doctrine of hell, furthermore, is not an argument that would imply that it is, just the opposite, in fact.  But if we try to find the ultimate meaning of the world wholly within it, we will indeed “fail.”  If we refuse to look to the whole body of information available to us, probably the world will not “make sense.”  If we become “neurotic” because we cannot deal with hell, the cause is probably due to our own choices rather than some proper account of the order of things.  An absurd world causes neurosis.  The doctrine of hell is not absurd.  It stands at the other side of free will.  But if free will is indeed absurd, then it really does not make any difference whether we believe in hell or not, for in a determined world, we can only believe what we must, even if we believe in hell.

                  Let me state too, that when we maintain that we can understand any Christian dogma, including hell, we do not mean that we can totally or completely fathom its depths.  But this does not mean that we know nothing, nor does it mean that what we do know is not true.  Christianity does not relate to what it does state and formulate as if its defined understanding totally exhausts the subject matter.  On the other hand, just because, with the power of the human mind alone, it does not fathom the depths of reality, it does not follow that what it does know is therefore false.  Christianity retains the Socratic wisdom that says that its wisdom is to know what it does not know.  George MacDonald, the Scottish theologian, put it well, “The darkness knows neither the light nor itself; only the light knows itself and the darkness also.  None but God hates evil and understands it”3  We might likewise state that no one but God knows hell and understands it.

                  MacDonald will also give us our first formal statement about hell:  “The one principle of hell is  – ‘I am my own.’”4  This statement is important because it shifts our attention away from the “eternal fires” or sufferings said to be in hell to the more central issue of the reason why anyone might be in hell.  These reasons have something to do with the order of things.  We have perhaps heard Sartre’s famous quip that “hell is the other.”  This position, like MacDonald’s statement, implies that the self is sufficient, that nothing but the self can enter into our calculations, certainly no dependency on anything but ourselves.  Note too that it is the direct opposite of the classical definition of love  – to will the good of another for the sake of the other. 

                  Since there is no error that does not contain some truth, we can see that what lies behind the statements of MacDonald and Sartre is the affirmation of the centrality and existence of a self or a person.  What is rejected is anything that makes demands on the self, any rules or laws that the self did not make.  This is a world of what appears to be infinite loneliness, of the view that others are threats or mere tools to be used for ourselves.  There is no room for any love or generosity that would imply a good or delight in anything other than the self.  It is a formula for isolation.  Indeed, one of the classic definitions of hell is that it is the choice to be oneself forever, almost as if one were a god.  This is generally how the vice of pride has been described in Greek and Christian literature.  The self has no relation to another except in terms of itself.  The legitimate endeavor to recognize that the human being is something of great worth ends up with the affirmation that it is the only worth.

                  Perhaps we can gain further light from the structure of Plato’s Republic which ends, significantly, with a consideration of hell that arises out of precisely the failure of any existing polity to establish true justice.  One of the main driving forces behind Plato’s Republic was the realization that the virtue of justice, in its highest form, could not be found in any existing city.  Cities were established to render each his due, to render justice.  The need for justice meant that injustice existed on a widespread scale.  But even when the civic regimes were established, injustices remained in spite of the judicial and penal systems, something that would surprise no one familiar with the doctrine of original sin.  What Plato realized is that the human mind cannot remain content with the notion that injustices are not, eventually, punished.  For if injustice is not punished and if virtue is not properly rewarded in these same cities, it must mean either they are requited someplace else or that the universe, from a moral standpoint, is “in vain,” to use Aristotle’s term.  In other words, there is really no order in the highest things.

                  The Republic of Plato thus postulated the existence of rewards and punishments for what actually took place in the world to lie outside of the world, in the hands of God.  It is quite clear that in any historically existing polity, all the vices are not punished, even when some are, nor are all the virtuous deeds rewarded, even if some are.  When contemplating this perplexing situation, the human mind is deeply restless.  It is tempted to think that there is something enormously wrong with the world.  As Adeimantus said in the second book of The Republic, the poets picture the tyrants to be happy and the good appear to be punished, just the opposite order from what it should be.  Surely, if this be true, something is terribly wrong with the world. 

                  The answer to this situation is that the human soul is immortal.  Nothing can destroy it, as Plato takes pains to show in the Phaedo and in The Republic.  The logic behind this position is that we bear our crimes with us so that we are judged not according to our own self-made or our city’s standards but by the standards of justice itself.  Hell, in this sense, is the result of the incomprehensible idea that injustice is ultimately not punished.  In other words, when we get rid of the reality of hell, we implicitly agree that injustice succeeds.  That is, we accept the idea that the order of the world itself is not well-made, that it does not originate in the good.


                  Yet another way to approach the notion that there might be something to be said for hell is from the practical consequences of its denial.  For the sake of argument, let us grant that there is no hell, no ultimate consequences of our ill deeds.  Whether we are virtuous or vicious, we all end up in the same place.  Presumably we are all saved, even without formal repentance.  Repentance is designed to limit the consequences of our evil actions by ourselves acknowledging that they are indeed evil.  As I hinted earlier, there is something romantic about even hell.  It makes our lives dramatic, full of consequences. 

                  To be sure, this is a paradox.  But let me see it I can explain what I mean.  Human lives are full of daily deeds of many sorts, some usual, some unusual, some clearly noble, some clearly vicious.  This situation carries on throughout our lives, however long we live.  If we are sure that there are no ultimate consequences to any act of ours, no matter what we do, we are left with a certain liberty to do evil with impunity, whatever theory we might use to explain it.  If each human life is, in fact, a drama, as I like to think that it is, this drama only has meaning if what we in fact do makes a difference.  If it makes no real difference whether we be virtuous or vicious, in whatever category we chose to discuss, then our encounters with others are really of no importance.  Perhaps this is what MacDonald and Sartre were getting at. 

                  But if the doctrine of hell is true, that it is a real possibility, it means that our ordinary affairs are shot through with unimaginable significance.  At any time of any day of our lives, we can do something of ultimate reward or damnation.  Our deeds are not mere blips on the screen of eternity.  They are acts that demand judgment.  Human lives are of ultimate importance, not because they made themselves so, but because of what they are, something that they did not themselves establish by their own choices or powers.  To be sure modern voluntarism from Nietzsche and rationalism from Descartes and Kant, postulate an absolute independence or autonomy of the self.  But whatever the human being is, it is not something of its own creation, though its final personal destiny is something of its own choice. 

                  What the doctrine of hell does, then, is to guarantee that our lives are not merely things of a moment.  Rather they are things full of instances.  At each one of them, we could chose salvation or damnation.  This is so because what we are is rooted in a love that we did not give ourselves.  I mentioned earlier that we could, in a way, “wound” God, just as we can wound our parents or spouses by doing an act that harms someone we love.  Looked at from this point of view, I think, the doctrine of hell stands at the basis of romanticism  – that is, our loves do make a difference.  Love is not just any old emotion or pleasure but it is choosing and willing the good of another, for that person’s own sake.  This means that our lives, our pedestrian lives, are charged with significance.   It also means that whether we are rich or poor, great or small, we are all involved in the same drama involving those among whom are given to live.

                  Thus, to return to the title of these reflections  – “The Hell, It Is   I would suggest that, on examination, it is not such an outlandish teaching as we might at first think.  It undergirds the very significance of our daily actions.  It reinforces our sense that the world contains an intelligible order.  The only way to eliminate the doctrine of hell would, I think, be to eliminate the doctrine of the freedom of the will.  But if we eliminate that doctrine, we cease to be finite, rational beings responsible for our own destiny and our own understanding of the worth of others. 

                  Hell, moreover, does not exist apart from a doctrine of forgiveness.  This has something to do with St. Thomas’s position that the world was created in mercy, not in justice.  That is, the Platonic worry that justice is not requited is modified by the Platonic and Christian notion of forgiveness.  But the one thing that God cannot do is to create a free being and not allow him to be free.  This is why hell has long been associated with the notion of self-enclosure.  Hell is an eternity of ourselves.  Hardly any punishment seems more severe than this, than the rejecting of all else but ourselves.  The only thing we encounter in such a world is, alas, ourselves, whom we know, as Lucifer knew, that we did not make ourselves to be or to be what we are in the first place.  Hell is not the other.  Hell is ourselves with the realization that this narrow “good” is what we chose and with the added realization that we alone have refused to be open to any alternative.


                  1“And those who do good, they will go to eternal life; to those who do evil, however, to eternal fire.  This is the Catholic faith, which, unless someone firmly and faithfully believes it, he cannot be saved.”

                  2E. L Mascall, The Christian Universe (The Boyle Lectures, 1965) (Darton, Longman & Todd, 1966), 34-35.

                  3George MacDonald:  An Anthology, ed. C. S. Lewis (New York: Macmillan, 1947), #364, 148.

                  4MacDonald, ibid., #203, 88.