Imagine There’s No Hell

The doctrine of hell is certainly not one of our faith’s more consoling teachings. Neither is it especially attractive to outsiders (ever hear someone say, “I converted because of your teachings on hell”?). Nor, finally, does it produce the most elevated sentiments in the human heart, as do meditation on Our Lord’s Passion, traditional Marian piety, or the sublime grandeur of the sacred liturgy. But the truth of this article of faith is attested to by our meek and loving Savior just as strongly as any in our Creed — in fact, more so than most. As the Catholic theologian, Monsignor Joseph Pohle wrote: “…it has been justly said that no other Catholic dogma has such a solid Biblical basis.”

What inspires this infernal little article — and another one I hope to pen soon — is something I came across lately, a quote from Hosea Ballou (1771-1852), the founder of modern Universalism, who was born in our own little town of Richmond, New Hampshire:

It is well known, and will be acknowledged by every candid person, that the human heart is capable of becoming soft, or hard; kind, or unkind; merciful, or unmerciful, by education and habit. On this principle we contend, that the infernal torments, which false religion has placed in the future world, and which ministers have, with an overflowing zeal, so constantly held up to the people, and urged with all their learning and eloquence, have tended so to harden the hearts of the professors of this religion, that they have exercised, toward their fellow creatures, a spirit of enmity, which but too well corresponds with the relentless cruelty of their doctrine, and the wrath which they have imagined to exist in our heavenly Father. By having such an example constantly before their eyes, they have become so transformed into its image, that, whenever they have had the power, they have actually executed a vengeance on men and women, which evinced that the cruelty of their doctrine had overcome the native kindness and compassion of the human heart.

The author of this passage must not have excelled in the study of history. If one were to set his words against the backdrop of Christendom in the ages of Faith, they would simply not pass muster. The legion of pacific rulers who loved both justice and mercy, whose ideas of a loving Father in Heaven were reconciled with the gravity and severity of His justice, would put the lie to our nineteenth-century polemicist’s view of reality. Edmund the Martyr, Emperor Henry II, Hermengild of Spain, Ladislaus I and Stephen I of Hungary, Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia (“Good King Wenceslaus”), Bl. Charlemagne, Louis IX, Ferdinand III, Edward the Confessor — saints all and men with authority, show that the most serious adherents of the Catholic Faith (complete with its teachings on hell) were not eager to imitate the vindictive god of wrath that Ballou parodies. Too, the civilizing influence of the Catholic Creed on savage nations brought under its sway — Germans, Norse, Slavs, Celts — shows that there’s something to this hell thing for subduing human passion. Knowing that they would have hell to pay, these nations tempered their fury and bloodshed became much less frequent.

We should not judge our subject too strongly. If we were to take Hosea Ballou’s words as those of a man of his time and place, with fairly narrow intellectual and religious horizons, we can take a more sympathetic view entirely. After all, what the man knew of Christianity was, for the most part, the dower Calvinism of Puritan New England (as well as his father’s Baptist religion). Seen in that light — as a sort of provincial reflex action — it’s hard to blame old Hosea for concluding as he did. In fact, if Increase Mather and Jonathan Edwards had shaped the religious landscape I knew, I would be in the front row of the Universalist church to hear Hosea preach (at least one Sunday).

The founder of Universalism would have no way of knowing how, in the century after him, people who believed just what he did about hell would make this world something like hell. Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot — all professed atheists or, in Hitler’s case, adherents of an anti-Christian, neo-pagan nationalism — we cannot blame Richmond’s son for not knowing of them. Yet, we can point out how bad his conclusions look in the face of all this subsequent history. The fact is, under its progressivist, Darwinist, secularist, liberal, socialist, and anti-Christian regimes, the twentieth century saw people who believed in no hell hewing down their fellow humans in numbers previously unthinkable. Communism alone killed upwards of 100,000,000 in its this-worldly Utopian fanaticism.

Had he been paying attention though, Reverend Ballou may have noticed the French Revolution (he would have been about eighteen at its outbreak), which witnessed people who believed in no hell butchering en masse people who did, then proceeding to butcher each other when they had whetted their sanguinary appetites. Then again, here in this country, many had taken a kind view to this sort of thing in the name of liberal “progress.”

Doctrinally, of course, Hosea Ballou’s ideas of the Christian faith had little or nothing in common with historical Christianity. Hell was the least of his problems. The man did not believe in the Trinity, or the Incarnation of Our Lord, two prerequisites for the valid baptism of an adult. The fact that his denomination — now an officially hyphenated one since its merger with the Unitarians in 1961 — holds belief in God to be quite optional should surprise nobody. Liberal religion knows no stasis, neither in doctrine nor in worship nor in morals. And Unitarian-Universalism is liberal religion at its liberalest!

Now I find myself having to justify the title I put atop these words. As the path of Ballou’s spiritual descendants shows, it is only a short hop from liberal Christianity into secular liberalism. Because the cult of 1960’s free love so epitomizes the latter, my mind naturally drifted to the Beatles as I was mulling over the passage above. Soon, much to my chagrin, I heard the nasal strains of John Lennon setting Hosea Ballou’s dissolving creed to music:

[…cue piano intro…]

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today…

Yes, John Lennon, the demigod of Rock’n’Roll. I cannot help but think that there is an affinity between him and Hosea Ballou, two prophets of liberalism separated by a century, but joined by a shared eschatological heresy: “No hell below us.”

At Fatima, Our Lady showed three innocent shepherd children a terrifying vision of hell, telling them, “you have seen hell, where poor sinners go…”. Fatima was a wake-up call to an age that has lost both the sense of the sacred and its necessary corollary, the sense of sin.

The very opposite of Hosea Ballou’s contention is the case. When we forget hell, we, as a race, tend to behave rather hellaciously. The history of the twentieth century brings this lesson into drastic relief. Yet, it is a lesson we tend to forget.

It’s easy if you try.