The Hell of Faith: ‘Dreadful Possibility’ and ‘Terrible Reality’ at Once

There is a sense of mounting intensity in the Church. Within the last ten days alone, the following has happened:

Pope Francis and Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Mosque, signed a “Document on Human Fraternity,” which says that “the diversity of religions” is “willed by God in His wisdom.”

Subsequently, many have reacted, directly or indirectly, to the serious theological questions this document raises. Included among those writing on the subject are Phil Lawler (“Not all religions are part of God’s plan”) and Bishop Athanasius Schneider (“The Gift of Filial Adoption”).

Four days after the joint statement of the Vicar of Christ and the Grand Imam, the former Prefect of the CDF, Gerhard Ludwig Cardinal Müller, published a “Manifesto of Faith” in seven different languages. This very powerful statement has been praised by Bishops (including the aforementioned Bishop Schneider), and by other clergy and laity. But it has also ruffled the feathers of another German Cardinal, the progressivist Walter Cardinal Kasper, whose inter-religious sensibilities appear to have been offended by his more doctrinaire countryman and brother cardinal. In a similitude bound to cause confusion among ecumenists, Cardinal Kasper compared Cardinal Müller to Martin Luther. Moreover, an unsurprising collection of progressivists has gathered to condemn the “Manifesto,” including the Rev. James Martin, who took to Twitter over it.

And only Tuesday, we learned of the publication of a new book by an ostensibly well informed French sociologist claiming that a full eighty percent of the clerics working in the Roman Curia are homosexual.

Difficult times.

Let us turn our attention to one section of Cardinal Müller’s “Manifesto of Faith,” wherein the eminent author considers the basic truths of the four last things. Having mentioned death, judgement, and Heaven, he goes on to state these hard truths concerning hell:

There is also the dreadful possibility that a person will remain opposed to God to the very end, and by definitely refusing His Love, “condemns himself immediately and forever” (CCC 1022). “God created us without us, but He did not want to save us without us” (CCC 1847). The eternity of the punishment of hell is a terrible reality, which — according to the testimony of Holy Scripture — attracts all who “die in the state of mortal sin” (CCC 1035). The Christian goes through the narrow gate, for “the gate is wide, and the way that leads to ruin is wide, and many are upon it” (Mt 7:13).

To keep silent about these and the other truths of the Faith and to teach people accordingly is the greatest deception against which the Catechism vigorously warns. It represents the last trial of the Church and leads man to a religious delusion, “the price of their apostasy” (CCC 675); it is the fraud of Antichrist. “He will deceive those who are lost by all means of injustice; for they have closed themselves to the love of the truth by which they should be saved” (2 Thess 2:10).

Earlier in his “Manifesto,” Cardinal Müller had written of the sad state of ignorance that exists among the faithful. Far from excusing them from their Christian obligations and giving them a free pass to Heaven, that state of ignorance is a danger to their immortal souls: “Today,” wrote His Eminence, “many Christians are no longer even aware of the basic teachings of the Faith, so there is a growing danger of missing the path to eternal life” (emphasis mine). This pastoral concern reminded me of what that great shepherd, Pope Saint Pius X, wrote in his Acerbo Nimis: “It is a common complaint, unfortunately too well founded, that there are large numbers of Christians in our own time who are entirely ignorant of those truths necessary for salvation. … And so Our Predecessor, Benedict XIV, had just cause to write: ‘We declare that a great number of those who are condemned to eternal punishment suffer that everlasting calamity because of ignorance of those mysteries of faith which must be known and believed in order to be numbered among the elect.’”

The “Manifesto” mentions salvation numerous times, and does so in a way that avoids the common errors of our day, errors like presumption, indifferentism (for he associates salvation with Christ and His “Mystical Body,” the Catholic Church), or the soft-core modernism that makes eternal life something natural to man. Evidently, as the above paragraphs on hell would indicate, His Eminence is no disciple of Hans Urs von Balthasar.

In the several paragraphs that follow, I am borrowing very heavily from a polemical piece that my beloved mentor and superior, Brother Francis, M.I.C.M., wrote many years ago. Both to shorten the text and to remove the not-presently-relevant particulars of the polemic, I am applying a very heavy editorial hand.

All the truths about hell belong to those mysteries which are not the proper object of reason. The best that we can do with hell rationally is to show that it is not absurd. The Rationalists make hell absurd to begin with, and then they try to make it empty — or to make believe that it is empty. In a book on Catholic Doctrine by the Very Rev. William Byrne, D.D., published in 1892, hell is defined as “the state or place of those condemned to eternal punishment.”

It is very hard for us to see from reason how any crime of man can ever deserve eternal punishment. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is reasonable. When a man kills another man, kill him, but why send him to eternal fire? Why send the unbaptized baby to an everlasting punishment of loss (soon to be explained) for a crime he did not personally commit?

But the hell of Faith is not a punishment for crime, but for sin; and sin adds to crime an entirely new aspect — the aspect of contempt or even hatred of God. It is because the everlasting God commanded “Thou shalt not kill” that murder becomes more than a crime — a sin.

The essence of hell consists in the loss of the Beatific Vision, a punishment common both to hell (proper) and to the Limbo of the unbaptized. The torments of hell (poena sensus) — those punishments for actual sin that are superadded to the pain of loss of heavenly beatitude (the poena damni) — belong to the accidental part of the eternal punishment. They are completely absent from Limbo. With regard to these, the same Father Byrne we have already quoted says:

“All the damned do not suffer alike. The punishment is proportioned to the malice and gravity of their sins. ‘Give unto her double according to her works.’ (Apoc. 18:6.)”

But even the guilt of original sin, by which we inherit a nature lacking the supernatural requirements (and even the supernatural desire) for the Beatific Vision, carries with it the loss of that infinite good. Naturally speaking, that good of heavenly Beatitude can neither be desired nor missed by any creature not reborn by grace.

The souls of unbaptized infants can be naturally happy. Part of their natural happiness consists in a connatural love of God, their Creator — a love and happiness not forfeited as a result of original sin. But these souls have not inherited the primordial state of grace which belonged to Adam before the fall, nor were they regenerated (born again) by the waters of Baptism.

We have, as we might say, an imperfect knowledge of hell which comes from the virtue of Faith. But, just as no man really knows darkness who has not seen the light, no man fully comprehends the doctrine of hell until he has the Beatific Vision. We cannot know hell now any more perfectly than we can know Heaven; and we know about Heaven merely because He Who came down from Heaven has deigned to reveal that truth to us.

If you ask the natural man to describe what to him would be Heaven, he can at best describe a hell, more or less comfortable. For Jesus, our Savior, revealed to us not merely the way to salvation, but the reality itself, and we have to take salvation on His entirely supernatural terms. “Now this is eternal life: That they may know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3).

And now, I would like to conclude these thoughts on hell with the exact words of Brother Francis, taken from his wonderful book of meditations, The Challenge of Faith:

  1. It is possible to imagine a hell that would be incompatible with a merciful, or even with a just God; but that would not be the authentic hell of Scripture, of dogma, and of Faith.
  2. The essence of hell is the loss of the Beatific Vision; therefore it is the loss of something whose very reality is known only through faith.
  3. Even in hell, not only the justice and wisdom of God, but also His mercy and love must be in evidence. This we cannot see now, but we will see in eternity. No one is punished in hell beyond the measure due to his sins.
  4. Where sufficient awareness exists of the danger of being separated from God for all eternity, no other punishment of hell need be emphasized; but the fires and worms of hell must be preached where weakness of faith or its complete absence make light of the loss of God.
  5. Without the faith, the best that our nature would desire, would amount to nothing better than a comfortable hell. This is actually most peoples’ conception of a heaven.
  6. The first effects of the action of grace is to give us holy desires: hungers and thirsts for things far above this world and all that it can offer.
  7. The men of holy desires, alone, understand.

For more on the subject, I point the reader to a longer piece I wrote: “There Is a Hell, and It Makes Perfect Sense.”

Let us, in gratitude, pray for Gerhard Ludwig Cardinal Müller. And let us pray for the Church Universal. The confusion and scandal of these last ten days are nothing compared to what’s coming.

But remember, “he that shall persevere to the end, he shall be saved” (Matt. 24:13).