Dried-up old moralists cackling with glee about how all their enemies are going to burn in hell. Devout Fundamentalists suffering fear of damnation every time they touch their pee-pees. Children lying awake at night in terror that they might suffer eternally for stealing that cookie. Most non-Christians find the doctrine of damnation decidedly off-putting. The idea that someone can be tormented forever for their sins is terrifying. The idea that everybody will be tormented forever without miraculous assistance raises things to a whole new level of horror.
But what if that horrifying doctrine is true?
Towards casting some light on that issue, let’s start with one big question: do human beings have an immortal soul? If you think human beings are just particularly complicated animals and life ends at death the whole idea of Hell is ludicrous. It’s pie in the sky and torture chambers in the cellar. If you are undecided on the topic, consider the Catholic position on the soul, as stated in the Catechism:
362 The human person, created in the image of God, is a being at once corporeal and spiritual. The biblical account expresses this reality in symbolic language when it affirms that “then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.”Man, whole and entire, is therefore willed by God.
363 In Sacred Scripture the term “soul” often refers to human life or the entire human person. But “soul” also refers to the innermost aspect of man, that which is of greatest value in him, that by which he is most especially in God’s image: “soul” signifies the spiritual principle in man.
364 The human body shares in the dignity of “the image of God”: it is a human body precisely because it is animated by a spiritual soul, and it is the whole human person that is intended to become, in the body of Christ, a temple of the Spirit:
Man, though made of body and soul, is a unity. Through his very bodily condition he sums up in himself the elements of the material world. Through him they are thus brought to their highest perfection and can raise their voice in praise freely given to the Creator. For this reason man may not despise his bodily life. Rather he is obliged to regard his body as good and to hold it in honor since God has created it and will raise it up on the last day.
365 The unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the “form” of the body: i.e., it is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living, human body; spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature.
366 The Church teaches that every spiritual soul is created immediately by God – it is not “produced” by the parents – and also that it is immortal: it does not perish when it separates from the body at death, and it will be reunited with the body at the final Resurrection.
367 Sometimes the soul is distinguished from the spirit: St. Paul for instance prays that God may sanctify his people “wholly”, with “spirit and soul and body” kept sound and blameless at the Lord’s coming. The Church teaches that this distinction does not introduce a duality into the soul. “Spirit” signifies that from creation man is ordered to a supernatural end and that his soul can gratuitously be raised beyond all it deserves to communion with God.
368 The spiritual tradition of the Church also emphasizes the heart, in the biblical sense of the depths of one’s being, where the person decides for or against God.
So far as we know, man is the only animal that has an interior monologue. We ruminate over our actions; we weigh the various factors and then choose logically or emotionally or for any of a thousand different reasons. But we choose, and we think. As Descartes said, Cogito Ergo Sum, I think therefore I am. So where do our thoughts arise from? What part of us is doing the thinking? Today the fashionable answer is that our thoughts are the product of electrical impulses being passed through our brain tissue. But as a famous meme reminds us:
Emergent consciousness is a very big and tangled problem. You can argue consciousness arises as a result of physical forces, or you can postulate there is something else going on there. If you believe that consciousness is simply a matter of stuff moving around in your brain and it stops after you die, there is no argument for or against hell which would be relevant to you. If you acknowledge there may be a mind and a body, that raises a whole bunch of new topics.
The Church has been accused of hating the body and promoting asceticism. And there have certainly been some saints who practiced extreme acts of asceticism. But that particular path is intended for a small number of people. Not everybody is called to chastity and the clerical life; not everybody is called to fast in the desert or wear a hairshirt. Because these acts are so outside the world (by design!) they tend to draw the lion’s share of outside attention.
Church laity are allowed, even encouraged, to enjoy worldly pleasures. Pope Francis recently caused a stir when he reportedly declared the pleasures of the bedroom and table to be “divine.” But that is entirely in keeping with Church teachings. God made food taste good so we could enjoy eating; God made sex feel good so we could enjoy our conjugal duties. Pleasure is only a problem when it becomes a distraction from our duties. We are allowed and even encouraged to enjoy the body: we are strongly cautioned against reducing ourselves to our bodily urges.
Let’s say you suspect there is something more to us than our animal instincts and our body: you think that perhaps there is indeed a soul. You’re not alone: the idea of a human soul is found throughout the world. Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism – all presume the soul’s existence. So let us, at least for now, accept the premise that there are souls and that you have one. This brings us to yet another question: what happens to that soul when you die?
There are many different visions of that soul’s afterlife. But one thing that comes up over and over across cultures is that the soul’s afterlife fate is determined largely by the individual’s actions in this life. Indo-European mythology suggests most dead souls go to a gray and desolate place: see the Norse Helheim and the Hellenic Hades. A few brave heroes might, thanks to their great deeds, enjoy mead in Valhalla or wine in the Elysian Fields. Many Asian traditions believe we are reincarnated: our next life will find us paying the debts and reaping the rewards of our deeds in this life. Nor did the notions of Demons and Hell originate with Christianity. Egyptians who didn’t measure up before Ma’at were tossed to the devil: Tibetan Buddhist hells are as creative and graphic as anything Bosch came up with.
Our visions of the Afterlife suggest an inborn longing for fairness and justice. We want to believe that in the end good people will be rewarded and bad people punished. This can of course degenerate into wishing eternal torment on your enemies, into declaring “good” to be “that which I like and which benefits me” and assuming anything that might get in the way of that is “evil.” But Christianity introduces an interesting safety feature into their vision. They tell us that we must live up to a Divine moral code, and yet we are incapable of doing so.
Like much of Christianity, at first glance this seems insane. What kind of a divine sadist would create a moral code we can’t live up to? But from a philosophical perspective it is an accurate statement of the human condition. We know the difference between right and wrong – as Christians would put it, we have the knowledge of Good and Evil – and yet we constantly fail to live up to our own standards. And if we believe God is Perfect (as Christians do), our plight becomes even more stark. We can no more measure up to Divine Perfection than could an amoeba paint the Mona Lisa.
As an answer to this existential dilemma, Christianity says this God is so good and so loving that He sent down his only-begotten Son. This Son, Jesus, preached in Judea for several years before being arrested for sedition. He was then scourged, spat upon, crowned with thorns, and crucified between two thieves. After this messy death, Jesus rose from the dead and appeared before the Disciples several times before ascending into Heaven with the promise to come again. This Resurrection provided us with a means by which we could be saved despite our shortcomings.
This was not a Get Out of Jail Free card. Those who accepted Christ were expected to uphold moral codes. There were things demanded of Christians and things Christians were expected to avoid. Those who persisted in their sin could find themselves ostracized from the Christian community. A religion which simply said “You are forgiven, do whatever you want and get an eternal reward simply by saying my name” would be a cheap magic trick, not a religion. Our moral sense would see through the hollowness and hypocrisy. It would seek instead a creed which offered straightforward and direct guidelines for dealing with a complicated and often hostile reality. Christianity’s great appeal came in its willingness to name good and evil.
Then, as now, that hard moral line proved very appealing to some and very threatening to others. Christianity’s early period was marked by frequently hostile relations between the Church and non-Christian neighbors and rulers. Many early Christians died for the faith; many more were tortured, imprisoned or exiled. You could scoff that they suffered for imaginary images of Heaven and many today would do just that. I might offer as a counter-argument that they were motivated by knowing in their hearts, bones and souls that they were doing the right thing. In the moral cesspool which was late Rome, that might have been its own reward.
Persecution only made Christianity more popular. The harder they fought against the Christian community, the more the authorities looked like absolute evil and the more the Christians looked like the light shining in the darkness. As the Empire fell and the social order crumbled, there was a great need for a Faith which would tell us right from wrong. The arenas strengthened the Faith: the barbarian invasions brought many once-proud sheep into the fold.
Christianity not only claimed that it spoke Truth: it said that all other religions were false. Then as now that was a shocking and offensive statement. As Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. None cometh to the Father lest they come through me.” For early Christians the options were very simple: accept Christ or go to Hell. To that end they made every effort to preach the Good News and see that others were saved. They endured persecution and ridicule in the hopes that a few damned souls might hear their message and choose salvation.
The issue of choice brings us to another important and often hotly-discussed topic: Free Will. The gift of salvation was open to anyone who chose it, but they had to make that choice. Calvin infamously came up with the doctrine of Predestination. If God is omniscient (as Christians suppose), then He has always known exactly who will be saved and who damned. Calvin decided God chose to save for His own inscrutable purposes and left the rest to hellfire. The Catholic position is more nuanced. God may know who will be saved or damned, but everybody is sinned or damned by their own conscious choice. If we consciously accept Christ and if we consciously make the effort to lead a life pleasing to Christ, then Christ grants us salvation. If we choose to reject Christ and reject that salvation then we are damned.
There are certainly many reasonable objections to this approach. Many of you may find it unbelievable. I can certainly sympathize. Virgin births and resurrections are difficult things to swallow: they were no more believable in 1st century Rome than they are today. There are also many who reject Hell not because they think it untrue but because they find the idea too frightening. But problems rarely vanish simply because we find them too terrifying to face. Diabetes can mean a lifetime of insulin shots, restricted diets and constant vigilance. Some choose to avoid this by avoiding doctors or by ignoring those restrictions. This provides them with momentary peace of mind but often costs them a literal arm and a leg.
Christianity’s views on man’s sinful nature are pretty easily proven. You can see sin in the street; you can see sin on the Internet; if you look in the mirror you can see sin in yourself. And if we can see the impact of sin on the temporal world, can you imagine what damage it might do to the immortal soul. You might reject the cure which Christianity offers. It is impossible to deny the disease.
Anybody who has lived with addiction personally, or who has seen a loved one succumb to addiction, has seen how substance abuse can degrade the human spirit. Meme collectors will recognize “The Coomer,” the slovenly baggy-eyed porn addict leering vapidly at the latest video. People destroy their lives with anger, with greed, with vanity. If you accept the existence of an eternal soul, is it a great leap to imagine that one might also be able to do it eternal damage? And is it hard to imagine that spending eternity as the sad, broken souls we made of ourselves would be a Hellish fate?