Catholicism has a long tradition of describing the ineffable through art and architecture. Statues and stained glass windows made the most difficult abstractions concrete for peasant and nobleman alike. The cathedral’s stout buttresses proclaimed Christ’s enduring triumph while the great ceilings gave a shadowy glance of His Kingdom. We have frequently spoken of “Hellfire” and our images of hell typically feature flames wherein monstrous demons torment burning sinners. They are often contrasted with the virtuous dead who float about on clouds amidst angels. Like the cathedral, these metaphors offer simple and concrete ways of grasping toward deeper and far more complicated truths.
As the Catechism defines Hell:
1033 We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves: “He who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren. To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called “hell.”
1034 Jesus often speaks of “Gehenna” of “the unquenchable fire” reserved for those who to the end of their lives refuse to believe and be converted, where both soul and body can be lost. Jesus solemnly proclaims that he “will send his angels, and they will gather . . . all evil doers, and throw them into the furnace of fire,” and that he will pronounce the condemnation: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire!”
1035 The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire.” The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.
1036 The affirmations of Sacred Scripture and the teachings of the Church on the subject of hell are a call to the responsibility incumbent upon man to make use of his freedom in view of his eternal destiny. They are at the same time an urgent call to conversion: “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”
Since we know neither the day nor the hour, we should follow the advice of the Lord and watch constantly so that, when the single course of our earthly life is completed, we may merit to enter with him into the marriage feast and be numbered among the blessed, and not, like the wicked and slothful servants, be ordered to depart into the eternal fire, into the outer darkness where “men will weep and gnash their teeth.”
1037 God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end. In the Eucharistic liturgy and in the daily prayers of her faithful, the Church implores the mercy of God, who does not want “any to perish, but all to come to repentance”:
Father, accept this offering
from your whole family.
Grant us your peace in this life,
save us from final damnation,
and count us among those you have chosen.
So am I saying only Christians can get to Heaven and everybody else is damned? Remember that Scripture I mentioned earlier, John 14:6? Jesus said “I am the way, the truth, and the life. None cometh to the Father lest they come through me.” In Mark 15:15-16 Jesus says to his disciples “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.”
From a non-Christian view, this seems remarkably convenient. Everyone in the world is damned unless they follow one religion – and it just so happens to be your religion. And there are many Christians who believe exactly that. Those people you see preaching on street corners and handing out pamphlets are doing so because they believe you are in desperate danger of going to hell unless you accept Christ as your personal savior and are thereby saved. You may feel they are imposing on you and trying to shove their religion down your throat. But they are doing it in your best interests. They feel the same duty to warn you that you might feel to warn a car driving toward the washed-out bridge just around the next corner.
Being called “sinner” may make you feel uncomfortable. According to Christianity we are all sinners. We’ve all fallen short of the glory of God and are in dire need of an intervention. It’s a harsh assessment but hardly an unfair one. You may feel indignant about that preacher’s presumption. You may disagree with the details of his message: as a Catholic, I have serious differences with Reformed and Evangelical theology. But it’s hard to dispute his claim that “sinful” is our default setting.
You may ask how a loving God could condemn anybody to Hell. While I can’t speak for the street preacher, Catholicism teaches that God condemns nobody to Hell. We condemn ourselves to Hell when we refuse God. Orthodoxy teaches that at the Final Judgment the saved and the damned will both be in the Presence of God. As Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko of the Orthodox Church in America puts it:
For those who love the Lord, His Presence will be infinite joy, paradise and eternal life. For those who hate the Lord, the same Presence will be infinite torture, hell and eternal death. The reality for both the saved and the damned will be exactly the same when Christ “comes in glory, and all angels with Him,” so that “God may be all in all” (1 Cor 15–28). Those who have God as their “all” within this life will finally have divine fulfillment and life. For those whose “all” is themselves and this world, the “all” of God will be their torture, their punishment and their death. And theirs will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt 8.21, et al.).
Fulvia Pellegrino, who spent £52,000 on surgery to become the ideal woman
One of the Great American myths (and the central tenet of Postmodernism) is the idea of the “Self-made man.” The individual should be given as much individual autonomy as possible, so that [pronoun of choice] can become the best individual [pronoun of choice] that [pronoun of choice] can become. The French Revolution dethroned God and put Mankind in His place. Postmodernism went one step further: it replaced Mankind with the Individual. And while humanity has done some pretty impressive things, we did not create the universe. We are, in fact, a flawed species with a lengthy and unbroken history of cruelty. And if worshipping a flawed species of hairless apes is silly, building altars to the self you have created is ludicrous.
Today social media is filled with individuals who parade their vices as virtues and their weaknesses as strengths. They have built their identity around a hundred different labels and paraded their problems as a point of pride. Most of these radically self-made crusaders for radical freedom stumble at things like gainful employment. They have no interest in raising families and creating a new generation: they are contemptuous of the nuclear family and proudly proclaim their loathing for “breeders” and “crotch droppings.” And most are so desperately unhappy that they rely on psychiatric medications to remain marginally functional.
The available evidence suggests this ideology is a theological, social and personal dead end. Given a choice, would you want to spend eternity in the presence of God as the perfected you, the true individual you were always meant to become – or would you rather spend it as a bipolar neurodivergent gluten-intolerant nonbinary pansexual aromantic furry? And if you think the latter is intolerable for eternity, ask yourself how your charade of choice is working out for you in this temporal world.
Do you find it hard to believe that an all-knowing and all-loving God might have a better idea of who you truly are than any self-made persona you might create? Take a look in the mirror at the broken thing you are, the broken thing you’ve been told you should be proud of. Ask yourself what you should be proud of. And if you’re saying “Who are you to judge me?” you’re absolutely right. I’m not judging you, I’m asking you to judge yourself. I’m asking you to judge yourself not by the rule of “at least I’m not as bad as X” or “I had good reasons for doing Y” or any of the other excuses we soothe ourselves with. I’m asking you to weigh yourself against perfection.
Judging yourself by an impossible standard is a hard thing. I can’t force you to make that analysis. I can offer you reasons why it is worth doing; I can tell you it’s a choice worth making; I can pray that you might choose wisely. But I cannot force you to take that step and neither can God. We are born with free will. As we freely choose to do the wrong thing, we must also make the choice to do what is right. We can accept God or reject him. Either way we will bear the consequences or our decision.
Contrary to Prosperity Gospel teachings, being a Christian does not guarantee you an easy or a comfortable life. Being a Christian can be an enormous hassle in a non-Christian world. Becoming a Christian involves taking a huge leap of faith into a tradition that may make you less popular with your peers; may demand enormous lifestyle changes and giving up long-cherished vices; and will definitely involve a great deal of self-reflection on your shortcomings. And you are expected to do all this in the name of a God and an immortal Soul whose existence not only cannot be proven but which is widely rejected as primitive superstition. It’s certainly a big jump. But how is a godless life in a godless society working out for you?
“I don’t have a godless life!” I hear some protest. “I’m a spiritual person, but I don’t confine myself to the Bible. I can learn from traditions all around the world.” Are you learning from these traditions, or are you cherry-picking the things you find appealing from various traditions and putting them together in a wish-fulfillment fantasy? You may be worshipping in the way you find most enjoyable, but what about the way God wants you to worship? If you find your gods in nature, then nature should teach you that actions and inactions have consequences. Our world is a beautiful place, but it is also a dangerous one. If you will honor God’s benevolence you must also acknowledge God’s justice.
The laws of gravity and thermodynamics are inflexible and inexorable. While we cannot break those laws we have discovered work-arounds. Parachutes help us survive high falls: potholders let us pull dishes from ovens without burning our hands. Why would we imagine the Creator who made these laws would be any more flexible about the laws of morality? And if you imagine our Creator as benevolent, can you not also imagine him sending his Son as a way we could work around the most important of all His laws?
Christianity offers a solution which takes the moral law which we have imprinted in our hearts into account. It takes into account our human fallibility and our inability to live up to the law. Christianity takes free will into account and makes us participants in our own redemption, while also reminding us of the terrible costs of our sin. Any spiritual solution to the human condition must deal with those issues.
One of the most popular approaches amongst the “spiritual but not religious” set has been Karma. The Western version of Karma is loosely inspired by the Hindu idea, with emphasis on “loosely.” In Hinduism Karma is that which binds us to the Wheel of Life and Death. The idea is to get rid of all karma: “good karma” is as meaningless as “good cancer.” Thanks to Theosophy and the Christian lens of Western culture, Karma became a points system where “good karma” led to rewards and “bad karma” to punishment. If we do enough good deeds we will reincarnate into a higher form and ultimately reach Nirvana and Oneness With God.
Christianity has from the beginning dismissed this as “justification by law” and “justification by works.” In Christianity we do not win salvation by our good deeds: that salvation is a gift from God that we attain through Christ’s death and resurrection. A quick look at our actions in this lifetime should show just how far we miss perfection. Why would ten lifetimes or ten thousand lifetimes bring us any closer to that mark? Several hundred generations of history have not made humanity more gentle, generous and loving. If reincarnation evolves our morality it does so at a glacial pace.
Within Buddhism and Hinduism we find highly developed moral and ethical codes. There are strong, clear standards with many “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots.” In the West “good karma” typically means actions which provide a warm self-righteous glow while “bad karma” means things other people did. Good karma points are invested in the Bank of Karma while bad karma points are something you pay off in your next life. And given the trouble Americans have had with credit cards, I am skeptical about this spiritual investment plan.
As a logical issue, reincarnation adds another layer of complexity to an already complex structure. If you are reading this, it is a pretty safe bet that you are alive and hence that you are born. It is an equally safe bet that at some point in the future you will die. We do not know that we had other lives before this. I acknowledge that some people have what they believe to be “past life memories.” None of these memories are verifiable by a scientific standard and very few are particularly convincing on an anecdotal level. If betting on a single life after death is a big leap of faith, how much greater is the leap to thousands of them?
Serious Buddhists and Hindus spend a great deal of time preparing themselves for a better afterlife. Toward that end they engage in prayer, meditation, asceticism and many other techniques also used by Christians. So whether we have one afterlife or many of them, there appears to be a solid consensus that we need to work very hard in this life to ensure our place in the next. It is also telling that those traditions see the presence of God as their ultimate goal. There are serious theological differences between the Hindu Nirvana, the Buddhist Nibbana and the Christian Heaven. But in each there is the idea that to be in God’s presence is ultimate bliss, and that the worst of all fates is to be separated from God.
All this talk about personal responsibility and eternal damnation is hard, but it is also important. Any religion worthy of the name must deal with the important hard questions. And few questions are more important than “What is my soul and what happens to it after I die?” 21st century America has a real problem with death. For most of our history death was an ever-present reality. You could see executed criminals hanging from the gallows and stand at your elderly relative’s bedside as he took his last breath. Today death is confined to hospitals and funeral homes. We sanitize and whitewash it and as a result it becomes the big scary reality nobody likes to talk about. But for all that death still remains an inevitable part of the human experience.
Religion once offered us comfort in times of death, sickness and despair. It was there to answer hard questions and provide support through hard times. Today religion has largely become a matter of choosing the religion that’s comfortable, the one you are attuned to, the one that vibrates with you. There is much less talk about finding a true religion. If the subject comes up at all, it is quickly dismissed with “Well, there’s truth in all religions. You can find the truth through any religion so long as you find the religion that’s right for you.” And yet the religions taking this approach have largely found themselves hemorrhaging members. If all religions are equally true, why bother choosing any religion at all?
A true religion asks hard questions, it offers hard answers, and it makes hard demands because we live in a hard world. Hell is a terrifying possibility, but what if Hell is real? How do we govern our lives accordingly? The Christian way of dealing with this would be to acknowledge the danger we are in; to take steps to alleviate that danger by accepting Christ and becoming part of His Church; and to save as many people as we could from that threat of damnation. To that end, we would be obligated to call them out when they are doing things which might put their immortal soul at risk of eternal torment.
That is definitely an uncomfortable responsibility. We’re much happier to live and let live. But if I know somebody is headed toward damnation, I have the same responsibility toward them as toward a driver heading toward a washed-out bridge. That driver may honk his horn and drive me out of the road; he may ignore my pleas; he may shoot me the finger as he heads merrily on toward his fate. I am still obligated to make that effort.
We could, of course, declare the whole thing silly. There is no such thing as Gods or souls or life after death. We live in a mechanistic universe governed by blind natural laws. Religion is just the opiate of the masses, and we’ve evolved past the point where we need superstitions. If you believe that – and many today do – you should examine the full ramifications of your belief. The great atheist mystic H.P. Lovecraft drew his images of vast indifferent aeons populated by idiot gods and blind devouring forces from life. The mechanistic godless world you inhabit differs from Hell only in its duration.
We can also recoil from the Christian position in absolute horror. We can declare that any religion which postulates eternal torment is the work of a cruel sadist. Such a god would deserve mockery and rebellion, not worship. Why brood on hellfire and damnation when we could be hearing about important virtues like kindness, charity and tolerance? Many people make that choice of their own free will. Faced with a steep and narrow path, they travel instead down the level, well-paved and widely trafficked road.