The scandal of the idea of mortal sin iv: Hellfire

he scandal of the idea of mortal sin is really the scandal of the idea of everlasting punishment.  That a person may deprive himself of heaven doesn’t really bother us.  Nobody deserves heaven, and for heaven to end up filled with the defiantly unrepentant would contradict its nature.  No, what bothers us is the idea of eternal physical torture.  This is not just an issue of sexual sins.  An infinite punishment of this sort is out of all proportion to any human offense, according to our very basic intuitions of fairness.  One may say that these intuitions are wrong in this case, but they cannot just be dismissed as “feelings”, since they are integral to all our moral reasoning.  One must show how they are wrong.

According to Anselm, our sins actually are infinitely bad, because they offend against an infinite Good.  There’s also an idea going around among Catholic writers that the souls in hell are utterly bad, continually cursing God.  Probably they’d say that adulterers keep committing adultery in hell–this being a much less grave sin in my book than blaspheming against God!–but that would give the impression that hell is fun.

In fact, this idea of the souls in hell as utterly bereft of sympathetic attributes comes more from 20th century Catholicism’s repudiation of the idea of pure nature/natural perfection and consequent muddling of the categories of nature and grace.  No one possesses supernatural virtues in hell, so they must not possess any virtues at all, or so the idea goes.  In fact, a creature cannot exist at all without instantiating some of the virtues proper to its nature.  It was traditionally believed that there was a part of hell without punishment, indeed a place of natural happiness:  Limbo, the abode of unbaptized babies and righteous pagans.  In the 20th century, Limbo fell out of favor.  Still, the idea of some sort of virtue and even worthwhile post-mortem existence outside of heaven has a perfectly orthodox pedigree.

Post-Lubac Catholics still intuit that an eternity in flames for sleeping with your girlfriend or skipping Church is disproportionate.  Thus arose the folk-Catholic belief (which I grew up with) that all these people go to Purgatory, and eventually to heaven (suitably punished and rehabilitated to perfect virtue).  Hell is just for Hitler and Stalin.  The trouble with this solution is that it depends on not knowing what the Church teaches is gravely sinful.  Given this depressing knowledge, one can only avoid the conclusion that the vast majority of humanity is destined for eternal torture by muddying the concepts of knowledge and consent until you convince yourself that people aren’t really freely choosing to do what they seem to be freely choosing to do (e.g. contracept).  This is Pope Francis territory.  I actually do sympathize with the motivation, but this road also leads to disaster.  If one follows it honestly, one concludes that nobody ever really consents to anything.  Sin is impossible.  Marriage is impossible.  Baptism is impossible.

If we had held on to Limbo, the temptation would have been different.  What seems fair to me?  Finite sins should receive finite-duration punishment.  After that, the damned souls should be, if they are not obstinate and show good will (which is possible even without grace), rehabilitated to natural virtue and residence in Limbo.  Advantages of this:  (1) It preserves the importance of not dying in mortal sin without offending our moral sensibilities.  It still has eternal consequences.  Once you’re sent to hell, the torture will end, but you’ll never get to heaven.  (2) It explains how the elect can be happy even if their families aren’t saved, which would be hard to imagine if their spouses, parents, and children were consigned to eternal torture.  (3) It would clarify for Catholics that the main thing they’re after in pursuing holiness is union with God, not avoidance of punishment.  The only trouble with this idea is that it is not how the Church has traditionally understood her doctrine.

So we’re back to finding some way to reconcile ourselves to eternal torture for the mass of mankind.  Not that we should cease to find this horrible, but that we should start to find it reasonable.  We must either convince ourselves that the outcome is just or that it is unavoidable.  I have not convinced myself of either, but I admit that I have not spent long on such grim speculations.  The most I have done is to argue that I should try to convince myself, rather than imagine that I am more merciful than God.

27 Responses

  1. Christ seemed to forgive those torturing Him, while also condemning those who should have known better.

    I guess only God knows whether we have full knowledge of the sin committed.

    Missing Church being a mortal sin seems a hard one to find the “balance” on. I suppose it is so severe because if done with full knowledge it implies a rejection of God.

  2. It’s a grim truth, and something that torments us, rightly so.

    The key for me is that salvation is on explicitly easy terms. Jesus Himself said my yoke is easy my burden is light. The staff of Moses with the snake is explicitly used as a type of salvation in the NT if I remember correctly. All the people had to do to be healed was look at it. God emphasizes His nearness and the quickness of His mercy when sought.

    Of course there are many things Christians should, even must do, but God has made it clear that He is quick to forgive, quick to show mercy, and quick to give us strength to do what we ought to. He knows our limitations and weaknesses.

    I think we overcomplicate evangelism. I think that as a reaction to Protestantism, the Catholic church really doubled down on emphasizing differences. Not enough to just say you’re a Christian, sacraments, etc. Understandable, but I think the core gets missed far too often. Real faith in a real living, forgiving Christ is the key. Now if you love God, you will keep His commandments, but faith first! It’s the key to getting the wit and strength to everything else.

    That so much of Mankind is doomed is heartbreaking. It’s awful. I’m sure I have relatives that aren’t going to make it. But God has made salvation so simple and attainable (let’s not forget, there are borderline imbeciles who will make it into Heaven), I really can’t doubt His mercy.

  3. An aspect of this problem that deserves more attention than it is often given is the fact that God, in administering justice, cannot compromise His love and mercy, any more than in bestowing grace and mercy, He can compromise His justice. That the sacrifice of Christ is the answer to the question of how God can mercifully forgive and justify sinners without compromising His own justice is a basic element of Christian soteriology. It is more or less explicitly stated by St. Paul in the twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth verses of the third chapter of his epistle to the Romans. The implication of saying that God required the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ in order to remain just Himself while pardoning and justifying the believer is that God will not express His love in a way that compromises His justice. If this is the case, however, the converse must also be true, that He will never express His justice in a way that compromises His love and mercy. Otherwise we must take the position that justice outranks love in the essential Goodness of God’s own nature, a position that is difficult to defend in light of how important a place love has traditionally occupied in Christianity. The question then is, if God’s justice, in His pardoning and justifying sinners is to be seen in the sacrifice of Christ, where are His love and mercy to be found in His damning the lost? One potential answer is to say that they are found in the same place – that God’s love and mercy were extended to the lost in Christ but that their own rejection of such have shut them out of receiving anything but justice. This seems at best, however, to be a partial answer, and I suspect that those who taught the idea of Limbo thought the same way. I don’t have a full answer to the question mind you – I just thought it needed to be formulated.

  4. My sense has always been that the possibility of sin is taken away in hell, and that at least some of the torment in hell is due to persisting attachment to a sin you can no longer enjoy. It seems to me justice not only demands punishment equal to the offense, but also bringing about the end of the possibility of sin (since it only exists in this life as a necessary consequence of being offered the opportunity to willingly live in God’s grace).

  5. Why do you assume that God has the power to save unrepented sinners? Can God makes a triangle a square?

  6. Why do you assume that God has the power to save unrepented sinners? Can God makes a triangle a square?

  7. The idea of virtuous pagans going to limbo is, as far as I know, an invention of Dante. Do you know any reputable theologian who has defended it?

    I know of only two kinds of limbo: the “limbus parvulorum” or “limbus puerorum” (limbo of the children), where unbaptized childen go, and the “limbus patrum” (limbo of the fathers), where the saints of the old covenant used to dwell before they ascended to heaven together with Christ. When the Apostles’ Creed talks about Christ descending into “hell,” this refes to the limbus patrum. Afters Christ’s ascension, it ceased to exist.

    “In fact, this idea of the souls in hell as utterly bereft of sympathetic attributes comes more from 20th century Catholicism’s repudiation of the idea of pure nature/natural perfection and consequent muddling of the categories of nature and grace.”

    This sounds very dubious to me. According to St. Thomas, every single act of the will in the damned is evil, and they lose all natural virtues they had during their earthly life (see Summa Theologica, supplement to the third part, question 98, article 1), though I think this doesn’t refer to the children in the limbus puerorum.

    The damned continually cursing God is a typical part of traditional descriptions of hell.

    There is a distinction between natural and supernatural virtues, but after the last judgement, you have either both or none (with the possible exception of unbaptized children).

  8. Even the prospect of eternal bliss or punishment isn’t enough to sober many people up out of their frivolities. That seems pretty serious to me.

    It’s possible that hell will be eternity of what you’ve wanted here on earth, most people seem to want to without God, and to live forever.

  9. Once one has died, one ceases to be intrinsically subject to time. It makes no sense to think of the wicked repenting after death even in a natural sense. They reject God, and that simply is the condition they exist in.

    The analogy to purgatory doesn’t work, as the souls in purgatory already have the correct disposition, only in need of perfection.

  10. David,

    It’s something I’ve never understood, how could a polytheist (who by definition does not believe in God) direct themselves to God? It’s a point I’ve never understood Aquinas on.

  11. > Once one has died, one ceases to be intrinsically subject to time.

    That’s one way out that I’d considered. It certainly solves some problems. However, even change (as in Purgatory) seems to imply time. Plus, once one has a resurrected body, presumably it must be embodied in spacetime.

  12. ArkansasReactionary,

    could you explain what passage you are referring to? And by “directing themselves,” do you mean prayer?

  13. Bonald,

    The souls in purgatory are accidentally subject to time because they are dependent on our prayers. Hence the analogy fails.

    When the world is glorified on the last day, time (but not space) will indeed be abolished, as will our animal nature. There will be no change after that point.


    Article 6

    Aquinas held that a heathen must immediately upon reaching the use of reason either direct themselves to their due end, which is God, or they would commit a mortal sin of omission. This he held that heathen adults could not possibly go to the limbo of infants. I don’t understand this point, it would seem to me a polytheist could not direct themselves to God (since they don’t believe in him), but it also seems to me that one raised in a completely polytheistic society could likely be invincibly ignorant of this obligation.

  14. ArkansasReactionary,

    the pre-Vatican II manuals generally say that it is impossible for someone of normal intelligence to remain invincibly ignorant of God’s existence for a long time. The same appears to be taught by St. Paul in his epistle to the Romans, where he talks about how we can, even without supernatural revelation, gain knowledge about God from His creatures:

    “Because that which is known of God is manifest in them. For God hath manifested it to them. For the invisible things of him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made: his eternal power also and divinity: so that they are inexcusable.” (Romans 1:19-20)

    However, I think St. Thomas’s claims might be too strong. He seems to say that upon reaching the use of reason, you are able to almost immediately learn about the existence of God. I don’t see why this should be the case.

    I think “directing” yourself to God refers to a purely natural knowledge of Him and to fulfilling your natural-law duties towards Him, which doesn’t per se lead to sanctifying grace. St. Thomas appears to think that when, immediately after gaining the use of reason, you “direct” yourself to God, He will immediately grant you supernatural faith, hope and charity so that you will be in a state of sanctifying grace. I don’t see how this can be proved.

    Supernatural faith requires some knowledge of Divine revelation. When a pagan child “directs” himself to God immediately after gaining the use of reason, Divine providence might see to it that a missionary will reach him, but this presumably requires some time in which the child could commit a venial sin. Or God could miraculously enlighten the child, but I don’t think we can take this for granted.

    St. Thomas is right that nobody dies in a state of original sin without mortal sin but with venial sin, because there is no place in the afterlife where such a person could go. I would explain this as follows: When someone is in a state of original sin after acquiring the use of reason and God foresees that he will commit venial but no mortal sins, Divine providence will see to it that he will learn about Divine revelation at some point before death and die in a state of grace. This is an expression of God’s mercy, but we can know it only from revelation and not through philosophical arguments.

    On the other hand, St. Thomas has almost certainly thought much more carefully about this than I have.

  15. So nearly everyone who ever lived in a polytheistic society was culpably ignorant?

    My other objection was that even if that’s so, children do not have a fully developed intellect, but you seem to agree on that point.

    I must ask, on what do you base these conclusions about divine providence providing a missionary? It seems fairly unsupportable, and in any case there are a number of prima facia problems with it. First of all, it would entail that in some countries, millennia passed with no one at all coming to know God (since this should have caused a missionary to come), second of all, it explicit knowledge of divine revelation is required for salvation, then it would mean that no one between Noah and Abraham could have been saved, which in addition to its inherently problematic aspect would also contradict adults being incapable of going to limbus infantum, unless you’re asserting that every single adult who lived during that time happened to be damned.

    And in any case, even if it’s true that no one will actually die with original and venial but no mortal sins, that still doesn’t get rid of the question of what would happen in that situation. I don’t see why such a person wouldn’t go to the limbus infantum.

  16. @Bonald – Some of this issue may be addressed by the infrequently discussed Hierarchy in Heaven. Those in Heaven receive different degrees of the beatific vision.


    “We modern egalitarians are tempted to the primal sin of pride in the opposite way from the ancients. The old, aristocratic form of pride was the desire to be better than others. The new, democratic form is the desire not to have anyone better than yourself.[10] It is just as spiritually deadly and does not even carry with it the false pleasure of gloating superiority. Flat, boring, repetitive sameness is simply not the structure of reality in a theistic universe,[11] either on earth or in Heaven. However, in Heaven, as on earth, each of us will be or do something no one else will be or do as well. No one will be superfluous.”

    It seems a modern error, based on current assumptions and beliefs, that we assume everyone is automatically equal in Heaven (just like, moderns believe, they supposedly are here on earth).

    We might be able to assume this means a Pagan, if not fully intellectually culpable, may after purgatory still receive some degree of Heaven, though it may not be with the same fullness as the greatest Saints.

  17. > time (but not space) will indeed be abolished

    So we will not even experience a succession of thoughts?

  18. > Why do you assume that God has the power to save unrepented sinners?

    Why can’t He stop their sensory torture without granting them the beatific vision?

  19. George,

    Heaven is not equal, but neither is it equivocal. A man either dies with original sin, and is therefore stripped of Heaven, or dies without it (or mortal sin) and attains Heaven. There is no middle ground or half-salvation.


    Only in this life will we reason discursively. Then we will have instantaneous intellection, like the angels.

    The primary torment of Hell is spiritual desolation. Removing physical torment would not essentially change its character.

  20. It’s weird to think that God has the power to erase original sin and save unrepented sinners but cannot ensure that all the elect will be born at a time and in a place where they will have the chance to become Catholics.

  21. It’s in God’s power to cause all of the elect to be born in such circumstances that they have a chance to become Catholic, or to convert a sinner into a saint or a triangle into a square (as in changing them, not causing them to simultaneously be contraries), but the simple fact that God has the power to do something doesn’t mean he actually will.

  22. Does anyone know the theological basis of the proposition that existence in Hell is eternal?
    If Purgatory is a purification eventually leading to Heaven, it seems like Hell could also be a more-painful purification.

    At the very least I’m not aware of any reason that the gate to Hell must be a one-way proposition, other than the fact that that is what I have always heard people say.

  23. Souls in Purgatory have a good will and merely are in need of perfection. Souls in Hell have an evil will and consequently cannot be brought to good will. Indeed, if it were possible for the disposition of the damned to be perfected (which it is not, since they have already attained their final end, at least regards the essence of their spiritual condition), this would consist in them becoming more evil.

  24. In addition AR’s statement, if you’re willing to do a bit of Scriptural proof-texting, consider Christ’s statement regarding Judas that “it would be better for him to have never been born.” If everybody goes to Heaven eventually, then there is no circumstance under which that is true.

    Personally, I suspect it is something in the nature of eternity that makes the choice count forever. I cannot think of a way in which it is possible to be redeemed out of Hell in which it is not also possible for us to sin even in Heaven. If one can change, why not the other?

  25. AR,

    Once one has died, one ceases to be intrinsically subject to time. It makes no sense to think of the wicked repenting after death even in a natural sense. They reject God, and that simply is the condition they exist in.

    I don’t think St. Thomas Aquinas would agree with you on this point:

    The fire of hell is called eternal, only because it never ends. Still, there is change in the pains of the lost, according to the words “To extreme heat they will pass from snowy waters” (Job 24:19). Hence in hell true eternity does not exist, but rather time; according to the text of the Psalm “Their time will be for ever” (Psalm 80:16).

    – Sum I, 10, iii, ad. 2.

    While Aquinas asserts that eternity truly and properly so called is in God alone (and therefore true eternity does not exist for the damned), he does explicitly state that time exists and will go on for the damned forever.

  26. Apparently I was in error.

    In that case I would say that the answer to Bonald’s question is thus, that in order for a man in the state of sin to repent, God’s grace must first act upon him. But grace cooperates with nature rather than superseding it, so it is not possible for grace to influence a man to act rightly unless the man is in some way open to it. Now, while a man is alive in the state of mortal sin, he still possesses some virtues which incline him to God, and therefore it is possible for him to repent by God’s grace. But the damned have no virtue, and therefore are in no way open to grace.

  27. […] Some have wondered how it is that the penalty of burning in Hell forever can be a just punishment for a single mortal sin. To start, let’s consider the difficulty of salvation. Objectively, salvation is remarkably simple, just be reasonably diligent in knowing your moral obligations, and don’t choose to do anything you know to be grave matter. It is of itself not that hard. […]

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