If I had to pick one thing I don’t love about being Catholic, the proof for the existence of Hell would be one of the top contenders. I can only speak for me, but it might seem pretty scary to think that every soul who doesn’t go to Heaven will be in absolute unimaginable agony for all eternity. This was a commanding thought for me through most of my life—whether I rejoiced in my Catholicism or simply took it as a burdensome given, I tended to shiver when thinking of Hell. However, more recently I’ve realized it wasn’t as much to be feared as I thought, so I share my thoughts on it here in hopes that they may prove helpful to others.
Why Does Hell Exist? Lack of Love
Once, I heard a question put to the hosts of Catholic Answers Live concerning Catholic teaching on Hell. I believe they gave multiple reasons for why Hell exists at the time, but the one that really stayed with me is that God will not force us to go anywhere we do not want to be, that is. Heaven. Think about it for a moment. Someone kills or orders the deaths of millions of people, or even ten, and remains unrepentant of it. Is that person communicating the love of God through his actions in any obvious way? No. Then, if that person truly has no love of God in his heart, then he would hardly desire eternal union with Him, which is what Heaven is. It is then a logical conclusion that God would send a person like this to the place where He is not, though by definition any place where God is not must be the essence of emptiness, sadness, and suffering.
Perfect Love Casts Out Fear…
That is one explanation for why there is a Hell. This may also be a comfort to those of us with more scrupulous tendencies, who, while trying to love God, may worry that Hell lurks around every corner. Not to go too far in the other direction and say “As long as we love Him we’ll be fine,” then treating that as a license to murder and fornicate. The real love that we were made to have for Him isn’t just a fluffy preschool sentiment; it’s a concrete love that will be reflected in our actions. Christ Himself said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” It only makes sense that if we love Him enough to actually change our actions for His sake, then He would have mercy on us and take us to be with Him. I’ve even heard stories—you may have too—about souls who prayed for mercy even within the last hours of their lives, like the good thief. Of course, while we can’t know for sure that any non-canonized soul is in Heaven, such repentance indicates a greater likelihood that the soul chose God than otherwise. Furthermore, we who are still on Earth have a great gift in the Sacrament of Confession. Not only does Christ Himself forgive us, using the priest as His instrument, but we know definitively through the Church what constitutes a valid confession, so we can know with certainty when we’ve been forgiven.
…While Damnation is Rejection of All Love
Those are some reasons why we shouldn’t live in fear of the prospect of Hell. Now consider that damnation becomes more interesting when we think about the nature of God. Specifically, He is love itself. Loving and being loved are part of His very being in a way that is different from us creatures. So, if the overarching desire of the damned is to reject Him, then they reject love and loving altogether. It could be said that the damned aren’t damned simply because they were bad, like a naughty child, but because they were offered love many times and obstinately refused the gift. Like the saved, the damned could always choose to amend their lives, but what sets them apart is their will to persist in sin, rather than turning from it.
God, in Love, Does not Reject the Repentant
Now, Hell may still appear to be a concern for us serious Catholics, because we more than anyone know the three conditions of mortal sin that could damn, namely, grave matter, full knowledge of the gravity, and full consent of the will. And, though serious Catholics probably wouldn’t think of wanting to commit an action, however apparently pleasing, if it meant a total separation from God, the evil of this world is nonetheless persistently seductive. But, there is still one more step between mortal sin and eternal damnation, that of remaining unrepentant of the sin. For example, Saint Augustine and Saint Paul made no secret of the many sins they committed early on in their lives. Yet, when God gave them a chance to repent, they took it. While the evil is greater for those who understand the evil of their actions in robbing or calumniating others, through the sacrament of Confession Christ offers us mercy proportionate to any and all sins. We could still repent in our hearts even without this gift, but I believe that He wanted us to be unafraid of admitting our guilt and repenting outwardly too. Sinning is always a tragedy, but, rather than only focusing on past evils one has committed, it is more important to know that no sin could ever be stronger than God’s mercy.
If We Love Him, Fear is Unnecessary
Hell certainly exists; we all know that. But, need we treat it as an ominous and likely prospect if we are also trying to live our lives in obedience to our God and His loving rule? While I’m not a trained theologian, I don’t think so. After all, the goal of the Christian on earth is to love and serve God. If we are always striving to serve Him in this life, then what is the reception of Heaven but a natural continuation of that service? Let us then turn all of our hearts and actions over to Him in this life, giving them to Him with joy when we succeed, and turning to Him with contrition when we fail. If we do this, we will have nothing to fear when the time comes to face Him in the next life.