Question: If God knows everything about us from our beginning until we die, how can God allow anyone to go to hell? I understand we have a free will, but if God knows what we will do with our free will, how can he allow someone to go to hell? In other words, should God create someone he knows will not go to heaven?
— Name, location withheld
Answer: Your question points to one of the deeper mysteries of God’s providence. Part of the answer is clear enough. If God were only to allow those to exist who will say “yes,” then our freedom becomes something of a mirage. It is like saying, “I will only give you freedom if you do exactly what I say.” In such a case there really isn’t freedom.
For God to pre-exclude the very existence of any rebellious soul therefore does a great deal of harm to our dignity since it is our nature both to exist and to possess free will. What does our “yes” really mean if the possibility of a “no” was screened out ahead of time?
So our freedom does present a sort of conundrum when it comes to God’s sovereignty and love. But God is very serious about the free will he grants to angels and human beings. It remains clear that many reject him and use their freedom to commit great evils, yet God seldom intervenes.
Regarding those in hell, it might be helpful to recall that it need not be thought of as a place of unmitigated suffering. If hell were pure evil, it would not exist at all since evil is the privation of what is good and true. It is a fact that Jesus used rather vivid imagery to describe hell, but as St. Thomas and others note, there are likely levels and distinctions in hell, which admit of greater or lesser suffering. This is in conformity to God’s justice. If that be the case, those in hell are not bereft of all good. Though the souls in hell have chosen against God and the kingdom of heaven, God still sustains them, and his providence still reaches them.
Perhaps the saddest truth of all is that the souls in hell would be even less happy in heaven. It is a strange fact that some prefer darkness to light, impurity to chastity, and vengeance to forgiveness. God does not force us to love what and whom he loves, and some strangely prefer a place apart and would not find the real heaven desirable.
Question: Can the Holy Father err in religious matters? When are we obliged to follow him? I have been confused by some things he has said lately.
— Hugh Sweeny, Stoneham, Mass.
Answer: Most utterances by a pope are not infallible and are not intended as such. Hence, a pope can err, even in religious matters. Only when the pope invokes the office of Peter, in a matter of faith and morals, and indicates that what he is saying is to be definitively held by the faithful, does the charism of infallibility apply. Such utterances are rare, and Pope Francis has not used such language.
That said, Catholics are expected to give religious submission of mind and heart even to non-infallible teachings of the pope. But this is usually understood of formal teachings by him such as an encyclical. The current pope frequently makes “off the cuff” remarks and comments. These present a bit of confusion from time to time and are not likely “teachings” as such, but more in the realm of personal opinions.
Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C. and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.