Souls in hell forever?

Question: I heard a priest say that God is so much love that he does not think people will live in hell for eternity — that all will be enlightened to full truth at one point, and then they will all chose heaven. What do you think?

Julie Robinson, via email

Answer: The position of the priest, would be a form of “Origenism,” which was condemned by several councils in the early Church. The term “Origenism” is tied to the theologian Origen, who lived in the third century and proposed that in the restoration of all things (often called the apokatastasis), Satan and all the condemned would reconsider their stance and be reconciled to God. It is related to another view today called “universalism” which holds that most if not all will be saved in the end.

Such notions are emotionally understandable and seek to emphasize God’s abiding mercy. But they set aside Jesus’ own words that hell is a reality that “many” (not none or a few) will inherit. The priest in question errs because he declares a view condemned by several councils and at odds with Scripture; hence the understandable hope that all are saved in the end cannot withstand the charge of being wishful thinking.

The understanding of the Church is that the angels’ decision for or against God and his kingdom is fixed and unalterable. Thus, demons will never repent and good angels will never fall. Further, the same would seem to be true of human beings upon our death. That is, our decision for or against God is forever fixed, and the saints in heaven will not fall, but neither will the souls in hell change their rejection of God and what he offers.

Some of the Church Fathers used the image of clay on a potter’s wheel. As long as it is moist, it is able to be shaped and reshaped. But when subjected to the fire of the kiln, its shape is forever fixed.

So the priest is clearly wrong to have said this, because it is contrary to Catholic teaching. If hell is eternal, as Jesus teaches, then the eventual emptying of hell by a change of heart in the condemned is in opposition to this teaching of the Lord himself. Jesus spoke of hell as a place of exile “where ‘their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched’” (Mk 9:48).

Question: In the second sentence of the Glory Be (“Glory be to the Father and to the Son …”) what does the phrase “as it was in the beginning” mean? Does it refer to the Big Bang, to Adam and Eve or to something else?

Jim Grady. Rochester, Massachusetts

Answer: The phrase is an artistic way of saying God has always been glorious. Before time began or anything was created, God was glorious. God is glorious now and always will be glorious. Note the phrase says, “as it was in the beginning.” In other words, at the beginning, God already was glorious.

So, “in the beginning,” while not excluding the Big Bang or Adam and Eve, is broader than a mere point in our created time. God was glorious before any created thing existed.

The final phrase “world without end” is not a particularly accurate rendering of the Latin, per omnia saecula saeculorum. The phrase is more literally translated “through all the ages of ages.” In other words, this is a reference to eternity, the fullness of time. God is ever, always glorious.

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 Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to msgrpope@osv.com. Letters must be signed but anonymity may be requested.