Observations on hell

Question: Did you receive any responses to your column on hell (“Prayer and hell,” Dec. 11)? 

Composite question

Answer: Yes, I received many responses/questions/expressions of fear. In light of them, I offer the following observations:

1. Can we be sure anyone is in hell? No. Only God knows that. And God is the most “nonjudgmental” being in the universe. One person fears that her late husband (a non-practicing Catholic) is in hell. I want to assure her that, if she loved him, she should have no fears. God is the greatest lover of all. 

2. Does God allow people to repent when they encounter Christ at the moment of death? I believe so, and lots of theologians think so (Karl Rahner, Owen Cummings, Ladislaus Boros.) This is what the particular judgment is all about. 

3. Does hell exist? The Catholic tradition thinks so, and I think so. To deny the possibility of hell is to deny free human choice — something that we can never do. 

4. Is hell eternal? Some early theologians such as Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Clement of Alexandra denied that it was. They held that a time will come when all free creatures will share in the glory of salvation. And in our own time the rather “conservative” Hans Urs von Balathasar was accused of veering on the edge of this belief. This belief was early on condemned by the Church (see also the Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1035). 

5. Doesn’t your position here fly in the face of Jesus’ words about eternal fire and damnation, and the visions of Christian mystics who had visions of hell? Jesus’ words I take very seriously. We will only find out the full truth at the general judgment. The private revelations of “mystics” can be quite bizarre. We cannot simply dismiss them, but we can take many of them with a grain of salt. They are not binding on the Catholic tradition. 

7. Is not purgatory a sort of hell? No. Purgatory is the ante-chamber to heaven. Father Benedict Groeschel says that people even sing in purgatory. Blessed John Henry Newman thought so, too. Purgatory is certainly not eternal. 

8. Do you really believe that if someone is loved and lovable, they never go to hell? Absolutely. I heard this about 1970 and have always believed it. 

9. Does not Jesus say that we should pray for our enemies — yet you wrote that prayer for those in hell is a total waste of time. Yes, I really mean that. The last thing someone in hell wants is your love and prayers. But, yes, we can even pray for Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin and priestly child abusers. We may encounter them some day. 

10. What is the best reading on hell? The thing on my mind is a chapter in a book by Cardinal Avery Dulles called “The Population of Hell.” The book is called “Church and Society.” I am also most impressed by a book by my friend Deacon Owen Cummings called “Coming to Christ.” 

The Catechism is, of course, always great on this, as on every other subject. 

11. Surely hell is not in God’s plan and was not created by God? That is right. Hell was created by human beings. C.S Lewis wrote extensively about this. 

12. Do you personally fear hell and think that you might go there? Actually, I think about it all the time. Truly! But I don’t expect to go there. I do expect to spend “centuries” in purgatory, however. That’s what the belief in indulgences is all about — but that’s another column. 

Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to mfmannion@osv.com. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.