Lately, Catholic teaching on hell has been under hell-fire from those who think it just one more indication of the obsolescence of religion. Complains one complainer: Religion terrifies into submission. It makes cowards of us all. Does it? The Church did not invent hell. The concept of eternal damnation is found in Sacred Scriptures, as it is found in most other religions. Even in Buddhism there is a concept of perpetual meaninglessness —and that is hell enough for anyone with any good sense to give some thought to what a good life should be! Many Catholics hesitate bringing up the subject of hell, and many priests consign it to a chapter in the mandatory subject on “Eschatology”—de novissimis, the “last things.”
Nikolai Berdyaev, a well-known Russian religious philosopher, rejected the very thought of hell saying that it was the unthinkable possibility of the failure of God’s saving love. But it is precisely for that reason that I think it a very ennobling concept in fact, one that affirms in all seriousness human freedom and the capacity we have for decisions that have lasting worth and validity. To insist on the possibility of hell is to assert that human freedom has a transcendental reach, and that even God’s love, his will to save, cannot make a mockery or an illusion of human self-determination. That, after all, is true love: It affirms the other and therefore makes itself vulnerable insofar as it courts its own rejection. One who truly loves is open to the possibility that one will be spurned. One who seeks to exclude all possibility of rejection is domineering if not tyrannical. In that there can be no love.
The theological idea of hell —not the apocalyptic imagery and its imaginative renditions —is what I steadfastly affirm. And I do so in the name of what is most precious to the human person: self-definition. In Ricoeur’s terms, human dignity is, in its very depths, the capacity of a person to write his own narrative, and stories need not have happy endings. In fact, it is when all stories predictably end on a happy tune that one is alerted to a made-up universe, and not to the world we inhabit where failure is as real a possibility as its success, and meaninglessness is no mere logical negation of the meaningful.
Quite significantly, in the Christian faith, heaven and hell have very little to do with making up for the wealth I never had on earth, nor getting compensated for all the misery I may have suffered, and definitely not getting even with one’s foes. It has to do with feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, walking with the lonely, binding wounds and lightening others’ burdens. Seen this way, hell is the bitter fruit, the awful harvest of arrant selfishness and merciless self-seeking. But this does not contradict the teaching on the readiness of God to forgive? God’s forgiveness is infinite as is his mercy, but it cannot be so as to make of human freedom an illusion. God wants us free, because he desires our free response to him. And so we must be free even for that ultimate, frightful possibility—the freedom to reject his summons to love.
Ultimately, it has very little to do with Pascal’s wagering, and everything to do with taking human freedom and human decisions with utmost seriousness!