The hardest Catholic teaching of all concerns hell. I do accept that teaching, but with difficulty and no small amount of doubt. We’ve all heard the argument: “If God is all loving, how can He permit hell?” A common Catholic reply is, “God sends no one to hell. People send themselves there.” Let’s look further into this mystery.
The Church does not claim to know the number of the damned. However, notable saints have said that hell is very well populated and the majority of people who die end up there. (Jesus Himself seems to have taught this.) That’s even harder to believe than the existence of hell itself. Think of all the people you know. Do you think most of them deserve to be damned?
But maybe we are looking at it the wrong way. Maybe our problem is that we are trying to play God. Who are we to decide who deserves to be saved and who deserves to be damned? Can we see the inner secrets of other men’s hearts? Do we know all that they have said, done or thought? Do we know if they are truly repentant or not?
We do know that God allows incredible evil and suffering to exist on earth. If He allows it here, why would He not allow it in the afterlife?
I am 50 years old and the longer I live the more I am convinced that the crucial issue of human life is the choice between selfishness and sacrificial love. I believe that the existence of God is self-evident; that everyone, deep down inside, simply “knows” that He exists. In their heart of hearts, they also know that someday they will have to give an account of their lives to Him. I also believe that God continuously “calls” people to repentance in various ways and that people are aware of that call deep in their hearts. Some people heed God’s call, some do not.
I believe the “judgement” will simply be the meeting of each man, immediately after He dies, with God. Each man will stand “naked” before God. If a man truly loved God on earth he will love him all the more when he meets Him face to face. Assuming he did sufficient penance for his sins while on earth, the communion he shared on earth with God will then be perfect. He will be in heaven.
However, if a man lived a sinful, selfish and unrepentant life, he will flee in horror when He sees God. To “see God” is to see one’s self as one truly is. For the unrepentant, prideful sinner that sight is unbearable and he must flee from God’s presence. His flight will take him to the company of demons and the damned. As miserable as this existence in hell will be, he will prefer it to being in the presence of a holy God.
Those who were repentant on earth but did not sufficiently do penance for their sins, will have to undergo a time of suffering or “purification” before they enter into full heavenly communion with God.
So yes, I believe that eternal punishment awaits the unrepentant sinner, and I believe that that Church has the responsibility to warn the world about this ultimate danger. Unfortunately, the Church since Vatican II has downplayed the seriousness of hell. Let’s pray that she returns to her traditional strategy of clearly and consistently warning the world about hell while we do all we can to avoid going there ourselves!