It’s recently been reported that in a meeting with his longtime atheist friend, the Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari, Pope Francis denied the reality of hell and asserted that condemned souls “disappear”—that’s to say, they’re annihilated. The Vatican responded by denying that the report was a faithful transcription of the pope’s words.
Whatever Pope Francis said or didn’t say, the fundamental issue behind this theological opinion remains—namely, the apparent incompatibility between an all-good God and the eternal punishment of hell for the damned. The Catholic doctrine of hell is for many people a major obstacle to faith. If we want to evangelize such people we must first remove this obstacle, making straight the path for the Lord.
In my new book Prepare the Way, I offer three practical strategies for addressing this common impediment to belief, all of which rely on asking the right kinds of questions. Let’s look at one of those strategies here.
Explain that the everlasting punishment of hell is a matter of justice.
There are three lines of reasoning that you can take. First, the gravity of the free and willful rejection of God—what the Catholic Church calls a “mortal sin” (CCC 1855) or, as the apostle John calls it, “a sin unto death” (1 John 5:16; Douay Rheims)—reasonably calls for permanent exclusion from the presence of God. As St. Thomas Aquinas teaches, the gravity of an offense is determined according to the dignity of the person sinned against (Summa Theologiae, Suppl. III:99:1).
When preparing the way, ask your friend this question:
Q: “Is it reasonable to inflict a greater punishment on an individual for striking the president of the United States than for striking a fellow citizen in a bar brawl?”
The law does this very thing. You can now apply the principle to God.
Q: “If God is infinite in dignity and majesty, wouldn’t he have an absolute and infinite right to obedience from his reasonable creatures?”
Since there is no greater dignity than infinite dignity, you can connect the dots:
Q: “If God is infinite in dignity and majesty, and has an absolute and infinite right to obedience from rational creatures, wouldn’t it follow that a willful violation of this right, which is what a mortal sin is, would be the most severe offense a human being can commit?”
It would seem reasonable that such a violation would be the highest and gravest offense. As the late Jesuit philosopher Bernard Boedder explains, “A willful violation . . . of this right implies a malice which opposes itself to the foundation of all orders.”
Since the rejection of God’s absolute right to our obedience, worship, and love is a moral disorder of the highest degree, it deserves a penalty of the highest degree. Everlasting punishment seems to fit the bill.
You could also argue that the alternatives to everlasting punishment don’t jibe with God’s goodness and justice. Let’s say for argument’s sake that a damned soul would instead receive an intense dose of punishment and then enter heaven. Would this be just?
Imagine I find out that my twelve-year-old son ditched school, went to a party with his older teen friends, then got drunk (this is merely hypothetical, mind you). What if I punished him by saying, “Son, you’ve been a bad boy, and as a result you’re going to stay in your room for ten minutes. But when that time is up, pack your bags because we’re going to Legoland!”
Q: “How does this register on your justice monitor—especially if my son refuses to apologize for his misconduct?”
I’m pretty sure your friend would agree that the punishment is too small and that it makes no sense to follow with a reward.
Similarly, a temporary stint in hell—no matter how long the term—is much too small relative to the everlasting happiness of heaven that follows. It would be unjust for God to give heaven as a reward, after any amount of temporal punishment, to a person who committed the most grievous offense of all: the permanent, unrepentant rejection of God’s absolute right to obedience, worship, and love.
Contrary to the opinion imputed to Pope Francis, annihilation of the soul is also an unreasonable alternative.
Q: “How could a person experience just punishment for permanently rejecting God if he ceased to exist? Wouldn’t that reduce to zero the gravity of violating God’s absolute right?
You can also explain how annihilation of the soul would violate God’s wisdom.
Q: “Why would God create a soul with an immortal nature only to thwart it?”
It doesn’t make sense. Moreover, Aquinas argues that God’s power is manifest in preserving things in existence; therefore to take a soul out of being would hinder that manifestation (ST I:104:4).
Finally, you can explain how it belongs to God’s goodness to make a distinction between loyal and disloyal subjects, and to give them their just deserts.
Q: “Let’s say your parents gave their inheritance to one of your siblings who had rejected them all their life and continued to reject them right up to their death. Would it be just for your parents to give that sibling their inheritance, especially when you had been faithful to your parents throughout your entire life and remained faithful till their death?”
Hopefully your friend can see how it would be an injustice for his parents to do such a thing. The same applies to God. It wouldn’t be good for God to give heaven as a reward to his children that refuse to love him even until their death.
It’s true that no one likes the doctrine of hell. But the majesty of God demands it for those who refuse his divine right to be adored and worshiped. It’s ironic that those who deny the reality of hell do so in an attempt to uphold the reality of God who is omnibenevolent. But such theological opinions actually serve a contrary purpose: they undermine the reality of God who is sovereign, just, and all-wise.