There is a sort of objection [to the idea of life after death] which, in itself, must be allowed no weight, but which bulks large in popular imagination, because, precisely, from the imagination it arises.
The simplest example is afforded by the catch-phrases, that white robes, golden crowns, and palms form no alluring prospect; and that “if heaven is like that,” we don’t want it. Only the lazy, or the very tired, like “peace,” that is, “inertia.” Or again, that no one could spend eternity even in praising God. This implies not only a confusion of thought which suggests that what we like now is effort, fight, growth as such, and not rather the victory, or at least the expression of strength, that is, of personality and life involved in each moment of these; but, a similar reflection into the future life, by means of imagination, of what we are accustomed to in this. We still picture it containing a very sublimated, purified edition of what we judge to be good behavior here; heaven is visioned as the supremest form of churchgoing, and the never-ending praise of God as, after all, the recitation of some interminable psalter. . . .
Is Hell Unfair?
Probably, however, modern instinct recoils less from the pictured happiness of heaven, than from the fiery scenes of hell. . . .What [people] resent is the whole idea of such appalling punishment, and definitely, that it should be called “eternal.” In fact, this singular phenomenon is seen. The revolt against Catholic dogma, out of which issued the Protestant sects, included a contemptuous denial of purgatory, but insisted fiercely upon hell: nowadays, those who believe in after-death suffering at all, insist that it shall be purely purgatorial, and it is hell they will have none of. And the ground they take is moral, involving the whole character of human life on the one side, and our very conception of God upon the other; there is nothing in humanity, they would urge, to which hell could be proportionate: punishment which is not medicinal, is in itself immoral; God’s justice no less than his mercy, his power equally with his love, are affronted if we conceive of him as creating, or allowing “hell.” Modern minds are not the first to have felt, poignantly, this problem.
“Well, then, however great a sinner, a man cannot deserve that. He doesn’t know what he is doing: he is too weak to carry through the good he knows: there is not malice enough in the world to warrant hell. Wherefore God cannot be just, and send a man there; cannot be powerful and wise, if he fail to invent, and neglect to create, a world in which nothing shall make hell possible; cannot be merciful, if he punish at all from ‘vengeance’; cannot be loving, if he can support, in his eternal bliss, the knowledge that souls are damned; cannot be God at all, if he thus makes a world, and fail to make it a ‘success.’ Even the loss of one soul were failure.”
Such is the grave and cumulative indictment against a God who sends a soul to hell.
We must state first that it is not revealed how many souls, or what proportion, are lost. Most Catholics would say that we know that Judas is; yet, for the human race, we have no knowledge of numbers or proportions; but that angels are “lost,” we know; and if even one “soul” be lost, the problem stands. Our perspective may be shifted, but the fact remains.
Hope for Sinners
Next, it is clear that Catholic dogma equally implies, that if a man be condemned, he deserved to be. The moment we can truly say, he did not know, or he could not help his sin. . . God has said that well first; and if we can see reasons for mercy that are true reasons and not unjust excuses, God sees many more. Sins of passion—well, “weakness” does go far to account for them: sins of pride, ignorance makes them possible. But never shall we permit ourselves to say that man can never do better than he does, or know more than he does. Some culpability survives. But is it enough? Is it incurable? Well, for all that is not quite enough, that is only just rectified, purgatory exists. Even that most appalling thing to see the man whose role in life seems simply to be putrefactive; who seems, passionlessly, to choose just to corrupt innocence—he must know it to be corruption; and it must be innocence—well, even of these I have now and again asked myself whether this be not due to a desire for power grown tyrannical in a man who has become so morally shrunken as to know he cannot exercise power for betterment, but can, by spoiling; and so just spoils, less for love of the spiritual decay he causes, than for love of the sense of causing something—and indeed, something so very vital and hence so great.
The sin may be different from what it seems, and its excuse, if any, where we do not seek for it. The capability of good—perhaps of great good—may still be there. Easier is this realized in those who seem to be lustful irremediably. The power of worshipping true beauty, the capacity for true love is there, or may be, yet the torrential personality is diverted and hurled out upon the parody, the idol.
And perhaps by the tiniest shift of bias, this out-streaming self may be redirected to the true, and the soul saved; for all the while it was seeking, in the distorted caricature, the pure loveliness which it was, in truth, desiring. If we then can guess that, much more can God have knowledge of it; and it grows wholly clear, that, however much God may perchance in justice pronounce sentence on a soul, we never may.
Ignorant, then, are they of human nature, and of God, who deride death-bed conversions, as though they must needs be insincere. Who knows what astounding shiftings of the personality may not, at that unique moment, and in unplumbed depths of the self, take place—nay, even, one would say, must take place in the all but discarnate soul, or have the chance of taking place? Foolish are they who sneer at the anxious effort of the Church, and her eager giving of the sacraments even to the seemingly unconscious, or to the hardened sinner if but there be some symptom that his will has become susceptible of their effects; or even, it may be, short of that, you may almost suppose that in the interior soul that divine mysterious recognition and embrace is happening, which by no exterior symptom can express itself.
Here, then, you must remember that the forgiveness of sins is an article of our Creed. Here is no arbitrary condemnation in mid-life; no fatal mechanistic series; no Karma, even. There is only one complete, irreversible soul-suicide, the act of dying with the will rebellious against God’s. After all, man is limited. The soul, I said, has an appetite for the infinite; yet not infinite is the soul. It is conceivable that the soul may so pour itself out into an act of knowledge, that it can do no more; it has become its knowledge; it is its own act; time exists no more for it. So, too, it is conceivable that a soul may, as it were, exhaust itself in an act of will: it has fully expressed itself in its choice; it is that will, then; the soul may make itself what is opposed to God. That gigantic act may indeed occur; it is an evil self; it is its own worst hell.
But this carries us beyond the juridical.aspect of the problem on which these “moral” difficulties are based. From the side of man they disappear if it be recalled that man, if he finds himself “in hell,” has put himself there. No Calvinist predestination is ours. “This is the will of God, your sanctification. God wills that all men should be saved.”
And on God’s side we have to recall that in him all is one—mercy, justice, power, love. Only our limited, inexhaustive, analyzing intellect sets these “attributes” as it were one against the other. He cannot defeat his mercy by his justice, nor justice by mercy; both are knowledge: in all he is being true to himself; his action is his self; he alone is, in the full sense, his self. No deviation from the true right is possible, on his part, without his ceasing to be God. This we know unerringly. Of the moral.aspect of what we know we judge; and in human verdicts is room for almost every error.
We Must be Free to Fail
As I said, the heart of this problem, in all save the one point of eternity, lies elsewhere, and coincides with the wider “difficulty” of evil. Yet this may be suggested: God, we are bound to say, could have created a world where there was no temptation, or where souls should have been so deluged with “grace” that they would never have yielded to temptation. In fact, in heaven, angels and saved souls are free, yet “cannot” sin. However, from our end of the series, I say that men want an effort and a hazardous one, at that.
If they knew that, however slack they were, they yet were certain ultimately to succeed, by some relatively coercive help, then all elasticity, all spring of action would be gone, for many if not for each.
The walls of God’s City are high, and the moat deep. Yet even so we demand the escalade, and would resent a crane. “I can slip, I know; I can even try to plunge. . . yet never shall I fail to reach the battlements. . . ” I must be free to fail. There will be hours, no doubt, when I feel myself so weary or so perverse that I shall then call on God to save me in spite of myself.” I cry with St. Augustine, than whom none has better fathomed the deficiencies of human nature, his own to start with: ” Nostras etiam rebelles ad te compelle voluntates “: “Even when our wills rebel, Lord, our wills to thee compel.” But we shall have chosen that uncoercive violence. We are still supplying the bare minimum of effort.
A False Problem
Is there not here, perhaps, a “false problem”? I mean, one of which the solution would depend on our adequate knowledge of two facts of each of which we know but part. If we try to “reconcile” them, we may be using for that purpose precisely those parts in which the element of reconciliation does not reside. Any reconciliation so effected, would necessarily be illusory and false. Now this problem of God’s having created such a world, “despite” his knowledge that man could and would, in it, misuse his opportunities and nature, concerns two liberties and their interaction: ours and God’s. But not even our own liberty can we truly analyze. Of it we have a direct intuition which is basic and cannot be cast aside. Deny it, and every step forward in life denies your own denial. But it eludes adequate analysis. Still less is the liberty of God to be g.asped by human intellect. It is in our liberty we most resemble God; and continue—baffling paradox—so to resemble him precisely when and because we freely defy him. Here, then, is our human freedom mysterious enough; and there, divine freedom, a full mystery. False is the problem that arises for us from a contradiction between two terms neither of which we fully understand, and indeed between those elements in them precisely, which are those we do not understand. It may then be said that so terribly does God respect this transcendent fact of liberty, even this participated liberty of ours, that his esteem for it outstrips (to put it humanly) his desire even for our happiness, and thus, even a world where liberty has been misused is not a failure.
I Crave Abundant Life
Another less poignant moral problem before I pass on. “Heaven is itself immoral.” To do right for reward’s sake, is wrong. No. That is nonsense. Right should be rewarded. Effort implies life, and creates a claim for more life. That increase of life is effort’s fitting—you may say necessary—reward: By acting rightly, I exist better, and have a greater capacity for good. Good should, then, come to me. Else there is disproportion. I should, then, desire this; seek for more life; earn it; resent the injustice which refuses it. Thus does society itself develop. I am right, then, to act, positively, in view of it. But I may, too, act disinterestedly; do that which shall bring me reward, yet not for that; regretting it, even, in the human area, lest the prospect spoil my “pure intention”; even, lest I be thought to have worked for “pay” alone. Yet not for that should the reward not reach me. I may act, for parent or friend, just for their sake, indignant, bewildered, at mention of “return.” Yet reciprocated love, at least, is due. Even if I choose to act, serve, love, in secret, none the less a singular sweetness, a consciousness of betterment ensues. I am the better: I am more “man.” The increase of my life, unasked, unsought, has happened. (So with pleasure: I need not act for pleasure, or may subordinate it; but on every increase of well-being attends its “pleasure,” and I could only discard that, by destroying life.) But when the result of my good actions is the increase of my share in God’s life, I may act as disinterestedly as I please, but I cannot regret or refuse even the result, and in fact must seek it, for he is life.
Christ came to give that “more abundant life” which I by instinct crave. It is my will to do his will: but his will is my salvation. My true self is my saved self: I am my heaven. Suicidal arrogance, to reject this; futility, to elude it; true self-realization, because true self tradition; achievement, because sacrifice; renunciation is a function of desire. I want to love God: therefore, to be united with him; therefore, “to be in heaven.”. . .
To this heaven, then, the Catholic is bidden move, through him who is both goal and way, and all the while is life.
This excerpt was taken from the anthology God and the Supernatural, published in 1954 by the Catholic Book Club.