One day, driving and listening to Canada’s publicly-funded national radio my ears perked up. The discussion seemed to be turning to theology. The author being interviewed had just completed a book on the subject of hell. My hopes for new insights on the topic were, however, disappointed. The approach was not theological, but sociological, and the answer to the question “Why hell?” was painfully cliché.
Various versions of hell, the listener was informed, show up in cultures and religions throughout history and have remarkable staying power because such mythologies serve the cultural elite by controlling the masses through fear and the threat of eternal punishment. However convenient some elites may have found this version of hell, a deeper and more penetrating reason for the ubiquity and tenacity of the notion of hell is the simple fact of its reality. A lot of us spend a lot of our time there.
Hell is not a doctrine invented to control you. It is, like all true doctrine, a window on your soul, a means of understanding God, yourself, your relationships, and your eternal destiny. It is a good rule of thumb, when considering what theology has traditionally called the four last things (heaven, hell, purgatory, judgment), to keep in mind that what happens after death is intimately related to what is happening in life. The basic dynamics of sin and grace that have their fruit in the four last things are already playing out, and can be profitably observed, in our everyday lives. We have all at least glimpsed, and sometimes positively endured, the reality of hell.
One of the more awkward things for the sociological doctrine of hell to explain is why Jesus—who was not, nota bene, executed because of his successes furnishing the social elite with just-so doctrines for dominating the populace—talks about it more than any other figure on the Bible. Not that the sociologists and historians of religion are the only ones who miss this point. It is not uncommon to hear, in Christian circles, the (neo-)Marcionite notion that hell is some sort of Old Testament doctrine that Jesus’s gospel of love and mercy did away with alongside God’s wrath, judgment, and disdain for pork and shellfish.
The root of this dissonance is not hard to imagine. Jesus came proclaiming good news. And hell, it seems obvious, is very bad news indeed. Why, then, does Jesus seem so committed to the idea? Could it be that it follows from his profound understanding of the human heart?
Hell as Motivation for Mission?
Recent debates on the doctrine of hell in popular Catholicism, often with reference to the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar, have focused on whether hell is relatively full or empty. Both sides are able to cherry-pick support from Scripture and the Tradition of the Church, but it soon becomes clear to anyone who wades into these waters that the debate is not actually about what Scripture and Tradition teach. It is about the utility of a doctrine of hell as a motive for evangelization.
Catholics should be taught that most people are damned, say the partisans of a full hell, so that they do not become complacent in their duty to preach the Gospel. That the partisans of a relatively empty hell with whom they spar may well have dedicated their lives to preaching the Gospel does not seem to register as a counterpoint to this logic.
But are we actually satisfied with the premises behind this argument? Is it compelling to believe in (a relatively full) hell because such belief is convenient as a motive for Christian evangelization? In fact, one wonders what the secular sociologists of hell might make of this argument. Perhaps another reason for the persistence of a doctrine of hell in human cultures is that religions that believe in hell feel the need to convert others to their religion to save them from it?
Like our first sociological explanation, it may well be at least partly true. But it is just as theologically unsatisfying. And it is Jesus’s teaching about hell in the Gospels that again makes this clear. Indeed, for all the ostensibly self-evident logic of this argument, Jesus, and with him the entire New Testament, is wholly innocent of it. When Jesus talks about hell, he never talks about mission, and when he talks about mission, he never talks about hell. That should be enough to give us pause.
Jesus’s teaching about hell is never about the fate of anyone except his audience. He only speaks to people who should be concerned about hell, never about other people who should be concerned about hell. His concern is to shake his audience out of their complacency and self-satisfaction, to alert them to the real possibility of hell present in them, that is, in each of us. He has nothing good to say to (or about) anyone whose confidence in their own righteousness is the flip side of their easy condemnation of others. To take Jesus’s words about hell as evidence that other people are damned is to perfectly invert their meaning, and to put oneself in greater danger. “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”
For his part, St. Paul gives no indication, in all his travails on behalf of the Gospel, that his motivation for mission derives from a fear that millions of souls are being damned. He does not say, “Woe to the world if I do not preach the gospel.” Paul’s motivation is not external, but internal. He has met Jesus Christ. He had been locked in a prison of his own self-justification and he has been freed. His experience of freedom in the Risen Lord drove him: “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel.”
As Pope St. John Paul II puts it in his encyclical Redemptoris missio: “the Church’s mission derives not only from the Lord’s mandate but also from the profound demands of God’s life within us” (§11). In this same paragraph the Pope goes on to quote Lumen Gentium’s stern warning to Catholics (cf. Lumen gentium §14) that it is they who risk damnation if they take their status in Christ for granted and do not respond to God’s grace in their lives by bearing witness to it.
As it was for Jesus, the function of the doctrine of hell for St. John Paul II is not to motivate us to preach the Gospel because others are in danger. It is to force us to look at ourselves. If it relates to mission at all, it is to ask ourselves whether our own experience of Jesus is genuine if we are not impelled by a kind of inner necessity to share it. As Henri de Lubac wrote, “If I cease evangelizing, it is because charity has withdrawn from me. If I no longer feel the need to communicate the flame, it is because it no longer burns in me.” The sights of any properly Catholic doctrine of hell are never set on anyone but me.
Fire of Love
Jesus preached about hell, not to motivate lukewarm Christians to preach the Gospel, but because he took the human situation before God with utmost seriousness. And human beings have created hell. We have tried to live without God. This does not simply mean that we sin. It means that we seek to justify our sin. Hell is the pathetic human reality of trying to overcome sin by self-justification. This is doomed to failure. Self-justification does not overcome sin; it multiplies it. This is the human condition without God. Our existential reality requires a candid acknowledgment of hell’s existence if there is to be any real possibility of its defeat. Any religion that does not have a doctrine of hell cannot have a doctrine of salvation.
We noted above that the four last things are all experienced in this life. This is because heaven, hell, purgatory, and judgment are the concepts we use to describe our encounters with God. As von Balthasar evocatively puts it: “God is the Last Thing of the creature. Gained He is its paradise; lost He is its hell; as demanding, He is its judgment; as cleansing, He is its purgatory.” In this life, we encounter God as all these things: in beauty and love; in sin and self-justification; in conscience and challenge; in painful consequences patiently borne.
God is God, but our encounter with God is shaped by the state of our souls. This is why we can say that humans have created hell—because we have created the conditions under which God’s love might be experienced as pain and loss. On its own, sin is not enough to create these conditions. In God, sin encounters radical forgiveness. It may hurt, but forgiveness accepted is not hell but purgatory. What turns sin into an experience of hell is the rejection of God’s freely-offered justification in Christ in favor of self-justification. Hell is the permanent stand, taken before God and all creation, that my sins were not really sins, that my supposed faults were justified, that my victims got what they deserved. To such a stand, an offer of forgiveness is an unbearable affront.
The Church holds—at one and the same time—both that this is a real possibility to be taken seriously by every human person and that it is possible that no individual has ever made this stand in a definitive way. As Karl Rahner, SJ once wrote:
Even if I could assume that the most abandoned criminals in world history, capable indeed of anything, are really miserable creatures made so by heredity and environment, even if I were to defend the whole world, I must be prepared to admit that there is one person who cannot be defended and that he knew, although he did not want to know, although he repressed it, although he had a thousand good excusing causes: and I must have the courage to be this one.
This tension, in Scripture itself and in the teaching of the Church, keeps the doctrine of hell from becoming an occasion either of despair or presumption, those twin vices arrayed against the virtue of hope. If we are honest, we must admit both that we can never judge what might be in the hearts of others and that we know, in our own hearts, that the temptation to permanent self-justification is real. It is hidden in every lame excuse, in every failure to benefit from critique, in every overreaction to accusation. Such things may well be consumed in the fire of God’s love, seen, with embarrassment and relief, for what they are: unnecessary self-protection and even self-delusion keeping us from communion with God and one another. But there is another possibility. Faced with the truth about ourselves, and offered mercy in light of it, we may double-down on falsehood, preferring our fiction to God’s fact.
God is love. And God’s justice is God’s mercy. To say that hell is something we humans choose, or to say that hell is an expression of God’s justice, or to say that hell is the experience of God’s mercy rejected, is not to say three different things, but to say one thing from three different angles.
Hell is not an Old Testament doctrine at all. The ancient Hebrew concept of sheol only hints at the notion of hell.  Hell is a thoroughly New Testament doctrine, because it only reaches its full meaning once mercy has been offered and rejected, indeed when mercy is experienced as accusation and rejection.
It is striking that the Church teaches definitively that certain human individuals have persevered in God’s grace and live now in glory with God forever in heaven, and that there is no equivalent teaching about individuals in hell. Think what we might about the state of Judas’s soul, or Hitler’s, or Stalin’s, or Nero’s, the Church not only fails to teach that they are damned, it positively invites us to pray for their salvation. “Lead all souls to heaven,” says the Fatima prayer, “especially those most in need of thy mercy.”
Just as catechesis must teach children that Satan is not God’s great dualist rival, equal and opposite, locked in eternal combat, we must recognize that hell is no rival to heaven. Whether its denizens be many, few, or none, hell is not, as the Calvinist doctrine of double-predestination imagines, a place God has planned or willed for any human creature. It is, rather, a corollary of heaven, which may or may not ever be realized.
But even if hell is empty, that is not because it does not exist. While the Church does not pronounce that any individuals are certainly damned, it does teach that one individual has gone to hell. Christ himself, says the creed, has descended into hell. The human situation about which Christ spoke when he taught about hell, the utter depths of human loneliness and desolation without God, was not discounted when he took on the human condition himself. The incarnation, also sometimes called a descent, was God’s “yes” to all of it. Christianity does not teach us that hell exists. That we can know from simple, honest observation. Christianity teaches us that it is possible to find God in the depths of Godforsakenness. And on the third day, he rose again.
 Fondement, 41. Quoted in Paul McPartlan Sacrament of Salvation: An Introduction to Eucharistic Ecclesiology (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1995), 75.
 As one leading contemporary Thomist puts it, “What are the origins of hell? Where does it come from? Fundamentally, eternal damnation stems not from God, but from the choices of human beings, who freely turn away from God, Christ, and the moral law.” Thomas Joseph White, The Light of Christ: An Introduction to Catholicism (Washington, D.C.: CUAP 2017), 266.
 I treat the origins of this phrase in my Can Catholics and Evangelicals Agree about Purgatory and the Last Judgment? Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2011, p. 112, n. 4.
 Karl Rahner, The Priesthood (Chestnut Ridge, NY: Herder and Herder, 1973).
 See: Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity (San Francisco: Ignatius), 1969: 301.