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Saturday, March 26, 2011

Hell is a place of mercy

Hell is not really a bioethical issue, at least not directly. Hell is the negative reinforcement, the deterrent factor, in having a workable ethics. We naturally want to do what is good and right – but why do we want to avoid what is evil and wrong? If there is no hell, there is no reason to “do good and avoid evil,” the very first principle of anything that can be called “ethics.” Hell is life opposed to good. If there is no hell, then there is nothing opposed to good.

There is a new book out about hell, written by Protestant pastor, Rob Bell. Bell basically thinks hell is on earth, and that everyone will be saved and go to heaven. He has a hard time accepting that a loving God would “send” anyone, anyone at all, to a place of eternal torment.

Unfortunately, justice is a part of love. If everyone gets to heaven, regardless of the evil perpetrated in earthly life, then there is no justice and no love. If there is no recompense for evil actions, there is no reward for good.

Without hell, there is no need to do good and avoid evil, because the outcome is the same. Self-sacrifice is meaningless. Suffering is meaningless. Not indulging oneself regardless of who it hurts or what the outcomes are is meaningless. Murder, genocide, global warming, Ponzi schemes, exploitation, dishonesty – it’s all meaningless because you go to heaven anyway.

Likewise, even if there is neither heaven nor hell as atheists believe, then there is also no reason to do good and avoid evil. You die, and that’s it. You no longer exist. So why bother about what your reputation will be when you’re gone? Why not live entirely for yourself, even if it hurts others along the way? It seems unconscionable, but think about it. Once you die, neither you nor the people you use and hurt matter any longer. You cannot be harmed by other people's hate and their hatred has no object. Whether or not they are harmed is irrelevant, because you're dead and they'll eventually die, too.

Now, I don’t know many atheists who would agree with that, as many do try to lead good lives. But I’m talking about the ethical principles at work. Why do they try to lead good lives? Without hell and heaven, there is no ethical principle higher than “what I want for myself.” And that might include being kind to people and accepting a loss of a personal good for the sake of something greater. However, it would be a totally personal choice. It would be “good” because it is what you want. If God doesn't exist, there is no universal and objective good or principle of behavior that demands assent. And some people could quite ethically choose to please themselves and hurt others. We might disagree with it, but we can't say it's “wrong” or “evil.”

Atheists and relativists I think have a hard time accepting the notion of hell because they feel entitled to define things like “love” and “good” for themselves. “If God is 'love' (the way 'I' define it), then there is no hell.” Well, who can argue against that? If you define love to exclude the possibility of hell, then you have to be right—if “love” is actually something you can define for yourself.

What if love is an objective reality, not subject to idiosyncratic definitions? What if it has its own attributes and properties, that we must recognize and accept if we call ourselves reasonable and open-minded?

Justice has to be a part of love, because it means given each one his due, be it reward or punishment. It is out of love for persons that we strive to give each his due. 

But, if justice is a part of love, then some people go to hell. God loves himself after all, and he loves human beings. God is love, and he is what he does. Can he love himself –can he be love – if he rewards hate, and in particular hatred of himself? Can people who hate him be in a mutual relationship of love with him, which is what heaven is? Can a square be a circle?

If everyone goes to heaven, then the people who hate God must at some point come to love him. If that does not happen before the end of their earthly life, then it has to happen after death. I suppose it is possible. But there are only two ways it can happen. One is, God reveals himself to those about to die, and the true, loving nature of God melts the cold, hateful heart of those who hate him, and they come to love him. And this happens without fail in every case. The other is, God more or less forces the hateful person to love him. Some people do not distinguish the two.

The second at any rate does not happen, because we are free and we cannot be both free and subject to that kind of force. Besides, a loving God would not use that kind of force. And, it is not love if it is forced out of us, it has to be freely given. Being free makes the first unlikely, too. In seeing the true nature of God, there will surely be those who hate him all the more, because in creating them as finite and frail humans, he deprived them of being gods and caused all the hardships in their earthly lives. Seeing his majesty and goodness, such persons would resent him. They would hate him for not sharing his divinity with them.

Ironically, heaven is a participation in the divine nature. Those who hate God could have had it, if they only loved God instead. But they hated him. If such hatred persists after death as it seems it must, there is a hell. It is what such people want and deserve after all. 

However, hell is eternal. Is that really just? Is that loving? I say it is. I say hell actually is a place of mercy. 

Whoever hates God as described has achieved an evil that is in some respect infinite. It is infinite insofar as the hated object is infinite, and it is infinite because the person has refused to change. Therefore, the punishment, which the person freely prefers over being with God, has to have a dimension of infinity as well.

A punishment has two dimensions. One is duration. The other is severity. Since the punishment lasts forever, we know that the duration is infinite. However, the severity need not be. In fact, it cannot be infinite, or else it would annihilate the person. Perhaps the sufferings of hell are not even as intense as the person deserves them to be, because God in his mercy can make them less intense. There is no need for them to be overly severe, because there is no escape from them.

And in that sense, hell is a place of mercy.

It is like the criminal court judge sentencing a serial killer who deserves the death penalty. Would it not be an act of mercy to give him life in prison instead? Either way, his life in society with good people is over forever. Yet it is a mercy to let him live.

The question some might have is the purpose of the sufferings of hell. Punishment is usually ordered to correction of behavior, which would be out of love of the guilty party in some way. Sometimes it is for retribution, which in some respect reflects love of the injured party. Neither applies to hell, because the person cannot change his ways after death, and because God needs no retribution nor do the human victims once they are in heaven. In some respects, the sufferings simply are – suffering is the way things are apart from God.

The sufferings of those in hell might serve other purposes for those not in hell as well, so that some good might come from it. The sufferings inspire the good to be good and to repent of their evil while they can. That is the deterrent factor. 

The sufferings can also be looked at like this. Most people who hate God love themselves more. They have chosen themselves (or some other creature) as their own gods, and in death they realize that they are not and can never be gods. And so the horrors of hell are: The realization of how pathetic their gods are, being doomed to serve the pathetic gods they chose in life, and seeing the infinite good that they have forsaken forever in favor of the infinitesimal good they preferred.

These things will surely torment someone forever.

God cannot change the fact that hell has torments. God is Truth, and it is against the nature of truth to make that which is true to become untrue. Rejecting and hating God means accepting and preferring torment to heaven. God can mitigate those torments and order those torments to the good of those not in hell, which are acts of mercy. So hell does serve God’s mercy, even for those in it.

To deny the existence of an eternal hell is to deny the attributes of justice and mercy to God. Justice, because evil earns the same eternal reward as good. Mercy, because if there is no possibility of punishment, than there can be no mitigation of punishment. 

It also, in a way, denies God’s power. For if there is no eternal, inescapable hell, then no one needs to be saved from it. God lets everyone into heaven because he has no power to keep them out.
Hell therefore affirms God’s existence, complete with his perfect power, justice, and mercy.


  1. Dear Dr. Coccia,

    I would very much like to get in touch with you about a paper you published in 'Doctor Angelicus' on St. Thomas and the Lombard on the nature of charity. I have not been able to find other ways of contacting you, so this was my last resort. Could you please e-mail me on gjz85@hotmail.com?

    Kind regards,

    Geertjan Zuijdwegt, MA
    Faculty of Theology
    Catholic University of Louvain

    1. Dear Dr. Coccia,
      I too am looking to read your paper on Thomas and Lombard in "Doctor Angelicus" but have been unable to track down the journal. Please email me at doyleda@bc.edu.
      Dominic Doyle.
      Boston College, MA. USA

  2. Brilliant, incisive article. Thank you!

    James Smith