Is Hell Populated?

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Most Catholics, following the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church[1]accept that hell exists. Yet some Catholics hold that while hell exists it could very well be the case that no human beings will end up in hell. While the Church never condemns anyone to hell or definitively teaches that anyone is in hell, there is good reason to believe that hell is populated and even better reason to live lives acceptable to the Father so as to merit eternal life in heaven, rather than resting on one’s laurels trusting no one is in hell.

Some theologians who hold that it may be the case that no one is in hell appeal to the greatness of God to support their claim. They argue that God, being all-loving and merciful, will see to it that no human being ends up in hell. God certainly desires that all men be saved[2] however this position fails to take into account the freedom of man. While God desires all to be saved He made man with free will so he could choose to spend eternity with Him. While we are made for communion with God, we have the ability to break that communion and thus choose to go to hell, whose chief punishment is “eternal separation from God.”[3]

While God is all merciful and loving He will not force us to do something against our free will. One need look no further than the parable of the Prodigal Son to see that the Father desires communion with us and will wait with expectation to receive us back, but will not force us to come back. For a more contemporary example take the case of a grown young man who freely decides to cut off all contact with his mother. The mother will certainly make attempts to reunite with her son, but in the end she cannot nor will she desire to force her son back into communion with her. Even if she has the ability to force some kind of communion, say by holding a trust fund over her child’s head, the communion they share will not be true communion. Likewise the Father desires true communion with us and we can be certain that He will give us every opportunity to reconcile with Him and enter back into communion, yet He will not force us back into a fake communion because heaven is true communion with the Father[4] while hell is separation from the Father.

Other theologians accept the reality of the existence of hell based on the teaching of the Church and the many passages of the bible[5] yet still hold that it may be the case that no human beings will end up in hell. They hold this position by arguing that these scripture passages are “threat discourses” and not real indications of what the future will be like for man.  While this is a beautiful thought, it simply does not conform to reality and this line of thinking does not follow proper biblical study nor does it conform to reality.

The Church is clear that the bible is not necessarily intended to be taken literally,[6] yet this does not mean that the literal text is to be ignored.  When a theologian does exegesis on a passage he is to draw out truth from the text and not add to the text. The claim that the teachings on the existence of hell are only a threat is not mentioned anywhere in scripture but is added on from the outside by theologians. In fact, when one looks at Sacred Scripture one sees the opposite, namely that when God offers a “threat” he follows through. In the Old Testament the flood is foretold and comes. The coming of Christ is also foretold in the Old Testament and comes about in the New Testament. In the New Testament Christ foretells of his passion, death and resurrection which come about. Simply put, when something is foretold in the bible it comes about. Following the pattern of the rest of Sacred Scripture, it makes no sense to claim passages about hell in the bible are just threats.

On a practical level, the claim that the passages in Sacred Scripture referring to hell are intended as threats and not as a reality makes no sense. Threats are only effective because behind every true threat is the possibility that the threat will be carried out. Take for example the case of a father threatening to ground his daughter if she stays out past curfew. While the father certainly gives this threat as a deterrent, in hopes his daughter won’t stay out past curfew, he must be ready to impose the grounding if his daughter stays out past curfew. If the father does not ground his daughter when she stays out past curfew, she will not believe her father the next time he threatens to ground her and his threat to ground her will no longer be a deterrent to keep her from staying out past curfew. Likewise it makes no sense for the inspired word of God, the bible, to makes threats that are not backed up by truth. It makes no sense for the bible to speak of hell as a threat if no one will go to hell.

The Church is very clear on her teaching concerning the existence of hell. Catholic theologians accept the reality that hell exists, yet many try to argue that while hell exists, it might well be the case that no humans will end up in hell. While all Christians are called to hold out hope for the salvation of all people, the arguments put forward to claim that it might well be the case that there is no human person in hell simply do not hold up. Hell is a reality and we should continue to work, with God’s grace, to choose communion with God rather than separation from him.

[1] “The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity.” Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 1035.

[2] 1 Tim 2:4.

[3] CCC, 1035.

[4] “this communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary, the angels and all the blessed – is called “heaven.”” CCC 1024.

[5] Some passages referring to hell are Ezk 18:20, Ecc 9:10, Mk 9:43, Mt 25:41, 25:46, 26:52-54, Rom 2:6-8, 2Thes 1:9,  Rev 20:15.

[6] CCC, 115-118.

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