David Hart’s Universalism: Part One: The Drama of Dogma.

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“It is the dogma that is the drama — not beautiful phrases, nor comforting sentiments, nor vague aspirations to loving-kindness and uplift, nor the promise of something nice after death — but the terrifying assertion that the same God who made the world lived in the world and passed through the grave and gate of death. Show that to the heathen, and they may not believe it; but at least they may realize that here is something that a man might be glad to believe.”

Dorothy L. Sayers

Letters to a Diminished Church

I once had a student who insisted that modern science and the Catholic faith stand in contradiction to one other since science is based on “facts” while Catholicism is rooted in blind obedience to “dogma.”  That is, of course, the kind of adolescent drivel that happens when a nineteen year old reads Richard Dawkins while huffing hair spray in his grandma’s pantry, but it is also sadly indicative of a broad cultural prejudice these days even among our cultured elites who show increasingly – – every day and in every way – – that they are techno-nihilist barbarians.  Dogma, of the religious variety at least, has fallen on hard times and is now just code in our society for a form of closed-minded, fundamentalist, religious irrationality that delights in ignorance as it wallows in the mud-pen of myth and superstition. 

However, the hard lifting for such a benighted view of dogma had already been done by Christian’s themselves who long ago turned creedal affirmations into instruments of coercive fear mongering and, at times, State torture, followed by the self-immolation of Christianity in the Reformation’s creedal rebellions which made all dogmas suspect since they appeared more and more like mere assertions of non-evidentiary prejudices and less and less like anything resembling public truth claims.  Then came modernity and Christians took two divergent paths with regard to dogmatic truth.  On the one hand, and mostly in the Catholic sphere, dogmatic statements were weaponized as a defensive “bulwark” against modern errors even as theologians aped, ironically, the dominant rationalism of the time, constructing a form of scholasticism that treated dogmas as “first principles” from which “scientific” deductions could be made concerning the central truths of the faith.  And those first principles were not argued for but were treated instead as epistemically certain since their source was the infallible God whose veracity could not be distrusted.  There was certainly no theo-drama in this construal of dogma with its forensic certitude and legal-brief aesthetic. It was the “Court theology” for a vision of the Church still viewed through the lens of Renaissance and Baroque aristocracy. And it had as much to do with maintaining papal prerogatives in the face of the death throes of that old aristocratic Europe as it did with the truth of Jesus Christ.  It had no evangelical punch or power, no simplicity of soul, and no connatural feel for the untamed profligacy of the Jesus of the Gospels, which is the kind of dramatic element Dorothy Sayers is speaking of in her quote above.  

The other path was that of liberal Protestantism with its expressivist view of dogma as the outward symbolization in mythic categories of inner religious dispositions and experiences.  Thus, as with the scholastics, there is no theo-drama in this view of dogma since there can be no dramatics when there is no antagonist and the whole dramatic structure is just protagonists all the way down. For if dogmas are not ecclesial expressions of non-negotiable theological truths rooted in Revelation, and are mere projections of some kind of collective subconsciousness, then there is no dramatic goad against which to kick. No irritant in the oyster to create the pearl.  Furthermore, dogma viewed as the “thematization” of transcendental, anthropological teleologies crashed and burned with the realization that our transcendental horizon could point just as easily to a tragic ending to our desires in the void of a faceless and voiceless infinity just as much as it points to a fulfillment in a personal God.  All truly dramatic notions of dogma eventually flattened out metaphysically as the “mystery” of our own subjectivity came to be viewed in largely psychological and evolutionary categories. Subjectivity ceased to be a portal to anything beyond its own categories and was no longer viewed as an opening up to mystery in the proper theological sense.  Subjectivity soon thereafter degenerated into something “suspicious” since it is riddled with occult forces and with our deeply nested libidinous desires that are at war with each other.  It is a short step from there to a view of dogma as the mythic expression of deeply problematic subjective forces, requiring therefore a radical deconstruction of its forms in order to “expose” its latent violence, racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and whatever other “phobias” are currently au courant.

So it is understandable if our secular contemporaries take a jaundiced look at our dogmas.  Because we actually don’t seem to believe in them, which is a strange thing for a dogma.  But why am I starting a blog post on David Hart’s universalism with this seemingly pointless foray into the sad state of dogmas in the modern world? Because Hart is dismissive of the dogmas concerning Hell, especially in the West, and is critical of theologians who see the strength of his arguments but who refuse to “get on board” the universalist monorail simply because of their antecedent commitments to the Roman dogmatic tradition.  He views this as an intellectually dishonest move lacking in the courage of intellectual conviction.  Hart says in his book that he finds the doctrine of an eternal Hell so utterly bestial in a moral sense that he does not care if his views run afoul of any dogmas.  I admire his convictions and this is a critique that cuts close to the bone for me since I do think Hart is largely correct in his views on Hell. I have some caveats about his approach which I will examine in part two of this series, but I find his arguments deeply persuasive generally speaking.  However, owing to my theological commitments to the Roman dogmatic tradition I cannot simply embrace his views without qualification.  And as I hope to show below I do not think this is intellectually “dishonest” or lacking in courage, and I think Hart is a bit unfair to his Catholic interlocuters on this score.  

Let me begin by saying right up front that I refuse to enter into the game of eschatological census taking and cannot even pretend to have the epistemological certitude of either the infernalists or the universalists concerning matters that are clearly not given to us to know. At least it seems to me that we are not given to know such things since the Dominical statements concerning Hell so loved by the infernalists may very well be merely admonitory rather than predictive (or even provisional, as with God’s judgement on Nineveh), and the putatively universalist statements in Paul’s epistles and John’s Gospel are not, in my view, as straightforwardly universalist as is often claimed since the promises contained therein could be merely conditional.

I say “could be” since the New Testament gives us no clear hermeneutical guidepost one way or the other and just leaves the question in a state of tension, as Balthasar correctly points out.  Hart disagrees with that view and argues that the New Testament does indeed teach universalism.  But I disagree and I think Balthasar is correct to see the New Testament’s statements on Heaven and Hell as a continuation of the “two ways” theology of the Old Testament where God makes it clear to the children of Israel that there are indeed separate paths that one must choose between: the path of life and the path of death.  Therefore, I further agree with Balthasar that the “tension” between the two binaries in the New Testament is not a tension of contradiction, as Hart seems to think Balthasar is saying, but rather the tension created by the fact that God, in his scriptures, seems to leave the resolution of the final outcome of the two ways in open-ended suspension, heightening the dramatic nature of the interplay between divine and human freedom. This motif of the “two ways” is thus the interpretive key to understanding the Gospel’s treatment of eschatology:  the separation of the sheep and the goats, the wise versus the foolish virgins, the wise versus the foolish servants and their use or misuse of the “talents,” the wide path that leads to perdition with many on it versus the narrow path that leads to life with few on it, the “light” versus “darkness” motif of John’s gospel, all display this two ways motif in a conscious repositioning of the binaries away from Torah and Temple as their focus, and onto Christ.  

Now it may well still be that Hart is correct and that all of these binaries will eventually be overcome and surpassed in a final apokatastasis. My only point here is that Balthasar’s exegesis of the New Testament is not claiming that there is some kind of deep contradiction between the infernalist and universalist verses which we must just now “accept” and “live with” as an ambiguity in the scriptures.  His claim is more deeply theological and involves the entire trajectory of salvation history’s theo-dramatic encounter as an open-ended call from God in the midst of the “crisis” of choosing.  And that the crisis of choosing is henceforth also a crisis of Christological encounter since it is Christ who ultimately resolves the crisis in his Incarnation, passion, descent into Hell, resurrection, and ascension.  Indeed, a crisis that was inchoate in the Old Testament but which now comes into full view in the New.  This is not, in other words, an exegesis centered upon ambiguity as its motif, but rather on evangelical choosing in the midst of the Christological Ernstfall.

  

Therefore, I am not in the camp of the infernalists or the universalists, and even my endorsement of Balthasar’s views on the matter is on the cautious side, preferring to interpret his views in the most minimalist manner possible, as I think any honest reading of his works will support. In other words, I am not one of those who thinks Balthasar was secretly a universalist but just did not have the courage to say so in the face of Roman dogmas to the contrary. Rather, I think he meant what he said when he affirmed, as I did above, that Revelation does not give us to know the answer to the question: how many are saved?  Those who read Balthasar’s views maximally as a closeted endorsement of universalism (e.g. Ralph Martin) do so, in my view, with an agenda that seeks to impute these views to Balthasar in order to cast suspicion upon him, thus undermining his message of theological hope for the salvation of all.  

Therefore, if you want to know what theological “camp” I am in on this matter just put me down as in the camp of the ignorant.  And I proudly proclaim my ignorance and will happily put on an eschatological dunce’s cap and sit in a dark corner forever staring at an icon of Christ’s descent into Hell.  And so I propose on this topic yet another theological category in the grand and growing taxonomy of positions: the “cloud of unknowing” school.  For now, it is sufficient to say that all I know is that we are made for union with God in Heaven, that Christ came to get us there, that he wants none of us to go to Hell, and if we follow his path in faith as his disciples, we all have a good shot at salvation.  Beyond that, it seems to me, there is only speculation that all too often takes the epistemic form of “here is what I would do if I were God.” Using our moral and speculative reason is one thing, but to assume a “God’s eye-view” of things beyond the veil, and which Scripture describes in highly metaphoric ways, in order to make firm and certain theological statements is quite another.  And that goes for the infernalists as well as the doctrinaire universalists.

As a theological theory I find universalism interesting and attractive, but when it is put forward as a dogmatic claim rooted in Revelation it is for me a bridge too far. Furthermore, the dogmatic tradition of my communion does not allow me that pathway.  Put in its bluntest construal and without any frilly, word-salad obfuscations, the Catholic Church teaches definitively that the punishments of Hell are “eternal,” that there can be no post-mortem conversions, and, therefore, those who die with unrepented mortal sins go to Hell for all eternity.  Here is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says:

“1035 The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire.”615 The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.”

A universalist might retort to all of this, “so much the worse then for the Roman magisterium.” And indeed, as I noted above, Hart does take this view and states clearly that no matter what the dogmatic claims, it is just bestial nonsense to believe in an eternal Hell and he would rather deny the truth of any such dogmas rather than affirm such a monstrous idea.  And it might surprise my readers when I say that I agree with him in the sense that one cannot simply jettison one’s moral and speculative reason out of a blind obedience to authority.  Indeed, it is with those same moral and rational faculties that I reached the conclusion in the first place that the Roman Magisterium’s claims for itself are true.  I cannot then turn around and say, “but all further uses of my moral and speculative reason are now deeply untrustworthy and I must lay them aside in the face of the Roman authority.” Hart is entirely correct, therefore, when he states that words like “love,” “justice,” and “mercy” cannot mean something equivocally different in God than how we understand them in our creaturely discourse.  Because if that were true then a special Revelation from God in our historical time is a silly and incoherent idea on its face and we should just all shut up and become agnostics or Buddhists (or both.) The properly Catholic path is the way of analogy and so we are not exonerated from the hard work of making sense of Revelation using our intellect. The entire two thousand year history of theologizing in the Church makes this clear and any attempt to smooth off the rough edges of “tough” doctrines like an eternal Hell through recourse to mystifications and deflections is just a superficial fideism unworthy of true faith. 

Nevertheless, I am not a Protestant and I have no desire to become a magisterium of one.  (please note: I am not saying that this is what Hart is doing. His is a moral claim as we shall see.) Using my reason – – a reason informed by decades of contemplation and study in the pedagogy of the faith – – I have committed myself to the truth of a particular theological paradigm.  It is the paradigm of Roman Catholicism. And within that paradigm there have been many moments when I sat back and said to myself, “hmmm, that can’t be true, can it?”  I would then set myself to further prayer and study in order to deepen my understanding of the doctrine in question, a doctrine which I most often eventually come to see in an even deeper light as a result of my questioning, which then leads me to embrace the doctrine even more profoundly.  Therefore, I do not shrink from the difficult questions but in truth seek them out. Because that is what a theologian does if he is worth his salt as an ecclesial thinker.  And if there remain aspects of certain nettlesome doctrines that still go round and round in my head I find it is fruitful to hold them in a creative “tension” with the overall theological paradigm as I seek to grow into a deeper understanding.  

In other words, not every theological “problem” needs to have an immediate answer ready at hand.  The late, great E.F. Schumacher in his marvelous little book, “A Guide for the Perplexed” points out that most often in life we are confronted with only two kinds of problems.  There are “convergent” problems where all roads of inquiry eventually land upon a single point solution. This is common in the hard sciences. And once the solution is reached everyone nods their head and says, “yep, that’s the answer!”  But there are also “divergent” problems where a pluralism of solutions is possible owing to the opacity and inherent mystery of the object in question.  These kinds of problems are common in the human sciences, such as economics or psychology, which often give rise to a multiplicity of various “schools of thought” on the topic.  Certainly, theology falls into this category as well and this is what gives dogmatic statements their dramatic quality as openings to a grand mystery which we must now struggle to understand. My criticisms of scholastic theology therefore revolve around precisely this point.  The scholastics treated dogmatic statements as convergent, single-point answers to questions. And to a certain extent they are right about this. Dogmas, after all, have to mean something quite specific on a conceptual level or else they aren’t really dogmas at all but mere poetry. However, that conceptual specificity is precisely, qua its specificity, always already an opening to an asymptotic understanding of the greatest mystery of all – – God – – and thus cannot be viewed undramatically as a conversation stopper. In a dogma something is indeed always “closed” but in a manner that is also an opening since when God unveils himself to us it is, at the same time, an even deeper veiling, e.g. the Incarnation does indeed reveal God to us, but the very incarnation itself is the deepest mystery of all.  

This ecclesial/theological commitment of mine to this understanding of the Roman Catholic dogmatic tradition is a firm one of deep conviction and I have neither the time nor the inclination to defend it in this blog against anti-Catholic combox warriors since this site is not devoted to “Roman Catholic apologetics.”  I will leave that to others who do it far better than I.  And so, to my universalist readers who are hoping that I will waive the white flag of surrender and yell out “sic semper tyrannis” as I leap out of the papal balcony and into Origen’s swimming pool, I can only say that your wait will be a long one.  It is not cowardice or a loss of nerve that keeps me from embracing universalism, and quite frankly it is insulting to be told so after spending decades studying the faith as well as having taken a few unpopular and career destroying commitments along the way.  And if you want to talk about dishonest intellectual moves there is nothing more dishonest than the thinly veiled ad hominem form of argumentation that involves imputing motives of self-interested cowardice toward those readers of Hart who are actually deeply sympathetic to his project but who, at the same time, have other intellectual commitments to consider.  

Hart’s supporters will often say to me that I know in my heart that universalism is correct but I only reject it because of an antecedent commitment to a set of dogmatic statements from a magisterial authority.  And if that were true then they would be spot-on in his criticisms.  But it isn’t true. I am deeply drawn to universalism and find Hart’s speculations on the topic profoundly persuasive.  But here again what this rises to is not a paradigm destroying moment, but rather another example of holding a piece of theological speculation in tension with that paradigm as I study the issue further and think about it ever more systematically.  I want to take Hart’s compelling arguments and bring them into my Catholic commitments with full force and allow them to bang against the gates of the Castle like a battering ram employed by Orcs at Helm’s Deep. The gates might be smashed and there might be dead elves and dwarves littered all about at the consummation of the struggle.  But out of that intellectual struggle what I hope for is the emergence of a deeper understanding of what the Church teaches about Hell and why, in the end, it just might be the case that nobody ever stays there forever.  That is not cowardice or “blind obedience to Roman dogma.” It is rather what one often does when doing theology within an ecclesial vocation. And as in the hard sciences, one does not just chuck out the window an entire and well established theoretical paradigm simply because one is confronted with a few pieces of anomalous evidence.  You merely note the dissonance and then set about trying to understand the objects of your inquiry more deeply.

I know that this blog post will disappoint my universalist readers since it does not yet address Hart’s arguments.  That will be in the next post and my analysis will be largely sympathetic.  But I wanted to begin the conversation with a centered discussion of the importance of dogmas for Catholic thinkers as dramatic openings to mystery in order to forestall the idea that my continuing acceptance of the Roman dogmatic tradition on Hell is going to be an obstacle to the conversation.  However, if my universalist interlocuters want to engage in the game of labeling anyone who disagrees with you, however slightly, as moral imbeciles or slaves to Roman dogma, then quite frankly I have no interest in discussing the matter further.  Because absent dogmatic commitments a theologian is little more than a Gnostic.  We can debate the question of whether or not the Roman dogmas are correct or not. That is fair game.  But what I won’t discuss is whether or not Catholics are cowardly fools for continuing to adhere to Rome.  Because I know far too many supremely intelligent and brave Catholics and far too many cretinous and cowardly Orthodox to put up with that kind of Eastern triumphalist nonsense.  If you think I am worth dialoguing with then you must accept and respect that you are dialoguing with a Catholic.  And so if you have zero respect for the Catholic dogmatic tradition and view it with contempt, then maybe I am not your guy.  

C.D.M. “Catholic dogmas matter.” 

Dorothy Day, pray for us. 

48 comments

  1. Dr. Chapp
    I have been enjoying your blog and thought you might appreciate my most recent blog below, “The Cult of Pandemic.” I am co founder of Rachel’s vineyard ministries for healing after abortion. I have written in the past on Dorothy Day’s abortion loss and how that may have played a role in her own conversion and special vocation.

    I am launching an internet show this month that will be distributed on all of priests for life social media platforms. I have always sat in the interviewee seat so this will be a new adventure for me and my initial guests as well. 🙂
    I would love to interview you sometime about Dorothy Day and how her life and writing might help inspire and bless those of us in pro life and healing ministry. God bless -Kevin Burke
    The Cult of Pandemic:
    https://www.priestsforlife.org/kevinburke/blog/index.php/2021/08/27/the-cult-of-pandemic-how-the-disconnection-from-our-judeo-christian-heritage-and-a-hidden-national-trauma-may-be-fueling-totalitarian-responses-to-the-pandemic-and-the-censorship-of-dissenting-sci/

    Sent from my iPad

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  2. In light of “lex orandi, lex credendi,” I find interesting both the Fatima prayer, “. . . lead all souls to heaven, especially those in most need of thy mercy,” and the Divine Mercy chaplet, “. . . have mercy on us and on the whole world.” Personally, especially when considering my least-favorite politicians, I find those prayers daunting. (I’m a new reader: I enjoyed your dialogue with Bishop Barron, especially how you related the evangelical counsels to the Beatitudes.)

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  3. “However, owing to my theological commitments to the Roman dogmatic tradition I cannot simply embrace his views without qualification.”

    Why? I read the essay, and I still don’t understand. What mountains of reasonable evidence for the infallibility of the Roman Magisterium do you find so overwhelmingly convincing that you find accepting a dogma that you admit seems completely unreasonable in every sane regard preferable to admitting that the RCC might just, you know, be wrong? You say you don’t want to get into apologetics for the Roman church, why not? Is the eternal destiny of all things not the single most pressing question there could ever be?

    “And so I propose on this topic yet another theological category in the grand and growing taxonomy of positions: the “cloud of unknowing” school.”

    How? The eternal destiny of oneself and everyone one loves is quite literally the most important question one could ask. Uncertainty on this point, to the extent that it is actually considered seriously, rationally destroys the ability to do or think about anything else until the matter is solved. Most people blithely assume they and theirs will make it to heaven for a reason – it is psychologically necessary for anything resembling a productive and balanced existence. For what use is it thinking about anything to do with the mere blink of an eye that is our life on earth if the question of the eternal state of affairs is open?

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    1. Charles Manson once said “If everything is one, then nothing is wrong”. If we adhere to a radical universalism that undermines us from all dogma, what stops us from going there? And isn’t the idea that “we are all saved” over all dogmatic “rules” its own dogma?

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      1. The proposal that a specific dogma that the RCC is committed to, apparently irreversibly, is wrong is not logically equivalent to the proposal that all dogmas are wrong. It is, however, a proposal that any dogma outright opposed to reason and morality must by definition be false, or else we have no way to determine true from false and should just give up on religion altogether.

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    2. The eternal destiny of oneself and everyone one loves is quite literally the most important question one could ask. Uncertainty on this point, to the extent that it is actually considered seriously, rationally destroys the ability to do or think about anything else until the matter is solved.

      Your conclusion regarding the “uncertainty of this point” should be, if true, self-evident. It is not self-evident to me, but then I have an outlook that has allowed me to juggle uncertainties all my life. I think you need to develop this much, much further.

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      1. Consider yourself, or someone very close to you. Now consider yourself shut up in a tiny box, with no room to stand and no light to be had. Now imagine yourself in that box and set alight, every inch of your skin blackening and peeling as it blazes at thousands of degrees. Imagine fat boiling, muscles roasting as they slough off snapping bones, organs popping like overinflated balloons. Now imagine that happening not just once over a few horrible seconds, but a second time. And then a third. A fourth. A fifth. And it continues, over and over and over and over again, each time as excruciating as the last, but that isn’t the worst part. Imagine that in the deepest depths of your soul you know irrefutably that this is the will of the supreme power in the universe, that no one can or will help you, that you shall never – never! – know even a moment’s rest. You know that though trillions upon trillions of eons pass, that the sting shall be dulled not a whit, that you shall never have even the smallest drop of water to cool your flaming tongue, that you are anathema to that which holds total power over you and your torment shall be without end. Really imagine that. Take a few minutes and try to visualize it if you can stomach it.

        Now tell me, is it not obvious that by any sane metric that if you believe in even the remotest possibility of such a thing actually occurring it should dominate your thoughts at all times?

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  4. Let me start my remark by saying where I stand:

    I am a Roman Catholic and I am very happy to be so. I have no desire to ever be anywhere else. I’m also a Universalist and very much in agreement with David Bentley Hart’s arguments.

    I think the main point of contention here, as it often is in Catholic theological debates, is how much and to what degree Church teaching changes or evolves. You quote the Catechism’s section on hell and indicate that because of this and similar Church teachings you cannot embrace universalism: “Owing to my theological commitments to the Roman dogmatic tradition I cannot simply embrace his views without qualification.”

    You are up against a wall because you believe embracing the universalist position may leave you as a “Catholic” but not a “faithful Catholic”. Disagreeing with the Catechism on clear teaching takes one over a clear red line. In fact, it proves false a Catholic dogma and renders the faith that “never changes” false.

    Well, I would simply make two points that are really one point. If the Church’s faith is proven false by a change of this magnitude then it was proven false long ago on several other topics.

    Imagine a thought experiment. Today, you are a faithful Catholic. You follow the Magisterial Teachings in the Catechism of the Catholic Church reflecting the thought of recent popes Benedict XVI, and John Paul II. Of course, you are heavily influenced by the Second Vatican Council. Now, imagine you are sucked into a time warp and it permanently maroons you in Italy circa 1400. Or say in Spain circa 1557.

    Are you still the faithful Catholic you were before the time warp sucked you in?
    I say no, you are not, if by that we mean someone who believes the entire “Catechism” or broad scope of teaching from A to Z with no qualms. The views that you have now, influenced by Vatican II, Phenomenology/theology of the body, and notions of human rights would be considered completely unacceptable and possibly grounds for execution for heresy.

    Current church teaching on the Jewish faith, the nature of purgatory, the possibility of salvation for non-believers, religious freedom, democracy, human rights, salvation outside the church, the death penalty, natural family planning, and the like were completely unacceptable 100 years ago, much less 500 years ago. They would be considered entirely fallacious.
    So, what has happened? If you are a faithful Catholic now, but wouldn’t be a faithful Catholic then, what is the result?

    My answer to the question in the narrow sense is that if faithful Catholic means 100% agreement with Church teaching as they exist in their current formulations, then the answer is I am not currently but have faith that in the future I will be. Because I believe the Spirit does indeed lead the Church and just as it led it to affirm religious freedom, to affirm the immorality of the death penalty, to affirm the non-punitive nature of purgatory (Spe Salvi), so will the logic of Von Balthasar and other such trends operative theological in the Church and in the Christian world lead it to eventually confess Universalism.

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    1. I believe that your thought experiment about beliefs of 500 years ago (or 100) could be picked apart by a competent historian and there would be nothing left. There are various approaches: we could distinguish between what was popularly/casually accepted and what Church teaching actually says. For example with regard to the Jews, we find medieval popes wrote against the “blood libel”, and they also condemned the idea that Jews of their time could be held liable for Christ’s death. This doesn’t mean that such ideas may not have circulated – the blood libel appears to have been popular with 13th century English kings.

      The doctrine of ‘no salvation outside the church’ is a favourite for people who claim church teaching has changed, but it often rests on a belief that our predecessors lacked any nuance. Medieval theologians were aware of concepts like invincible ignorance, baptism of desire, implicit belonging etc. Precursors of these ideas can be found in St Augustine, and in Justin Martyr. With things like purgatory, the concept has received a name and a definition, but it isn’t new. Natural family planning wasn’t an issue when so many children died in infancy – the main issue was how to ensure descendants. The concept of human rights arose in medieval Christianity; a Roman patrician would have been very puzzled by it. Medieval Catholics might have understood it better than you think.

      I say there would be nothing left of your claims, that all these modern Catholic beliefs “would have been considered entirely fallacious”, because those claims are standard Protestant talking points which have been rebutted by Catholic apologists many times.

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  5. Thanks for this. I’m new to your blog and not a theologian, but I think I might learn something by reading you. And Bishop Barron likes you— no small recommendation, there.

    On Sat, Aug 28, 2021 at 9:09 AM Gaudium et Spes 22 wrote:

    > Larry Chapp posted: ” “It is the dogma that is the drama — not beautiful > phrases, nor comforting sentiments, nor vague aspirations to > loving-kindness and uplift, nor the promise of something nice after death > — but the terrifying assertion that the same God who made the worl” >

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  6. I’m glad I’m not Catholic anymore. I don’t understand how you can affirm that you could commit mortal sin at any second, and not be in a perpetual state of crippling clinical depression and anxiety about being in hell forever. (I fear it’s self-righteousness, which doesn’t jive with Paul’s saying he’s the worst sinner.) God wants what’s best for His beloved. It’s not best to be put into a state of affairs where one possible outcome is eternal misery. (Think of this: would you consent to being born if you knew there was a non-zero chance of eternal hell? If yes, I think you’re self-deceived or crazy. (“I can always choose” or “I can always repent” are no solace, since you could also always choose sin.))

    To me, any argument that Catholicism is the “correct” denomination would simply be an argument against Christianity. Hart’s argument outweighs any sketchy, historical argument for Catholicism.

    If you love someone, you don’t allow them to be tortured forever.

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      1. One would be inclined to ask what is just about an infinite torture session inflicted upon a finite, limited creature that God himself freely introduced to the cosmos knowing full well what the result would be.

        What can be reasonably described as an infinite and pointless sadism is rather more than an edge.

        There is rather a difference between a stern parent and a cosmic NKVD commandant, you know.

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      2. One would be inclined to ask what is just about an infinite torture session inflicted upon a finite, limited creature that God himself freely introduced to the cosmos knowing full well what the result would be.

        God is just. No one goes to Hell who doesn’t deserve to be there.

        He understands weakness, adverse circumstances, ignorance, man’s “finiteness” and other mitigating factors and they are taken into account. Remember, Christ understands that people are stupid and weak and cuts them some slack. The whole point of the crucifixion was that God wants and will go to extraordinary lengths to save you: He isn’t a hanging judge. But you’re pushing against scripture arguing against Hell and the fact that some people are going there. Dogma isn’t the issue here, it’s an intellectually honest reading of the texts.

        Older Christianity overplayed this element of damnation but Modern Christianity has committed the opposite error and underplayed the punitive aspect of God’s nature so much that people find it perplexing how a “God of love” can put on the serious hurt.

        And yet He can.

        As Proverbs say: “Fear of Lord is the beginning of Wisdom”. God has an edge.

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      3. “God is just. No one goes to Hell who doesn’t deserve to be there.”

        If justice is anything it is proportionate, and infinite torture is not a proportionate punishment for anything a human could do in our short time on earth.

        “The whole point of the crucifixion was that God wants and will go to extraordinary lengths to save you: He isn’t a hanging judge.”

        Unfortunately, your logic does not hold. It is Catholic orthodoxy that no individual creature is in any sense necessary for God – each one is created completely freely. He does not have to make any particular being. Now, it is also orthodoxy that God is omniscient, and he knows the end of a thing from the beginning. It is also obvious from experience that not every logically possible human has actually been made (for instance there is nothing logically impossible about my having a brother named Phil, when in fact I do not).

        Now, when we combine these three points together, we discover that God freely making a creature he knows to be doomed to eternal damnation is logically inseparable from a desire that they go to hell. For they are not needed by him in any sense, therefore even the weakest desire that a creature not go to hell could be easily achieved by the simple expedient of just not making any that his omniscience informs him would if made. Being that he deliberately introduces them to the universe absent anything forcing him to do so, he cannot but do so with the full intention that their known in advance eternal fate become reality.

        “But you’re pushing against scripture arguing against Hell and the fact that some people are going there.”

        There are quite a few scriptures that seem to point to the opposite conclusion. For example, one would be inclined to question how God could ever be “all in all” if sin is to persist in the hearts of at least some of creation for all eternity.

        “Older Christianity overplayed this element of damnation but Modern Christianity has committed the opposite error and underplayed the punitive aspect of God’s nature so much that people find it perplexing how a “God of love” can put on the serious hurt.

        And yet He can.”

        I don’t find that an issue at all. Putting the hurt can be an act love – for the innocent, for the victims, and even for the perpetrators themselves. I believe in postmortem punishment, just not an infinite one. For what, exactly, would the point of that be?

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      4. @Calvin
        Now, when we combine these three points together, we discover that God freely making a creature he knows to be doomed to eternal damnation is logically inseparable from a desire that they go to hell.

        It’s logically inseparable if what you say is true but argument fails because one of the premises is faulty: you’re limiting God’s omnipotence. Being outside of time, God is not only able to see the future, but he’s also able to see all the possible futures. The future is up to us, and God can see ahead all the possible outcomes of our choices. He can see both the choices that lead to salvation and the choices that lead to hell. When He tells us to get our act together, he see’s it from a vantage point of what will happen if we do and what will happen if we don’t. In creating us, he gave us certainly gave us the possibility of being damned, but the whole point of Christianity is that God doesn’t want you to make the choice that leads to that outcome, in fact he’s going to go to extraordinary lengths to try to save you from it. There is no predestination and God wills no man to Hell at their creation.

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      5. Firstly, your premise relies on God not knowing what the actual, not just potential, future will be. While this may be perfectly plausible for an open theist, it is not for an orthodox Catholic. God does not need to wait to know how things will turn out.

        Secondly, to gamble your child’s life in a game of Russian Roulette is morally already to have shot him in the head, even if you should happen to win. Being that, again, God has no need of any creatures, there is no morally valid reason for him to chance even one instance of an infinity of evil and agony blight the cosmos.

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    1. RedRiver – It’s funny that all those Catholics are NOT in perpetual states of crippling clinical depression and anxiety. But you have a second string to your bow -> they handle it by being self-righteous. If you know them, they don’t generally seem self-righteous, though some could be. So empirically the evidence is against you, but you prefer your theoretical construct to the evidence available to your eyes.

      Yes I believe I could fall into mortal sin, and I must not be complacent. But it is a bit like my belief that a truck could come through a red light and kill me next time I drive – I still drive, but I try to be prudent on the road. Hmm, maybe I drive by being self-righteous!

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      1. First of all, most Catholics don’t take Catholicism seriously. So that narrows it down *a lot*. Amongst those who do, I think there’s a number of things that account for why they’re not crippled with anxiety. 1. They don’t really believe in eternal hell; they just believe that they believe it because they think they have to. 2. They’re self-righteous: they think they’re so good that there’s only a miniscule chance they’ll commit mortal sin 3. They think that even if they do, they’ll very likely repent afterwards 4. They have a lot of things going on in their life to distract themselves from thinking of hell 5. They just happened to have been born with good self-control or propensities making it relatively easy for them to avoid mortal sin (think of the famous marshmallow tests)

        “But it is a bit like my belief that a truck could come through a red light and kill me next time I drive – I still drive, but I try to be prudent on the road.”

        I don’t think it’s like that at all, given the finite amount of pain that would come of the crash. The fear in such a case is reasonably low that it wouldn’t cause anxiety. Also, you proved my point about self-righteousness. Apparently you fancy yourself so good that committing mortal sin is very unlikely, just like said crash.

        “All those” I’m sure you could find many examples on deconversion forums. It’s psychological abuse. It has been a source of misery for many people. But what self-righteous, callous people do is dismiss their testimony with an attitude akin to, “Oh, most don’t react like that. So their trauma must be a problem with them, not the religion.”

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  7. I’m really looking forward to this series. I’m always most troubled by the two concepts of an eternal hell and original sin.

    Will be very interesting to see how you deal with this particular problem.

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  8. Call me an “infernalist”, call me hard hearted, call me whatever you want.
    I don’t think that hell is cruel. It seems infinitely just and deserved. Yes, even for myself. Perhaps especially for myself.
    The idea that a God who would damn people to hell is cruel and unjust was interesting to me in my teens, but not anymore. It seems completely reasonable to me, to the point where I can no longer understand the controversy.

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  9. I am in great sympathy with your position, and is very close to my own understanding of the relationship between long-standing dogmatic positions and new developments that call into question some of the principles of the traditional account, requiring a rethinking of the way that the dogma is expressed and understood. Returning over and over to the objections of reason and experience can, as you say, gradually penetrate into the dogmatic edifice, revealing new possibilities for the expression of dogma that reform it in doing justice to the objection. It makes both richer in the end. The metaphor (the ramming of Helm’s Deep) is truly odd though, since the aim is not the destruction of the edifice leaving nothing but ruin and death. It’s not a struggle of evil against good; both sides are doing the work of good.

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  10. The main question being considered here, universalism versus infernalism, is indeed dramatic, and worthy of consideration and much contemplation and prayer. I approach it as a mere follower of the teachings of Jesus Christ, a Christian, who trusts what God has revealed to us in the scriptures, which has of course been influenced by dogmas promulgated by both the Roman Catholic Church, and Protestant churches. Full disclosure, I was brought up in the Calvinist tradition, though I have rejected predestination as it falls into a deterministic/mechanistic worldview.

    I think that as Christians, even though it may pain us, we have to accept infernalism. This does not mean that Our Creator God could not universally save all mankind if that is what His will is. I indeed think that God The Father truly desires that all mankind would of their own individual freewill accept the grace of forgiveness He provided for us in His Son, Jesus Christ, but not all mankind will.

    I think the most compelling reason for accepting infernalism, with no reference to any denomination’s particular dogma regarding Hell, would be what has been revealed to us (Revelation) regarding the beginnings of evil in the world, which is the rebellion of Satan and the angels which joined in Satan’s rebellion. Though created by God, residing with Him in Heaven, which, if the Bible is truth, and it is, in love, joy, and praise, freely and thankfully given to God, Satan and his cohorts freely chose to defy and deny God’s infinite power. They were summarily defeated and dismissed. Cast from Heaven, separated from God, cast into the Abyss. A terrible thought!

    In summary, if we consider the beginnings of evil in the world, and what God did in response and revealed to us about this beginning and casting out from Heaven of Satan and his angels, now demons when cast out, we must accept that Hell is an actuality, and possibility, if one does individually, of their own freewill, accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.

    Now, does this consequence of Hell for individuals occur at the moment of physical death of the body, as suggested by the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, if an individual dies seemingly in mortal sin? I have no way of knowing this truth-fully, or exhaustively, as Francis Shaeffer would say, and I would suggest that no individual could make this claim with absolutely certainty, dogmatically. I know I do not dare to tell any individual that they are going to Hell, but I firmly believe that just as Satan rejected God’s will and was separated from God and consigned to the Abyss, or Hell as we refer to it, so could man.

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  11. Faithful Catholics give up too much ground if we accept being referred to as infernalists. If you believe that 100% will go to heaven (maybe including the demons) you call yourself a universalist, and that makes sense. But when you believe that people will be divided into the saved and the lost in unknown percentages, why should you be called an infernalist? In fact you may be optimistic about the fate of the majority, and feel sadness at the thought that some will be condemned. We generally believe that God will save whomever can be saved, but not anyone against their own will. We conclude from the teaching of the Church and the scriptures that it must be possible to set your will against God in an unchangeable way.

    Infernalist is a pejorative term being used to describe orthodox Catholics, orthodox Orthodox, orthodox Lutherans, and so on. I realise that if we define the parties as “universalist” versus “orthodox” we will also be loading the dice in the view of many.

    Perhaps some term could be found around belief in two destinies. I can’t think of one at the moment.

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    1. @Michael

      We generally believe that God will save whomever can be saved, but not anyone against their own will.

      There’s a deeper theme at play here in the positions between the “infernalists” and the “universalists” and that is regard to an understanding of the nature of God himself. Reconciling the notion of Hell with a loving and merciful God IS difficult especially when the full implications of Hell are meditated upon. I think even the religiously orthodox have a hard time with the concept.

      I think a good division between the two groups are “Scripturalists” who accept the teaching despite the difficulties and “anti-Scripturalists” who want to explain some aspects of our notions of Hell away.

      With regard to the “Scripturalists” what I’ve noticed that that there seems to be an increasing tendency to attribute the onus of damnation upon the victim rather than God. i.e. God can’t save the man who doesn’t want to be saved. The implication being that a man keeps himself out of heaven rather than God actively casting him out. Yet scripture clearly demonstrates that damnation is active act by God, not a passive one. There seems to be an avoidance, even by the scripturalists to emphasise this fact.

      I guess what I’m trying to get at is that while traditionally orthodox Christianity overplayed the damnation angle of the faith it did recognise that God had an aspect to him that was truly terrifying. Having “Fear of the Lord” meant that there was something about Him to be scared about. Modern “orthodox” theology has really downplayed this dimension at well.

      Which leads me to final point which that our modern notions of God as so askew of traditional notions that perhaps they’re verging on the heretical, even among the orthodox. God has become a sort of loving “softie” instead of a “righteous” yet merciful being.

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      1. Slumlord, thanks for your reply. You’ve given me something to think about, especially when I read the scriptures. The way I think about damnation does focus on the agency and dispositions of the human being. Perhaps I should pay more attention to God’s agency.

        We could look at the disagreement as being between those who explain the scriptures and those who explain them away. Hmmm, probably wouldn’t help the dialogue.

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      2. I object strongly to you claiming the term “scripturalist” for yourself, for you explain away quite a few passages of scripture yourself. Among them:

        “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people,”
        Titus 2:11

        “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
        John 12:32

        “For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.”
        1 Peter 4:6

        “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.”
        1 Corinthians 15:22

        “As a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”
        Ephesians 1:10

        “And through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”
        Colossians 1:20

        “From new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, declares the Lord.”
        Isaiah 66:23

        “So that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
        Philippians 2:10-11

        “When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.”
        1 Corinthians 15:28

        “For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.”
        Romans 11:32

        “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.”
        Romans 15:18

        Further, you fail to give any credible reason for why if the punishment for sin is eternal torment as opposed to simply mortality, why God failed to mention that to Adam and Eve, to Cain, to Noah, in the Law of Moses, to the Ninevites, or to the Old Testament peoples in general. If eternal punishment for sin were in fact the case, it seems a stunningly derelict omission.

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      3. @slumlord: I take it you are not familiar with ancient Hebrew ways of speaking, nor have you thought about who put Judas in that particular situation in the first place.

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  12. RedRiver843. You write:” Also, you proved my point about self-righteousness. Apparently you fancy yourself so good that committing mortal sin is very unlikely, just like said crash.” Another way of putting this is that I have faith – I believe that I have been given grace through baptism and the sacraments, and that God wants to keep me from sinning.” This is a matter of having confidence in God’s promises – although I am aware of weaknesses in myself that could lead to mortal sin, I trust the Spirit to lead me. If you think you can fall into mortal sin just be accident (whatever that means, because such sin has to be deliberate) where is your faith?

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  13. I share your conviction that Catholic dogma must be taken seriously if you claim to be a Roman Catholic. I think your honesty not to try to play God in eschatological matters is wise. I am also not a Universalist. I am hoping that Catholics will do more to influence our culture and stop the madness that the sexual revolution and Critical Race Theory have inflicted. I have always loved science and thanks to the Good Lord for Pope St. John Paul II and Fides et Ratio and Veritatis Splendor. If only these and the documents of Vatican II could be made required reading before theological studies, I think that perhaps there would be less divergence of statements that veer from the normative path that some of the faithful, no matter how well intentioned they may be, have taken. God promised that Gates of Hell will never prevail against the Church rings pretty hollow if there is indeed no Hell. I feel that for God to give us a genuine free will then God must have always intended that there be a Hell. Decisions and actions have consequences. That does not always sit well with us, but Jesus is the fullness of the revelation of God. Amen.

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  14. Calvin – fair enough. There are scriptures that point in both directions, and we need guidance on how to reconcile them. That is what the Catholic Church provides.

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    1. Guidance is only useful to the extent that it does not outright contradict reason and morality. If it does, it has by that very act destroyed any plausibility of claims to infallibility. If it rests its entire edifice on such claims, it has proven that it can only be a false authority.

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  15. I don’t think of Hell as a place of physical torment. I am of the opinion that Hell is separation from the love of God. This view is shared by both JPII and by Billy Graham. I fear being separated from God both here in this life and in the next. Even if Hell is empty, I think this eternal state of separation is possible for those who willfully, definitively, and utterly reject the love and mercy of God. I think this is what Jesus meant by the unforgivable sin (the Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit).

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    1. @Frank Gibbons, to expand on what you’ve said -> in the scriptures Jesus says: “Then he shall say to them also that shall be on his left hand: Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels …” So it was not originally prepared for humans. I accept the Church’s view the the chief suffering in hell is separation from God, as you say above. You can read this idea in Augustine’s City of God, so it goes back a long way. But I think there may be other suffering caused by the company you keep – ie the demons and other damned people. They will be torments to each other.

      The images Calvin keeps conjuring up, of God devising detailed physical tortures for never-ending eons of time, is gross, but all it is is Calvin’s imagination. These images are slanders against God – of course he attributes them to us, but it is not us who invent them. I don’t believe eternity will be just one minute after another with no end – of course I don’t know what it is, but I am happy to say what I think it is not. Boethius (around 500AD) defined eternity “as the whole, simultaneous, perfect possession of limitless life”.

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      1. To begin with, I suggest you read the Catholic Encyclopedia entry on hell, particularly the part about the Poena Sensus. I did not make it up, Catholics have been saying things like that for centuries before I was born, to say otherwise is to deny history.

        Secondly, it isn’t even morally relevant what specific forms the tortures take, be they physical, spiritual, or being locked in a room with a fallen angel with nothing better to do than torture you for all eternity. All that matters for the argument is that they are: 1) foreknown (as God is omniscient) and 2) unnecessary (as God has no necessity binding him to create any particular creature).

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      2. That I exist means that I am not separated from God’s love; what then can separation actually mean in the definition of hell as separation from God. To contemplate / imagine a reality where you are separated from God is to imagine a square circle; the thing imagined is impossible

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      3. I think we do have to realize the limits of our ability to understand what God meant, or, rather, God’s choice of words to convey a spiritual reality to us corporeal beings. If “fire” was prepared for the devil, then it isn’t a fire we understand as devils are spiritual and fire won’t touch them. So, it pays for us to be humble and not assume we know the truth about everything. We are seekers of truth. We don’t get to determine it.

        Is there Hell? Yes. Is it populated? I hope not. I always come back to my participation in the Fatherhood of God. If I as a human father seek the salvation of my children, eagerly willing to forgive them, how much more our Heavenly Father (cf. Luke 11). What’s more, we have nothing but our ability to witness to love and reason with our children to get them to repent. God has a lot more.

        There is an infinity of time between when a person physically dies and when their soul departs. Jesus’ description to St. Faustina of the way He puts forth His love to save a lost soul in that “moment” is breathtaking:

        “Jesus: O soul steeped in darkness, do not despair. All is not yet lost. Come and confide in your God, who is love and mercy.
        -But the soul, deaf even to this appeal, wraps itself in darkness.
        Jesus calls out again: My child, listen to the voice of your merciful Father.
        -In the soul arises this reply: “For me there is no mercy,” and it falls into greater darkness, a despair which is a foretaste of hell and makes it unable to draw near to God.
        Jesus calls to the soul a third time, but the soul remains deaf and blind, hardened and despairing. Then the mercy of God begins to exert itself, and, without any co-operation from the soul, God grants it final grace. If this too is spurned, God will leave the soul in this self-chosen disposition for eternity. This grace emerges from the merciful Heart of Jesus and gives the soul a special light by means of which the soul begins to understand God’s effort; but conversion depends on its own will. The soul knows that this, for her, is final grace and, should it show even a flicker of good will, the mercy of God will accomplish the rest.”

        Is it Revelation? No. But it is consistent with Jesus’ description of the Father in the Prodigal Son. It is consistent with LOVE. The Father sees his son from afar and runs to him, falls upon him and kisses him. The son has not yet repented to the father…

        Can we reject this love and go to Hell? Apparently, but that is going to be a high bar to cross when God puts forth His love like this, just as we would for our children, if we could…

        Myshkin, yes! Consider that God’s “action” and His nature are the same. He is simple and He is LOVE. The act of choosing to create us was an act of love. Keeping us in existence is an act of love, though we may not be able to “sense” his presence. I think we can see a little of what Hell is like in St. Faustina’s quote.

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  16. [And so I propose on this topic yet another theological category in the grand and growing taxonomy of positions: the “cloud of unknowing” school. For now, it is sufficient to say that all I know is that we are made for union with God in Heaven, that Christ came to get us there, that he wants none of us to go to Hell, and if we follow his path in faith as his disciples, we all have a good shot at salvation.]

    This is my view, too, Dr. Chapp. Don’t we enter the “Cloud of Unknowing” to some degree for all but the canonized saints? I hope and believe that my dear departed loved ones are in heaven, or if not then at least in purgatory with heaven ultimately assured. But I can’t know that for certain, and so I pray for them. Nor would I dare to say there is no hope for them (or for anyone) regardless how far from God they may have seemed (to me) when they died. But on the flip side, I believe that the only way of being confident of my own salvation is to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. I believe that the Catholic Church was founded by Christ and that he desires all people to enter it; that despite the flaws of its members the Catholic Church offers the greatest help toward salvation; and that she provides the closest thing we can get to assurance in this regard, assuming we have a lively faith and are not dead zombie Catholics.

    Much focus and discussion centers on LG 16, but LG 14 to my mind is just as important, if not more so:

    “14. This Sacred Council wishes to turn its attention firstly to the Catholic faithful. Basing itself upon Sacred Scripture and Tradition, it teaches that the Church, now sojourning on earth as an exile, is necessary for salvation. Christ, present to us in His Body, which is the Church, is the one Mediator and the unique way of salvation. In explicit terms He Himself affirmed the necessity of faith and baptism and thereby affirmed also the necessity of the Church, for through baptism as through a door men enter the Church. Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved.

    They are fully incorporated in the society of the Church who, possessing the Spirit of Christ accept her entire system and all the means of salvation given to her, and are united with her as part of her visible bodily structure and through her with Christ, who rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops. The bonds which bind men to the Church in a visible way are profession of faith, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical government and communion. He is not saved, however, who, though part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but, as it were, only in a “bodily” manner and not “in his heart.”(12*) All the Church’s children should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ. If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged.”

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    1. @Calvin – I’ve now read the Catholic Encyclopedia on hell, and in particular the section on the poena sensus, which you recommended. It says in part: “The poena sensus, or pain of sense, consists in the torment of fire so frequently mentioned in the Holy Bible. According to the greater number of theologians the term fire denotes a material fire, and so a real fire. …..there have never been wanting theologians who interpret the Scriptural term fire metaphorically, as denoting an incorporeal fire; and secondly, thus far the Church has not censured their opinion. Some few of the Fathers also thought of a metaphorical explanation.”

      I have no doubt that Catholic preachers have used various images to warn people of the evil that is involved in losing their souls. So did Jesus. But I think your imaged scenario above (which the Marquis de Sade would be happy to have written) has a different purpose – it is to accuse God of being evil if he permanently damns anyone. Of course it also aims to enlist emotions in your cause.

      I note that there are some theologians (I don’t know how numerous) who think that the fire of hell is the fire of God’s love, which is glorious for those who accept it, but for those who turn away from it is a torment. I don’t have an opinion about this except that it is an interesting idea.

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      1. ” I’ve now read the Catholic Encyclopedia on hell, and in particular the section on the poena sensus, which you recommended.”

        Then you know that, far from making that up, I am in fact merely agreeing with what the encyclopedia agrees are the greater number of Catholic theologians in attributing a physical fire to hell. And prolonged exposure to a physical fire does indeed have similar effects to those I described above.

        “But I think your imaged scenario above (which the Marquis de Sade would be happy to have written) has a different purpose – it is to accuse God of being evil if he permanently damns anyone. Of course it also aims to enlist emotions in your cause.”

        Well, yes. Obviously. If evil is to mean anything comprehensible to us, then creating unnecessary beings out of nothing for whom existence will be an unending curse is evil. If it isn’t, we know nothing of either good or evil, and hence can judge neither.

        Unless you wish to either attribute some necessity to God in creation or deny his knowledge of the end from the beginning, there is no way out of the logical trap.

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