Our Catholic faith basically posits the doctrine that after death God will judge us individually and sentence us to either heaven (eternal bliss), purgatory (temporary suffering or purification), or hell (eternal suffering or separation from God).
Putting aside heaven and purgatory, let me just focus – for this piece – on the plausibility of hell as God’s judgment of eternal damnation.
From my personal rational perspective, I think it’s just fair enough, and congruent to the requirements of MORAL LAW and JUSTICE, that we have to answer to God for the life we have been given and how or what we have made of this life.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) #1033 states: “We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves: ‘He who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.’ (1 J. 3:14-15). To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him forever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called ‘hell’.”
From the above text, it can be gleaned that the basic qualification, so to speak, to earn God’s judgment of hell is “to die in mortal sin without repenting” and “to remain separated from God by own FREE CHOICE.” Now, as it is, this seems quite ambiguous or not categorical, making the plausibility of hell likely problematic.
Back when I was yet teaching Christian ethics or morality to college students many years ago, I still remember that full culpability of a “human act” requires knowledge, voluntariness, and freedom (so called “modifiers of human acts”), and there are hair-splitting gradations for each. Likely, to be sentenced to hell after death due to mortal sin and free choice (of “not choosing God”) may just generate a horde of questions.
Is it really possible for one to incur full knowledge, full voluntariness, and full freedom of choosing to “remain separated from God” and die in a state of mortal sin? Say, even if one has committed the most heinous evil acts in his/her lifetime (Hitler, Nero, etc.), can it be said that indeed he/she has completely closed any iota for repentance, even for a split second, to mitigate his/her unwillingness to remain separated from God? Isn’t it possible for one who dies unrepentant and in the state of mortal sin becomes repentant after death? In which case, Catholic doctrine may provide the intermediary sentence, which is purgatory, but not hell. On these queasy ramifications, I remember my former professor in Moral Theology in the seminary who quipped, “It seems it’s not hell that is overpopulated, it’s purgatory.”
Pray thee, how can we establish the plausibility of a “total and fixed choice” to neglect God (or goodness) in the afterlife – especially given the notion that we are naturally or inherently good?
That hell as an “eternal” punishment or “eternal separation from God” (CCC# 1035) is a crux of contention that has nevertheless garnered objections from some thinkers. American philosopher, Michael Tooley, professor emeritus of metaphysics at the University of Colorado Boulder, contends that it’s quite illogical or “unjust” for God to impose “capital” punishment into infinity for heinous acts that were committed in the finite lifetime. “If, say, a man is tempted by his secretary and commits adultery and eventually dies of heart attack and so dies in a state of sin. Does he go directly to hell? That seems completely disproportionate,” Tooley said.
Tooley argues that hell contradicts the attributes of God being just, loving, and perfectly good.
But, on the other hand, British philosopher Richard Swinburne, British Academy Fellow and professor emeritus of religion at Oxford University, believes that hell is plausible (or “real”) based on the premise that God provides us the “ultimate choice.” For Swinburne, to argue that it’s not possible for God to give us “ultimate choice” is but equivalent to “not trusting us” in giving us the gift of freedom.
Thus, because of this “ultimate choice,” humans are inclined to “permanently” choose evil over good and thereby become “insensitive” to the good. “If the person has made himself such that he is TOTALLY INSENSITIVE (underscoring mine) to the good, then he clearly can’t change because he doesn’t see anymore the reason for doing good but only what he wants to do which is hurting people,” Swinburne explained.
Furthermore, according to Swinburne, resonant with the Christian doctrine, hell is not a place but a state of suffering or un happiness. “Hell is just being unhappy and fires are just metaphysical description of such state.”
In sum, yes, I can no less agree with Swinburne: Because of God’s unconditional trust and love for us, he has gifted us with free choice – and, with it, he provides us the opportunity of making the “ultimate choice.” To my appreciation, the reason for this is because God does not want to force us but for us to FREELY and LOVINGLY choose him.
St. Augustine is indeed right when he said: Deus qui creavit te sine te, non salvabit te sine te. God, who created you without you, cannot save you without you.
Verily, at life’s end, even if God wants to save us, he still needs our FREE CONSENT or our genuine “Yes.” Hence, if I then choose heaven (or goodness), it’s not because I’m afraid of hell or that God has forced me to, but rather – more than anything else – I love God, the ultimate good. That’s perfectly the right choice!
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