Few secular writers these days would contemplate writing a lengthy essay on Hell. Piers Paul Read did so because someone at Farm Street, the Jesuit church in the most fashionable part of London, asked him to give a talk on the subject. Later it was rejected. A new parish priest had been appointed to the church, and is said to have ruled that the talks in the intended series should be on secular subjects. "I don't know, in fact, if any talks were ever given," Read told me by email. "Mine was not, but was rewritten as an essay." It is published for the first time as the leading article in an absorbing collection of his Catholic journalism, Hell And Other Destinations: A Novelist's Reflections on This World And the Next (Ignatius Press, 2006).
Perhaps the leading Catholic writer in England today, Read is the author of many books, including the "authorized" biography of Alec Guinness (2005). Perhaps his best-known book is Alive, the story of young Uruguayans who survived a plane crash in the Andes and were reduced to eating the bodies of those who died. Sales of his 1999 book The Templars, a history of the Crusades, rose "dramatically," he says, following the publication of The DaVinci Code. His essay on Hell, which covers 35 pages and is both scholarly and judicious in tone, addresses a subject that most of us would rather not think about. He writes:
It would seem to a dispassionate observer that there is no longer any real belief among contemporary Catholics in the last item of the Nicean Creed, "life everlasting." There are calls to conversion and repentance, but no suggestion, explicit or implicit, of what may befall those who are not converted or who fail to repent; much talk of salvation, but no definition of what it is from which we are to be saved; no warning that while the gospel may be good news for some, it is decidedly bad news for others.He quotes Blaise Pascal: "The immortality of the soul is a matter of such importance to us…that we must have lost our wits completely not to care what it is all about." Pascal wrote in the 17th century and what a pity it is that he did not live to complete the book that exists only as his fragmentary Pensées. Pascal went on to say: "All our actions and our thoughts must follow such different courses depending on whether there are eternal rewards to hope for or not, that it is impossible to take a single step with sense and judgment unless it is determined by our conception of our final end."
The intelligentsia of the Western world has to a very large extent decided that death itself is the final end, and the response of the Catholic Church is practically inaudible. At the outset of his essay, Read asks why the Four Last Things -- Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell -- "appear to have been forgotten in today's Catholic Church."
There can be no more basic question. Sometimes I suspect that Catholics do not even think very much about Heaven. As for the Judgment, and the possibility of Hell, we try to put them out of our minds. That's not difficult, of course, because there is so much to distract us -- far more now, surely, than there has ever been. In fact, our lives largely consist of such distractions and the search for ways to add more of them. Think of the Internet -- and I am not just thinking of the pornography that is instantly accessible. Even without that, it is a huge distraction. "Nothing is more intolerable to man than a state of complete repose, without desires, without work, without amusements, without occupation," as Pascal said.
Clerics, too, seem to skirt Judgment and Hell. The inclination of modern bishops is to issue statements on topics that steer them away from their true role as spiritual leaders. I have in mind their incessant concern with such issues as immigration, arms control, the distribution of income, the threat posed by landmines, the desirable level of foreign aid, and so on. These foolish preoccupations are, once again, distractions, and tell us that bishops as a body have lost sight of their true mission. Yes, I know there are some good bishops out there; others, however, seem to have little interest in the Gospels or the teachings of Jesus Christ. And they will thank you for not bringing the subject up.
Read briefly reviews Jesus' numerous sayings concerning Hell. They make for uncomfortable reading: For wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction.... Many are called but few are chosen.... Cast the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.... The sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left; and those shall go away into everlasting punishment.... You generation of vipers, how can you escape the damnation of Hell?
St. Paul often seems less severe, more willing to "emphasize the positive in Christ's teachings," as Read says. How odd is the misconception, as C.S. Lewis once noted, that Jesus preached a "simple and kindly religion," which St. Paul turned into a cruel one. In fact, such warrant as we have for hoping that all will be saved comes from St. Paul, Lewis said, while "all the most terrifying texts come from the mouth of Our Lord." But St. Paul does not in fact preach universal salvation (see: Dale Vree, "If Everyone Is Saved…," NOR, Jan. 2001).
St. Paul raises the possibility that faith alone might save us. But Jesus seems to rebut that when He says: "Not every one that says unto me Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that does the will of my father which is in heaven."
More recent commentators, such as St. Augustine, St. Dominic, and St. Thomas Aquinas are scarcely more reassuring; nor is Thomas à Kempis, whose Imitation Of Christ was so influential. St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) was gentler, but even he warns Philothea, the composite woman whom he addresses in his Introduction to the Devout Life: "While you were at the ball many souls were burning in the flames of hell for sins committed at dances or occasioned by their dancing."
The Council of Trent warned of the eternal torment that awaited those who died unrepentant in mortal sin. John Henry Newman, who converted in the mid-19th century, brought with him from Anglicanism "a lively fear of eternal damnation." In 1917 the young visionaries of Fatima saw "a vast sea of fire," in which were plunged "the demons and souls [of the damned]." Catholics are not obliged to believe in the Fatima apparitions, but do well to recall that Pope John Paul II did. The Virgin later told the visionaries at Garabandal in northern Spain (1960) that "many cardinals, many bishops and many priests are on the road to perdition and are taking many souls with them."
The Church's teaching was not changed by Vatican II but, Piers Read writes, there was a change of emphasis from individual virtue and sin and its effects on the individual's soul "to a collective salvation through the permeation of the world with Christian values." The Council document Gaudium et Spes depicted the world as no longer the principality of the devil, and held out the hope that the effects of Original Sin could be mitigated by a drive for social justice. For "ours is a new age of history," the document asserted, in which "a generation of new men, the molders of a new humanity," would transform the world.
"The eternity of the individual's afterlife seemed now to be subsumed into the destiny of the human race," Read comments. "Catholics, like Communists, now believed in ‘progress' in this world and seemed to lose interest in what might await us in the next."
Liberation theology took things one stage further, holding out the promise of Heaven on earth. Its errant theologians identified the promise of pain or happiness in the next life with the opiate of the masses that had allowed the oppressed to accept their fate. In a further blow to the Church's self-confidence, ecumenism was broadly substituted for conversion. The search for an ever more watery "lowest common denomination" tended to dissolve inherited Catholic certainties. Thus was the traditional teaching of the Church undermined, without being formally changed.
Avery Cardinal Dulles thinks that there has been a shift in Catholic theology on Hell, because the Church no longer teaches that outside the Church there is no salvation. He also thinks it right that the Church no longer dwells on a doctrine that fosters an image of God as "an unloving and cruel tyrant." He adds, however, that today "a kind of thoughtless optimism is the more prevalent error." The Cardinal believes that people should be told that they ought to fear God who "can punish soul and body together in hell." [See Avery Cardinal Dulles, "The Population of Hell," First Things (May 2003), 36-41.]
Read says of the recent (1994) Catechism of the Catholic Church: "The Catechism repeated the Church's traditional teaching that those who died in a state of serious sin would be damned; but there was no sense of urgency -- no impression, from the tone in which it was written, that its authors were worried that the Catholic girl on the pill who went only to Mass at Christmas and Easter, and came up to take Communion straight from the bed of her boyfriend, was in grave danger of eternal torment in Hell."
Our natural preference for ease no doubt also explains the widespread embrace of the vague mysticism emanating from Eastern sages. Their hazy remarks have all the sustenance of cotton candy, yet talk of Nirvana acts as a comforting narcotic. No demands are made, yet the devotees of such faiths can reassure themselves that they, too, are religious (preferring to call it "spirituality"). Unitarianism has much the same appeal.
In contrast, the openly anti-religious stance of such scientific materialists as Francis Crick and Richard Dawkins, seems to me bracing, even lucid. The faculty of reason can at least be brought to bear on their dogmas.
It is commonly said that the embrace of Christianity is an exercise in wishful thinking. But when we consider what Jesus said about Hell, that charge is more appropriately directed at those who make it. Their repudiation of the Church's teaching often expresses the hope that it is not true. One thinks of Charles Darwin, who could "hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so, the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my father, brother, and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished." And that is "a damnable doctrine," he added.
That passage, rarely quoted, did not come to light until about 100 years after the publication of the Origin of Species. It suggests that Darwinism itself originated as an exercise in wishful thinking. For it undermined the Thomistic "argument from design" for the existence of God. That in turn may well be the real basis of Darwinism's fervent support among so many intellectuals who know little or nothing about the evidence one way or the other and are not interested in it. Why else would the subject arouse them to such fury?
The idea that all will be saved does go back to a few of the early Church fathers and was mooted in the 20th century by Jacques Maritain. Karl Rahner suggested that Jesus' severity was, in Read's words, "admonitory rather than prescriptive, like the threats that parents sometimes make to their children but never intend to carry out." Possibly so, but we cannot rely on this, and as Read says, it is a "grave matter" for a priest or for anyone in ecclesiastical authority "to minimize or disregard altogether the danger of damnation."
Those in authority might seem to be at particular hazard -- whoso shall offend one of these little ones who believe in me, it were better that a millstone were hanged about his neck....
What is hard for some to see is that the fire-and-brimstone sermons that we no longer hear are less likely to "offend" the flock than bland reassurances that we're all basically O.K. As misguided as it is possible to be is the anti-Catholic writer John Cornwell, the author of Hitler's Pope and other books such as Breaking Faith. He is one of many who attribute declining Mass attendance to Rome's adherence to traditional standards. The old moral rules were tolerable, Cornwell thinks, but only because they were promulgated at a time when we didn't have anything better to do than obey them. But now that we have all these new gadgets, we can hardly be expected to live like monks.
On the contrary, decline has been most pronounced where the rules have been most relaxed. If a priest simply tells us what we want to hear, what need do we have for a priest? Warnings are more likely than reassurances to keep us coming back. Yet many priests are reluctant to suggest that we are at greater risk of damnation than we might suppose. Read argues that they are "browbeaten by the vocal Catholics, some prominent in the media, who claim that they were traumatized in their youth by the fear of Hell." (One is tempted to reply that if they were traumatized by hearing about Hell, they are likely to be even more traumatized by experiencing it.)
As long ago as the 1920s, the English convert and priest Ronald Knox emphasized that the hierarchy is influenced by public opinion. "The prevalent irreligion of the age does exercise a continual unconscious pressure upon the pulpit," he said. "It makes preachers hesitate to affirm doctrines whose affirmation would be unpopular. And a doctrine which has ceased to be affirmed, like a diseased organ, to atrophy." How much more true that is today.
Let me end with Read's conclusion, which is also mine: "There is a danger, it seems to me, that the shift among Catholics from a preoccupation with eternity to an engagement in the world has now gone so far that it effaces the very idea of an afterlife and so distorts the teaching of the gospel and endangers the coherence of the Christian religion. I would also suggest that neglect of the Four Last Things is one of the causes for the relative decline of the fortunes of the Catholic Church in the developed world."
[Tom Bethell is a Contributing Editor of the NOR and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science (Regnery, 2005). His article, "Hell and Other Destinations," was originally published in the New Oxford Review (December 2006), pp. 34-37, and is reprinted here by kind permission of New Oxford Review, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley CA 94706, U.S.A.]
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