What is hell?

To some, heaven and hell operate on a point system.

To some, heaven and hell operate on a point system. Positive points for good acts, negative points for sins. For some Catholics, sacramental Confession puts your score at 1, and a “mortal sin” moves you automatically to the negative. Then, at the end of your life, you add up your points to discover your destination. A negative score awards you hell. A positive score awards you heaven. Every debt is paid.

To some, hell does not exist. Everyone is inherently good, and God would not punish anyone with eternal unhappiness. After all, hell is mean, and God is nice, and Jesus isn’t the kind of man who would yell at people and overturn tables, is he? To some, God dooms everyone to choose “the right thing” eventually.

To some, hell must exist, and we must use the fear of hell as the motivation for people to do good. As if to say: what man would be faithful to his wife, if she couldn’t divorce him?

To some, salvation is not a binary question, but a question of increasing or decreasing dispensation of the self and receptivity to the other. The “laws” of the Church are not binary precepts, but invitations reflecting a particular kind of life. And it’s not simply a question of two destinations, but of being a particular kind of being, a question of degree of radiance. A question not simply of being alive, but being fully alive. And I do good because I want to be alive, so fully alive, ever more fully alive. I want to feel the life bursting forth from me, and for others to feel that life as well. Not a question of getting the grade or fate or fear. Only desiring more and more and more.

What do you make of hell?

Some thoughts in response, by my friend Rachel:

I think the fear definition is correct, but is only useful for people who are at the lowest level of the spiritual life. Many people go from a sinful, careless lifestyle to a prayerful, joyful one because step one was the fear of hell. The spiritual masters all discuss fear of hell as the first step for many people.

Your last paragraph is not correct. Heaven and hell are two real, distinct, mutually exclusive places. They do not exist on a continuum. You can’t be in between heaven and hell. There is no imperfection or suffering at all for those in heaven – they see God face to face and are like Him. There is no union or enjoyment of God whatsoever for those in hell.

However, you are correct that for people who have moved beyond square one, it’s not about fear of hell at all. It’s about Beatitude, which encompasses being fully alive, fully oneself, fully united to God, perfect. It is better to be good for the sake of your own goodness, happiness and perfection, and best of all is to be good for the love of God, who is goodness. Beatitude has many degrees, but none of them are halfway to hell. Hell also has its own degrees… The state of grace and the state of mortal sin are real and mutually exclusive. There is a huge range of states of the soul in both categories, but there’s no halfway between.

And in proper theology, it’s about whether you were in the state of grace or the state of sin at the moment of death, not about how many “points” you accumulated through life. Those those “points” do, in a way, determine how much purgation you may need before heaven.

Also, some laws of the church are binary – you went to Mass on Sunday or you didn’t. But like the fear of hell, attending Mass to avoid breaking the law and committing mortal sin is the lowest stage. Attending Mass regularly because it is good for you and increases your happiness and holiness is better. Attending Mass purely to commune with God for its own sake is best of all. You could apply this to every law/rule in the Church. In that way, it isn’t about laws and compliance at all anymore – those who have virtue don’t need the rules. But you can’t mitigate the importance of doing the bare minimum set out for us by the Church by saying, “it’s about my subjective state of being, not about rules.” In that case you are on Step Zero, not even on the spiritual path toward perfection.

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