On Hell: Clarity Is Mercy in an Age of “Dare We Hope”

On July 13, 1917, Our Lady vouchsafed to the three children at Fatima a vision of Hell (this is the content of the “First Secret”):

Our Lady showed us a great sea of fire which seemed to be under the earth. Plunged in this fire were demons and souls in human form, like transparent burning embers, all blackened or burnished bronze, floating about in the conflagration, now raised into the air by the flames that issued from within themselves together with great clouds of smoke, now falling back on every side like sparks in a huge fire, without weight or equilibrium, and amid shrieks and groans of pain and despair, which horrified us and made us tremble with fear. … How can we ever be grateful enough to our kind heavenly Mother, who had already prepared us by promising, in the first Apparition, to take us to heaven? Otherwise, I think we would have died of fear and terror.

She then said to the three children: “You have seen Hell where the souls of poor sinners go.”

A vision of Hell has been granted to a number of saints, foremost among them the great St. Teresa of Avila, as she recounts in a vivid chapter of her Autobiography [i]. Here is an excerpt:

I was at prayer one day when suddenly, without knowing how, I found myself, as I thought, plunged right into hell. … I felt a fire within my soul the nature of which I am utterly incapable of describing. My bodily sufferings were so intolerable that, though in my life I have endured the severest sufferings of this kind … none of them is of the smallest account by comparison with what I felt then, to say nothing of the knowledge that they would be endless and never-ceasing. And even these are nothing by comparison with the agony of my soul, an oppression, a suffocation and an affliction so deeply felt, and accompanied by such hopeless and distressing misery, that I cannot too forcibly describe it. … This vision, too, was the cause of the very deep distress which I experience because of the great number of souls who are bringing damnation upon themselves — especially those Lutherans, for they were made members of the Church through baptism. It also inspired me with fervent impulses for the good of souls: for I really believe that, to deliver a single one of them from such dreadful tortures, I would willingly die many deaths. … I do not know how we can look on so calmly and see the devil carrying off as many souls as he does daily.

St. Teresa says that Our Lord, in His mercy, taught her the punishments sin deserved and she herself deserved; the urgency of praying, suffering, and working to save souls from this loathsome place; and the lack of reason for complaint about the negligible trials of this life.

“The Lady more brilliant than the sun,” as the children called her, taught the same truths. On August 13, 1917, Our Lady urged: “Pray, pray very much, and make sacrifices for sinners; for many souls go to Hell, because there are none to sacrifice themselves and pray for them.” To Jacinta in 1919 or 1920, Our Lady declared: “More souls go to Hell because of sins of the flesh than for any other reason.”

Our Lady, so full of loving tenderness and truly the refuge of sinners, does not mince words. Constrained by the truth itself — for she bore Truth made flesh in her heart and in her womb, and to Him she bears witness — she speaks about the reality of Hell with a clarity that is merciful, because she knows exactly what is at stake: the eternal destiny of souls redeemed by the precious Blood of her Son.

The Fatima vision of Hell was not like a Hollywood horror film with special effects, or a nursery tale with a pointed moral like “always say please and thank you.” The Blessed Virgin said, quite simply, that this is where the souls of poor sinners go. As if to underline her point, she repeated: “Many souls go to Hell.” Not “might go,” or “could go,” or “pay a visit” — but where they go. Period. “More souls go to Hell because of sins of the flesh than for any other reason.” Indicative mood, not conditional.

We can say with confidence that this view has always been that of the Catholic Church. There are two final destinations for souls: Heaven and Hell. Only those who have turned to God and repented of their sins can go to Heaven; those who die in sin, original or actual, go to Hell. With the exception of a few outliers, the Church Fathers taught this without hesitation or equivocation. The approved Doctors of the Church, with St. Thomas Aquinas at the forefront, manifestly teach it. Ecumenical councils have reaffirmed it, above all the Council of Florence:

The souls of those who depart this life in actual mortal sin, or in original sin alone, go down straightaway to hell to be punished, but with unequal pains. … Those who have done good shall go into eternal life, but those who have done evil shall go into eternal fire. … The holy Roman Church firmly believes, professes, and preaches that all those who are outside the Catholic Church, not only pagans but also Jews or heretics and schismatics, cannot share in eternal life and will go into the everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels, unless they are joined to the Catholic Church before the end of their lives. [ii]

Why was there such a strong, widespread consensus that Hell exists, that it is a just punishment for unrepentant sinners, and that it is already populated with many souls? I suggest two overarching reasons: first, because the teaching of Our Lord in the Gospels isn’t all that hard to grasp (pace the David Bentley Hart that panteth after the water brooks of universalism), and second, the lex orandi of the Church, her age-old liturgy, has always presented the truth with a clarity no less sobering and stirring than that of Our Lady of Fatima speaking to the three children.

According to (soon to be canonized) John Henry Cardinal Newman, the Catholic Church “holds that it were better for sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions who are upon it to die of starvation in extremest agony, so far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin” [iii]. Yes, that is how grave sin is. And we know that the distance between a venial sin and a mortal sin is, in a sense, infinite, since the one does not extinguish the life of grace and the indwelling of God in the soul, while the other does. Mortal sin is the deicide of which a creature, who cannot harm God in Himself but only in His image, is capable. When we kill God in us, we kill our life with Him. This is why St. Paul teaches that no one guilty of serious sin can inherit God’s everlasting life.

But evidently, the testimony of the Liturgy, Fathers, Doctors, Councils, and the Mother of God is not sufficient for Bishop Robert Barron. The Word on Fire website features a “Dare We Hope?” FAQ page that comes ready equipped with a reply to that most obvious of questions: “Didn’t Our Lady of Fatima show a vision of many people suffering in hell?”

Here is the answer that is supposed to set us at ease:

Yes, as a warning of the torments of hell — not as a window into an unavoidable future. We know this because in the same Fatima appearance, she also gave us the Fatima prayer, commanding us to recite it often, begging Jesus to “forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, and lead all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of thy mercy” [emphasis added]. Our Lady would never ask us to pray for something that’s impossible, so there must be at least a basic hope for the possibility that all souls can be saved.

If this reply represents the logic we can expect of one of today’s most eminent bishops, the Church is in dire straits indeed. First, it is patently absurd to contrast a warning with an “unavoidable future,” as if these are the only two options. Any individual soul may be saved while there is yet time for it, but that does not mean we are ignorant that some souls, nay, many souls, have been and will be lost. This statement is as ridiculous as saying that Christ’s utterance to the repentant thief on the Cross was “a window into an unavoidable future.” No, it was the promise of a reward that the thief had merited through his repentance, animated by God’s grace. In like manner, Our Lord and the Christian religion announce the punishment merited by sinners who do not repent. Our Lady announces what actually happens, and asks the children — and through them, asks us — to do all that we can to rescue souls from this horrible fate.

We can pray only for what is possible. Those who go to Hell cannot be saved, therefore the “Fatima prayer” is not offered for them, even as (per the Roman Canon) the Sacrifice of the Mass is not offered for those who do not hold the Catholic, orthodox, apostolic Faith. The Catholic sense of “Lead all souls to Heaven” is “Lead to Heaven all souls who are in a state of pilgrimage, who can still turn to God in repentance.” Any other meaning would make Our Lady contradict herself, not to mention make a hash out of Catholic tradition [iv].

This, it seems to me, is a brilliant example of what Christopher Ferrara calls “Neo-Catholicism” and what Hilary White calls “Novusordoism.” To save a fashionable theory — in the name of a God made tame, a Judge made toothless, and a religion made tolerant — people are ready to re-interpret swaths of the Bible, the intellectual patrimony of the Faith, the witness of catechisms and liturgical rites, and the consistent testimony of approved private revelations. All of them go into the mighty machine of modernist dialectics and out comes a word on fire — or rather, a word burnt up to ashes, past recognition. The Balthasarians accomplish in a more subtle way what successive waves of revolt against the Church brazenly endeavored to do in earlier centuries: the first Protestants rejected the authority of custom and tradition; the more radical Protestants rejected the authority of councils and saints; the liberal Protestant exegetes rejected the authority of the Bible itself, concluding that no traditional Christian doctrine can, after all, be substantiated from Scripture.

The Balthasarians will protest vigorously that they intend no such thing. No doubt, they are sincere within the confines of their fundamental assumption, which is that the shared beliefs and practices of Catholics down through the centuries of the Church can turn out to be mistaken under the scrutiny of academic experts, as they found the Mass and other liturgical rites corrupted in countless ways, from their text and language to their rubrics and ceremonies. But this is not Catholic sincerity, which receives with humility and submission of intellect, and does not second-guess, filter out, deconstruct, or reinvent.

We must strive for the childlike faith praised by Our Lord. He does not ask us to be dialecticians like the Pharisees, who split hairs with the skill of a footnote-writer at the Vatican. He does not want us to be scribes who mince away His words into oblivion because they displease our self-love or the imperious axioms of modernity. He does not merely share His bread with the hungry; He performs miracles to establish His divinity. He dies in agony to rescue sinners from the eternal punishment due to all of mankind on account of Original Sin and the “innumerable sins, offenses, and negligences” (as the traditional Offertory prayer puts it) we amass during the years of our lives. He offers us the “second plank after shipwreck” of the sacrament of Penance, so that we need never despair of our salvation, and may conquer our vices. He offers us the ongoing miracle of the Holy Eucharist to unite us to power of His redemptive death and the strength of His glorified humanity. So numerous are His gifts, in the folly of His love — from the other sacraments to the sacramentals like the rosary to indulgences — all provided to make salvation attainable and to make hell avoidable!

Why did He do all this, and why are we supposed to strive every day to uproot our vices, fight disordered concupiscence, deny ourselves and take up our Cross on the road to Glory that passes by way of Golgotha — if, in the end, God could and probably will save everyone after all? Shucks, no sense in working too hard! It seems an incredibly elaborate set-up. Alternatively, it might lead to a conclusion some progressives have already embraced: those who are most likely not to be saved are the serious Catholics, since they know the most about what sin is and what sins to avoid. Better to be an “invincibly ignorant” self-absorbed pagan than to know the Faith and its demands.

Obviously, something has gone seriously wrong with this warped picture. What is missing is the spirit of the saints as we find it thundered in the Word of God: “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Lk. 3:9). “The Lord tries the righteous but the wicked and him who loves violence his soul hates. Upon the wicked he will rain snares; fire and brimstone and burning wind shall be the portion of their cup. For the Lord is righteous and loves righteousness: the upright shall behold his face” (Ps. 11:5–7; Vul. Ps 10:6–8).

Do not listen to the lies of the popular writers who depart from Catholic tradition. It is not unloving to believe in a God of infinite majesty and holiness who, being no less just than He is merciful, gives to souls the destiny they have chosen for themselves by a life in union with Him or a life in opposition to Him. It is not unloving to believe in the existence of Hell; to seek to avoid it; to remind others of its stark reality; to “flee from the wrath to come” (Lk. 3:7) by faith and repentance. On the contrary, not to do these things is unloving — a failure to love oneself rightly (as God commanded us to do), a failure to love one’s neighbor as oneself, a failure to take seriously the unequivocal words of Our Lord, Our Lady, the saints, the Church. The wages of eternal hellfire for unrepented sin is the “bad news” that cries out for the “good news” of Jesus Christ. We have a Savior who empowers us to turn away from sin, flee from it, and gain mastery over it — so that, when we depart from this life of pilgrimage, we will inherit His kingdom, behold His face, and share His joy for ever and ever.

[i] The whole of chapter 32 deserves to be read, but in the interests of space I have had to give the merest taste of it.

[ii] From Session 6, July 6, 1439; Session 8, November 22, 1439; and Session 11, February 4, 1442, respectively.

[iii] See here for the full context and some commentary.

[iv] Another writer who does not get this point is Mark Shea; see this article from 2013.

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