As part of a discussion I was having the other day someone said, “I’m of the opinion that not very many people go to Hell.” That statement has been clanging around in my head ever since then and it just isn’t quite sitting right. I know it’s a very popular belief in this day and age but when you look across the broad cross-section of Catholic history and inside the Bible the concept of an empty or nearly-empty Hell is hard to find. Now, it’s possible this is another case where God is reaching people “where they are” in history and all the Biblical warnings about the ease of going to Hell and the difficulty of attaining Heaven are merely purposeful hyperbole. I grant that possibility, but I confess I haven’t seen the kind of exegesis that suggests it is a likely, let alone the most likely, option.
Let’s start first with the words of Jesus in Mattew 7:13-14:
Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.
That certainly doesn’t sound much like words suggesting there’s a buyer’s market for real estate in Hell. I’m quite desperately trying to come up with a way around it but I simply can’t find one.
Add on to that the number of times Jesus repeats warnings about Hell and the human capacity to end up there (e.g. Matt 3:12, Matt 5:29, Matt 8:28, Matt 13:30 etc.). Add to that the number of times it is found in the epistles (e.g. 2 Thess 1:9, 1 Pet 4:17). If God is using hyperbole through the Scriptures to, if you will, “scare us straight” He certainly is laying it on with a heavy hand.
There is also the quote, variously attributed to St. Theresa of Avila and Mary at Fatima, tracked down at Fr. Z’s to an actual quote from St. Therese of Liseux that souls are lost like “snowflakes”. Again, the quote attributed loosely to St. Athanasius that the floor of Hell is paved with the skulls of Bishops. The list goes on, but this is not an exercise in pounding the reader into either submission or boredom with an excess of talking points.
Let me reduce it down the way my brain processes it:
- Jesus says there is a Hell.
- Jesus says we can end up there and lays out various things that will get us there.
- Jesus doesn’t lie.
- We’re not perfect, and we sometimes break the very commands He tells us will earn us Hell
ergo, we could wind up in Hell.
To be perfectly honest I find some modicum of comfort in the idea that it is nearly impossible to go to Hell, but I also find a tremendously dangerous impulse to spiritual sloth hidden just beneath the surface of that idea. How does one earn Hell? That’s something God has not entirely revealed to us, or at least not in a way we haven’t managed to muddle with sophistries. We’ll hear about how God is so loving and all-powerful He would never allow a single soul to go to Hell. But then … if He could undo all His warnings with a snap of His fingers, why did He have to come, live, suffer, die and rise again to open Heaven for us? If we believe the latter, how can we say the former? And again, God would not warn us about an easy-to-earn Hell if Heaven were in fact our only, or even almost-only, destination.
So where does that leave us? Right back with what the Church teaches:
To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from Communion with God and the blessed is called “hell”. (CCC #1033)
The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. (CCC #1035)
Mother Angelica of EWTN fame once said that too many people aim for Purgatory. But what, she asked, if they fall just short? There’s nothing below Purgatory other than Hell. Aim instead, she said, for Heaven. That way if you fall short you still land in Purgatory. Of course, she delivered it far better than did I with all her usual wit and charm.
So let me summarize it a slightly different way than before. Hell is real and it is eternal. And it doesn’t matter if there is room for only one person in Hell, if that person is you.