Hell, by Venerable Fulton Sheen, 26 March 1933

1952 photograph of Venerable Fulton John Sheen produced as promotional material for the television show 'Life is Worth Living'If there is any subject which is offensive to modern sentimentalists it is the subject of hell. Our generation clamors for what the poet has called “a soft dean, who never mentions hell to ears polite,” and our unsouled age wants a Christianity watered so as to make the Gospel of Christ nothing more than a gentle doctrine of good will, a social program of economic betterment, and a mild scheme of progressive idealism.

There are many reasons why the modern world has ceased to believe in hell, among which we may mention first a psychological reason. If a man has led a very wicked life, he does not want to be disturbed in his wrong doings by harsh words about justice. His wish that there be no final punishment for his crimes thus becomes father to the thought that there is no such thing as hell. That is why the wicked man denies hell, whereas the saint never denies it but only fears it.

Another reason for the denial of hell is that some minds confuse the crude imagery of poets and painters with the reality of the moral order behind the doctrine. Eternal realities are not always easy to portray in the symbols of time and space, but that is no reason why they should be denied by anyone, any more than the reality of America should be denied because it is sometimes symbolized by a woman bearing a flag of red, white and blue.

A final reason is found in that the doctrine of hell has been isolated from the organic whole of Christian truths. Once it is separated from the doctrines of sin, freedom, virtue, redemption and justice, it becomes as absurd as an eye separated from the body. The justice of this reasoning is borne out in the fact that men become scandalized about hell when they cease to be scandalized about sin. The Church has never altered one single iota the belief in an eternal hell as taught by her Founder, Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. In adherence to His divine testimony, the Church teaches firstly that hell is a demand of Justice, and secondly, that hell is a demand of Love.

First of all, once it is recognized that the moral order is grounded on justice, then retribution beyond the grave becomes a necessity. All peoples have held it morally intolerable that by the mere fact of dying, a murderer or an impenitent wrong-doer should triumphantly escape justice. The same fate cannot lie in store for the martyr and the persecutor, Nero and Paul, Judas and Christ. If there is a supreme Good to which man can attain only by courageous effort, it must follow that the man who neglects to make that effort imperils his felicity. Once it is granted that eternal life is a thing which has to be won, then there must always be the grim possibility that it may also be lost.

Even the order of nature itself suggests retri- bution for every violation of a law. There is a physical law to the effect that for every action there is a contrary and equal reaction. If, for example, I stretch a rubber band three inches, it will react with a force equal to three inches. If I stretch it six inches, it will react with a force equal to six inches. If I stretch it twelve inches, it will react with a force equal to a foot. This physical law has its counterpart in the moral order, in which every sin necessarily implies punishment. What is sin but an action against a certain order? There are three orders against which a man may sin: first, the order of individual conscience; second, the order of the union of consciences, or the state; and third, the source of both, or God. Now if I sin or act against my conscience, there is a necessary reaction in the form of remorse of conscience which, in normal individuals, varies with the gravity of the sin committed. Secondly, if I act or sin against the union of consciences or the state, there is a contrary and equal reaction which takes the form of a fine, imprisonment, or death sentence meted out by the state. It is worthy of note that the punishment is never determined by the length of time required to commit the crime, but rather by the nature of the crime itself. It takes only a second to commit murder, and yet the state will take away life for such an offense. Finally, whenever I sin against God, and this I do when I rebel either against the order of conscience or state, I am acting contrary to One Who is infinite. For this action, there is bound to be a reaction. The reaction from the Infinite must, therefore, be infinite, and an infinite reaction from God is an infinite separation from God, and an infinite separation from God is an eternal divorce from Life and Truth and Love, and an eternal divorce from Life and Truth and Love is – hell!

It should be evident, therefore, that eternal punishment is not an arbitrary construction of theologians, but is the very counterpart of sin. We are too often wont to look upon hell as an after-thought in the mind of God and regard it as related to sin in the same way that a spanking is related to an act of disobedience on the part of a child. This is not true. The punishment of spanking is something which does not necessarily follow upon an act of disobedience. It may be a consequence, but it need not be. Rather it is true to say that hell is related to a sinful and evil life in the same way that blindness is related to the plucking out of an eye, for the two are inseparable. One necessarily follows the other. Life is a harvest and we reap what we sow: if we sow in sin, we reap corruption; but if we sow in the spirit, we reap life everlasting.

The teaching of Our Blessed Lord bears out this demand of justice, for His doctrine was not merely an amiable gospel of indifference as His own life was not one of sentimental good-naturedness. He very distinctly taught that men might do things which would prove their undoing. Never did He give assurance that He would succeed with everyone. The very fact that He poured out His Life’s Blood to redeem us from sin could only mean that sin might have such a terrible consequence as hell. For, on the last day, the good shall be separated from the bad, and the sheep from the goats. Then “shall the King say to them that shall be on his right hand: Come, ye blessed of my Father, possess you the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave me to eat: I was thirsty, and you gave me drink: I was a stranger, and you took me in. . . Amen, I say t-o you, as long as you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it to me. Then he shall say to them also that shall be on his left hand: Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry, and you gave me not to eat: I was thirsty, and you gave me not to drink. I was a stranger, and you took me not in. . . As long as you did it not to one of these least, neither did you you do it to me. And these shall go into everlasting punishment: but the just, into life ever-lasting.” These are the words of the Son of God Who is Truth Itself, and I cannot understand why anyone, knowing and admitting this, should accept His words concerning heaven, and deny His words concerning hell. For if He is worthy of belief in one instance. He must be worthy of belief in another.

Not only is hell demanded by justice, but also by love. The failure to look upon hell as involving love makes men ask the question, “how can a God of Love create a place of everlasting punishment?” This is like asking why a God of Love should be a God of Justice. It forgets that the sun which warms so gently may also wither, and the rain which nourishes so tenderly may also rot. Those who cannot reconcile the God of Love with hell do not know the meaning of love. There is nothing sweeter than love; there is nothing more bitter than love; there is nothing which so much unites souls and so much separates them as love. Love demands reciprocity; love seeks a lover; and when love finds reciprocity, there is a fusion and a compenetration and a union to a sublime and ecstatic degree. And when it is a question of the love of God and the love of the soul that is the happiness of heaven. But suppose that love does not find reciprocity; or suppose that love does find it only to be betrayed, spurned and rejected. Can love still forgive? Love can forgive injuries, and betrayals and insults, and Divine Love can forgive even to seventy times seven. But there is only one thing in the world which human love cannot forgive, and there is only one thing in eternity which Divine Love cannot forgive, and that is the refusal to love. When therefore the soul by a final free act refuses to return human love for Divine Love, then Divine Love abandons it to its own selfishness, to its own solitariness, to its own loneliness. And what punishment in all the world is comparable to being abandoned, not by the lovely but by the Love which is God?

Love, I say, forgives everything except one thing, and that is the refusal to love. A human heart pursues another and sues for its affection with all the purity and high ardor of its being. It showers the loved one with gifts, tokens of sacrifice, and all the while remains most worthy of a responding affection. But if, after a long and weary pursuit, it has not only been spurned and rejected, and betrayed, that human heart turns away and bursting with a pent-up emotion in obedience to the law of love, cries out: “Love has done all that it can. I can forgive anything except the refusal to love.” Something of this kind takes place in the spiritual order. God is the Great Lover on the quest of His spouse, which is the human soul. He showers it with gifts, admits it into His royal family in the Sacrament of Baptism, into His royal army in the Sacrament of Confirmation, and invites it to His royal table in the Sacrament of the Everlasting Bread, and countless times during human life whispers to it in health and sickness, in sorrow and joy, to respond to His plaintive pleadings, abandon a life of sin, and return love for love. If, however, the human heart, after rejecting this love many times only to be reloved again, after ignoring the knock of Christ at the door of his soul only to hear the knock again, finally, at the moment of death completely spurns and rejects that divine Goodness, then the God of Love, in obedience to the law of love, cries out: “Love has done all that it can. I can forgive everything, except the, refusal to love.” And it is a terrible thing to be through with love, for once Divine Love departs at death, it never returns: – that is why hell is eternal! – that is why hell is a place where there is no love!