No Eternal Punishment?

Written by  P.A. Halpin


Men, it is a very remarkable fact, never quarrel with Heaven. They are willing to concede that there may be beyond the confines of this earth a place where everyone will be supremely happy, When, however, they are called upon to admit that there is also a place where God’s creatures are to suffer unimaginable and unconceivable painforever, forthwith they recoil and they deny. But it is very patent that denial will not obliterate everlasting penalty, no more than the convict, by refusing to believe in a penitentiary or a dungeon, will find himself free instead of passing months or years or a lifetime behind prison bars. No denial of ours will change the words of Christ. His words are explicit. We find the doctrine of everlasting punishment emphasized in the Gospel of Saint Mark chapter 9. On this occasion Our Lord repeats three times the statement of the unquenchable fire of Hell where the worm never dies. Some repudiate the idea of Hell being eternal. Some contend that on a future day the rigors of the flames will be mitigated and that there will be a modicum of happiness introduced. Others claim that there will be a new period of probation granted each sinner in eternity. Others simply say there is no Hell. We may find it difficult to prove from reason alone that the sentence of condemnation will be an eternal one. In this case, we have to fall back upon the divine and infallible teaching of the Redeemer.

Whatever opinion mentioned above may be sustained, this answer is always in order: a mere statement is not proof, nor is a mere contradiction a successful rebuttal. Saint Augustine tells us that every one who denies God’s existence makes the denial because he has a reason for wishing God not to be. Something similar may be advanced regarding those who assert that there is no Hell, or, if there is, it is not everlasting. It is to be feared that all these individuals repudiate the dogma because their conscience makes them afraid that in their moral condition were they to stand before God for judgment, they could expect no other verdict than an adverse one. However, be things as they may, the teaching of the Church is safer to follow than their denial. They, of course, advance some reason. Let us see what they are worth.

There is no Hell because a punishment such as is that professed by Christianity is repugnant to the divine perfections. It cannot be reconciled with divine justice or with divine goodness. It is irreconcilable with God’s justice for the reason that there is no proportion between a crime committed, however great, and the penalty. It is very hard to decide as to the proportion. Yet we are justified in claiming that the one whose law and whose dignity is offended by a deliberate and grave wrong is infinite. There should be something infinite, it seems to us, in the retribution. It cannot be in the torture itself inflicted because no finite being could bear the weight of an infinite woe or pain. There appears to remain only what we might call an external infinite and that is perpetuity of duration. There can be no doubt that God’s law must have a sanction, and a sanction commensurate with the importance of the law and the majesty of the Law Giver.

With regard to the divine goodness, we must keep in mind that God’s goodness is a perfection, and while it includes boundless mercy, it excludes all vacillation and impotent condescension. Pardon me if I say that God is good, but that He is not “goody-goody.” If we carry the argument from goodness to its limit, then there will exist no sanction. In this case God’s goodness would be the cause of innumerable disorders and would render the divine will of no account in the eyes of creatures. God does not punish as if moved by what we conceive as revenge. God hates only the sin, and were it possible to detach the sin from the sinner, then He would doom the sin alone. The divine goodness, by its very nature, must abhor sin, must hate it because it is an attack upon all the Maker’s attributes. Thus He must punish it, and who can say to Omnipotence outraged, “This far and no farther?” It is not so much the length of time it takes to commit a crime that we have to consider; rather it is the ingratitude of the criminal and the ineffable majesty of the offended Deity that we must consider.