The problem of Hell
Cf. Catechism, paras 678-9, 1033-41
While many people are willing to accept the existence of evil and suffering in this world in the knowledge that it does not last forever, they are less happy with the idea of an eternal Hell beyond this world: a state of punishment without end that awaits those who choose evil and do not repent.
Some great Christian thinkers have felt that the existence of an eternal Hell would amount to a failure on Godís part and a fatal flaw in the creation. Would not the saints in their heavenly glory be aware of the roasting sinners, and would that not undermine or taint their bliss? St Thomas Aquinas did not think so. If there are sinners eternally roasting in hell through their own fault, the saints would be aware only of the divine justice that is manifested in their punishment. Hell is not an evil, therefore, but a great good. There would be nothing to regret, no one to feel any sympathy for.
The cold logic of this position does not satisfy many people today. Some have tried to abolish the dogma of eternal punishment altogether - contrary to the apparently plain sense of Our Lordís words in Scripture. Others have suggested a final apocatastasis or "restoration" in which all things return to God and evil is dissolved in good. (This idea, often associated with the ancient writer Origen, has been rejected by the Church.) But there are more subtle ways of wrestling with the problem.
For example, some suppose that the word "eternal" must mean something different in the case of Hell and Heaven. An eternity sharing in the very life of God must necessarily be radically different from an eternity of exclusion from that life, and thus from true reality. Perhaps here the term "second death" becomes more meaningful (see Rev. 20:13-15). John Henry Newman argued in A Grammar of Assent (1870) that while a punishment may be eternal, the conscious experience of that eternal punishment may be concentrated all in a moment. St Gregory of Nyssa and others have suggested that Hell refers to a kind of filtering process, in which the evil parts of a person are destroyed as if by fire, but not the personality itself. That which is good can still be saved.
Several respectable modern theologians (including Hans Urs von Balthasar in his controversial book Dare We Hope for the Salvation of All Men? published by Ignatius Press) think that while we cannot know for sure that all men will be saved, and although we know that many when they died were clearly heading in the direction of Hell (Judas, for example), we do not know what may have happened in their final moments. The Church tells us that many people are in Heaven (the saints). She does not inform us of any specific people who have gone to Hell. It is conceivable that God may have found a way of reaching even the greatest sinners, and that they may have repented in the moment of death. We may legitimately hope so, and pray for them, in the certain knowledge that God the Good Shepherd does not want anyone to be lost.
These theologians argue that while death may appear to be sudden, it is always a process, and a mysterious one at that, since in death the limitations of earthly time are removed. The Church teaches that Our Lord descended after his death and before his resurrection into that state or place in which those who had died before him were "waiting" for his salvation (Byzantine icons show him taking Adam and Eve by the hand in order to lead them to Heaven). We can think of this "descent" as a form of time travel, with Our Lord appearing to those who lived in the past, as it were in the moment of their death. Perhaps he appears to all men as they die. If so, who can say what might happen in that moment of encounter, when the most hardened sinner sees, perhaps for the first time, the God who has died and suffered for him?
The same theologians sometimes refer to mystics such as Julian of Norwich, to whom God appears to have vouchsafed some intimation that "all shall be well". The safest thing is to assume, as she did, that the Church does not lie, and God does not issue warnings without reason, but that because he is infinitely more just and more loving than we are, we need not fear that his work is flawed or defeated by evil even if our minds cannot know exactly how this victory will come about. (Most of those who object to the teaching of Hell do so because they secretly imagine that they would be more merciful or more resourceful than God. That is not the case.)
For further reading, see the beautiful chapter called "The Difficult Love" in Olivier Clementís book, The Roots of Christian Mysticism (New City Press, 1993).
See also an important article by Cardinal Dulles on this topic.