Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Two desiderata for preaching about hell

  1. Hell needs to be presented in such a way that nobody would be willing to go there.
  2. It needs to be shown that hell is an expression of divine love.


Thomas Henry Larsen said...


*cough* *cough*

Alexander R Pruss said...

To destroy someone one loves is very problematic.

Marc Belcastro said...

In my estimation, it seems more loving to destroy someone one loves than to punish someone one loves everlastingly without an opportunity of redemption. Indeed, it strikes me as exceedingly more merciful to prevent someone one loves from experiencing everlasting separation from the greatest good.

Jarrett Cooper said...

...existence is better than non-existence... (Augustine, Aquinas view)

Even though it may appear that destroying one is better (rather than eternal torment);however, in the grand scheme there is something of value that is occurring, even for the damned. This line of thought is from Pruss in an earlier post.

See here: http://alexanderpruss.blogspot.com/2011/03/common-mistake-about-hell.html

Dagmara Lizlovs said...


I have had to in my life to destroy that which I have loved. One was when I made the decision to put my cat, Buddy, to sleep, and when I made the decision to put, Merlin, my Thoroughbred, down. Both cases involved destroying something I loved, but in both cases both animals were in their death throes when I made the decision. I remained with both animals during the process and never abandoned them. My faithfulness to both of them was to the very end. While emotionally wrenching, leaving me feeling like I have aged a 100 years, these experiences have brough to me a spiritual understanding, and a better and deeper appreciation of Psalm 126 vs 6. To destroy something one loves is not problematic for me if there is a solid, justifiable reason and the best effort is made to minimize the suffering. Because I am Catholic this applies only to animals and not to humans.

Because I am Catholic, with humans I am a firm believer in proper palliative care until natural death. This was the case with my terminally ill father. Even when the hospice doctor adviced my mother to discontinue my father's heart medications, we were both against it, because he needed those medications for his heart to function right. It felt to us like a sneaky attempt by this doctor to hasten death along.

What is problematic for me is to torture someone or something without end. That is purely sickening. It's a kind of sadism worthy of the Gestapo and KGB.

You are not the only one holding the view that Hell is God's mercy. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, as far as I have been able to read, the fire of the Holy Spririt and the fire of eternal punishment are one and the same fire. To the saved it is glorious, to the damned it is a torment. An interesting discussion of a similar theme is found here:


The Eastern Orthodox Church teaches that death is God's great mercy because it puts a finite limit on sin. Because if as sinners, we were able to live forever, we would also be able to sin forever.

There is a Southern Baptist who put things this way:

"I submit to you, for your discussion and input that the only thing worse that being separated from God for eternity in hell would be eternity before God bearing the weight of your sin with no hope of forgiveness. The reality of hell is knowing you are being punished and eternally atoning for your sin. Heaven with sin would be guilt and shame heaped upon remorse and unworthiness for all of eternity. Being in the presence of the Glory of God, but never able to look upon it. To look upon the face of God with sin is to bring death, so in a sense, it would be eternal death worse than the eternal punishment in hell."

"If this is true, then casting the sinner into the flames of hell where they face punishment is loving and merciful, and having them suffer the crushing weight of sin for eternity in God’s presence would show no mercy. This is where I believe Rob Bell missed it, Universalism for the unsaved would be worse than hell."

Full article here:


Now that Baptists believe that Catholics are not saved because according to the Baptists we are not really Christians. So they think that those of us who are Catholic, and this would include you as well as myself are heading for the eternal torments of Hell. Don't worry, I think we'll have interesting company there.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I agree one should distinguish between human and animal life. It is perfectly natural for animals to have a temporally limited life, and we may have a need to determine the limits thereof.

By the way, the final line about Baptists is not really fair. I am at a Baptist school, and there is a broadly shared institutional understanding that Catholicism is a form of Christianity, indeed perhaps even that it is a historically predominant form. The shared picture of Christianity we have at Baylor is along the lines of C. S. Lewis's Mere Christianity.

Now, it is true that many evangelicals will say that not all Catholics are Christians. But they will also say that not all people in evangelical churches are Christians. (Some may think the prevalence of not being Christian is higher among Catholics, though.)

The distinction may, however, be in part verbal, their use of "Christian" meaning simply something like: presently committed Christian.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...


About Catholics being Christians. I had these experiences. Once during lunch, I sat down to eat with this guy. We exchange names, and he was an Italian from New Jersey. I at once said - you must be Catholic. He told me he used to be Catholic, but now attends the Patuxent Baptist Church. He asked me what Church I attended, and I replied "The Immaculate Heart of Mary Church." Suddenly, I had a very familiar oh-oh feeling. Sure enough after some talk, he pulled out one of those familiar "Are you saved" little pamphlets. I knew that was going to happen at some point in our conversation. Fortunately, I had learned a little theological jiu-jitsu from Scott Hahn. I replied "Of course I am. Jesus is my Brother, and I receive Jesus everyday. And He told us in the Gospel of John, that we are to eat His flesh and drink His blood or we have no part in Him. . ."

The Italian Catholic guy turned Baptist put his "Are you saved" pamphlet slowly back into his pocket. Sweet Victory!

I once attended a Chris Cox horse training clinic. Cox is one of those trainers who uses Christian methods in training horses. John Lyons and Buck Branaman are other Christian trainers. There is a type of school known as Christian horsemanship, which is Bible based. Its participants are pretty much cowboy type Evangelical Protestants. One of the clinic participants asked me what denomination I was with, I told him I was a Catholic. He replied that he had been a Catholic until he had found the Lord and was now in some Protestant denomination. He told me that Catholics don't know the Bible. Then I drew my theological six shooters. I asked him if he knew were the Proto-Evangelium was found in Genesis. You should have seen the look on his face as he said "The Proto what?" Then, I asked him if he had ever heard of the Liturgy of the Hours and if he understood what the Liturgy's Biblical structure was. The dust at the OK Corral settled as I blew the smoke off of the barrels of my six shooters. . .

Dagmara Lizlovs said...


I disagree with Hell being God’s mercy. Hell is the eternal separation from God, His Love and His Mercy. I will quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church CCC 1033: “ We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves: ‘He who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.’ Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren. To die in mortal sin WITHOUT REPENTING AND ACCEPTING God’s merciful love means remaining SEPERATED FROM HIM forever BY OUR OWN FREE CHOICE. This state of definitive SELF-EXCLUSION from communion with God and the blessed is called ‘hell.’”

And from CCC1037: “God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a WILLFULL TURNING AWAY from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and PERSISTANCE IN IT UNTIL THE END. In the Eucharistic liturgy and in the daily prayers of her faithful, the Church implores the mercy of God, who does not want “any to perish, but all to come to repentance”

It is not so much God’s mercy that there is a Hell, and that He sends some people there out of His mercy, rather it is the people who reject His mercy who freely choose their way into Hell.

I discussed the reasoning of the Baptist intellectual that I had posted on Hell as God’s mercy with my parish priest who is quite orthodox in his approach to the Catholic faith and he said that it was wrong. I mentioned to him the concept of Hell as God’s mercy and he said that that was wrong too. The issue with the Baptists, other Protestants and the Eastern Orthodox is that these churches do not have a doctrine on Purgatory, which leaves them with just Heaven and Hell.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

I’ll put forth this analogy. A neighborhood has been flooded when some levies broke after a hurricane. It’s pretty much under water except for the roofs on which all the residents have managed to scramble to. Now a nor’easter is on its way which will result in the water rising higher over the roofs and will sweep the residents away. There is a Rescuer with a boat big enough for all of them and even a few more. There is just enough time to take all the residents off in this boat and take them to safety. This Rescuer goes through the entire neighborhood offering all of the people a place in the boat and warning them that they will soon be swept away by another storm. Many people get into the boat, but some for whatever reason refuse to get in. They can’t be forced in, because it is a futile task to do so. The Rescuer is able to take the boat and all the people who chose to be in it to safety. The nor’easter hits and the people who chose not to get into the boat are swept away and drowned. Was it the Rescuer’s fault they were drowned? No, not at all. Are the Rescuer and those who joined Him and the boat happy that people chose to remain on the roofs drowned? Of course not. Was it the Rescuer’s mercy that they drown? Definitely not. The Rescuer’s mercy was that He had a boat which could take everyone and that he went around to each roof in the neighborhood and offered each person a chance to be taken to safety. All they had to do was get in.

There is another analogy. There is a certain Dr. Great Physician. Dr. Great Physician is so skilled and accomplished that He can effectively treat any and all cancers. He is also a multi-billionaire and therefore offers His effective treatments to any and all cancer patients for free. Many cancer patients come to Him and are effectively treated and healed. Some however, do not. Of those that do not, they fall into two groups. One group goes to a certain Dr. Quackzoid, who charges a pretty penny for useless treatments that make them temporarily feel good while their cancer is eating away at them. The other group prefers do treat their cancers their way. The people who go to Dr. Quackzoid make him a wealthy man while they themselves die penniless of their cancers. The people who try to take care of their cancers on their own their way don’t have a clue about what they’re doing and die also. How does Dr. Great Physician feel about their deaths. Wouldn’t He be grieved at about them, about people He could have saved, but who chose worthless treatments instead? Is it Dr. Great Physician’s mercy that these people died eaten away at by cancer? No it is not. Dr. Great Physician’s mercy is in that He offers effective cancer treatment for free to any and all.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

Also the position that Hell is God’s mercy is very problematic in and of itself. This type of teaching can and does harm people who are at a spiritually vulnerable phase. I have personally met many people like that, and when I bring up the subject of the God of the Bible, I see the pain in their eyes when they talk about this whole Hell business and ask why is God cruel to people. Saying that Hell is God’s mercy will do nothing at all except hurt them further. I know that for a fact. I, myself, was hit by stuff like that when I was at a spiritually vulnerable phase as an undergraduate by well-meaning born-again Christians. What this did was drive me into the universalist camp for the next twenty-two years, and for some of those years into atheism. It was a long come back process through RCIA starting when I was 42 and over the next nine to ten years as a full-fledged Catholic. Saying that Hell is God’s mercy and offering all sorts of rationale for it will not win the hearts and minds of most of my engineering colleagues. If anything, they will be convinced that the person who thinks that way has no love nor compassion for humanity, follows a sick set of beliefs or has “issues”. The more intellectual among the people I know will see this “Hell is God’s mercy” to be Orwellian – torture is mercy, mercy is torture. The more simple of my other acquaintances think in straight lines. Mean is mean, cruel is cruel, kind is kind. (The older I get the more I appreciate this simplicity and its simple honesty.) They are not able not grasp the logic behind “Hell is God’s mercy”. To them that’s saying that God is mean and we are literally driving away God’s little ones who are His brethren. When I try to bring up the God of Bible with people, especially if they have been turned off by this “Hell is God’s mercy” stuff, they will reply “God isn’t mean.”

Another problem I see with the “Hell is God’s mercy” business is that it shows that there is a large gap between the Christian intellectuals who live and breathe doctrine 24/7 and most of the rest of the population. This gap has to bridged somehow by those of us who are committed Christians if this country is to remain a Christian country. Statements like “Hell is God’s mercy” do nothing to bridge this gap, and may make this gap wider.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Hell may or may not be an expression of God's mercy, but it is certainly an expression of God's love, since all of God's dealings with humans are.

You're right that hell is self-chosen, though. So perhaps more precisely what we should say is that it is an expression of God's love that he made this option available.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...


Is it possible for us to choose to place ourselves outside of God's love or mercy? If so, I wonder if that is what Hell is. Somehow, I think so. This thought just hit me today.

Joost said...

Dr. Pruss, what do you think are the best writings on God's love, both on a theoretical and more practical level?

Alexander R Pruss said...

The Gospel of John and the First Letter of John. :-)

Joost said...

I somehow expected that :-)
But outside of Scripture?

Alexander R Pruss said...

I found the writings of St John of the Cross helpful, especially The Ascent of Mount Carmel and the poetry. But they are difficult to get into.

On our love for God, I find Aquinas very helpful with his explanation of how we can have a love of friendship for a being that needs nothing from us, because we can do good things for those that God loves (i.e., our neighbor).

The seven volume edition of Kierkegaard's Journals and Papers has some rather neat stuff under "Love".

I do not recommend Nygren.