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Pope Benedict, Dr. Johnson, and Hell
Contentions/Commentary Magazine ^ | 3.29.2007 | Daniel Johnson

Posted on 03/30/2007 7:29:53 AM PDT by Alex Murphy

The Pope says that hell “really exists and is eternal, even if nobody talks about it much any more.” In a Lenten homily at a Roman parish on Monday, reports Richard Owen in the London Times, “Benedict XVI said that in the modern world many people, including some believers, had forgotten that if they failed to ‘admit blame and promise to sin no more,’ they risked ‘eternal damnation—the Inferno.’”

That the Pope believes in hell may not strike most people as surprising. But when was the last time you heard a senior Catholic churchman talk about it? The last Pope, John Paul II, was much influenced by the great Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, who was a universalist—that is to say, he believed that Christ’s salvation was universal. According to that view, if there is a hell, it is empty. In coming to this conclusion, Balthasar (whom John Paul II promoted to cardinal) was influenced by Edith Stein, the Jewish convert who became a Carmelite nun and was murdered at Auschwitz. She was later canonized by John Paul II as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Her view was that God’s love is so great that it embraces even the most obdurate sinner. As she perished in a man-made simulacrum of hell, a place of mass torment beyond anything conceived by the ancient or medieval imagination, Edith Stein’s words carry considerable weight.

Yet the universalism of Stein, Balthasar, and perhaps John Paul II himself has never been the authoritative doctrine of the Church. Pope Benedict adheres to the authoritative 1994 edition of the catechism, which he largely wrote as Prefect of the Congregation of the Faith and which was one of the great landmarks of John Paul II’s pontificate. The catechism is explicit: “The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. . . . The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God. . . . 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.”

The catechism leaves open the question of who, if anybody, is damned, but it rejects Calvinist predestination, stating that “God predestines no-one to go hell” and that hell is a state of “definitive self-exclusion.” Only those who freely persist in their defiance of God’s love “to the end” will suffer damnation.

Any belief in damnation, however, is regarded by many people as morbid and hence wicked. Its public restatement as a necessary part of the true faith will arouse bitter hostility from those who see hell as a relic of the superstitious, guilt-inducing caricature of Catholicism that persists in popular imagination. Ironically, as the Church has grown reluctant to reaffirm its belief in hell, the secular culture has appropriated the idea in its gothic horror. It ignores the essence of hell—separation from God—in favor of imagery drawn from other, often pagan, underworlds.

Pope Benedict’s words put me in mind of Samuel Johnson’s celebrated conversation on the subject, reported by Boswell in his Life. It took place at Oxford on June 12, 1784, when Dr. Johnson was visiting friends at Merton College. In the course of a conversation with “the amiable Dr. Adams” about the goodness of God, Johnson admitted his terror of death and what might follow it:

. . as I cannot be sure that I have fulfilled the conditions on which salvation is granted, I am afraid I may be one of those who shall be damned.” (looking dismally.) Dr. Adams. “What do you mean by damned!” Johnson. (passionately and loudly) “Sent to Hell, Sir, and punished everlastingly.” Dr. Adams. “I don’t believe that doctrine.” Johnson. “Hold, Sir, do you believe that some will be punished at all?” Dr. Adams. “Being excluded from Heaven will be a punishment; yet there may be no great positive suffering.” Johnson. “Well, Sir; but, if you admit any degree of punishment, there is an end of your argument for infinite goodness simply considered; for, infinite goodness would inflict no punishment whatsoever. There is no infinite goodness physically considered: morally there is.
At this point, Boswell, who rightly considered himself much more of a sinner than his older and wiser friend, intervened:
But may not a man attain to such a degree of hope as not to be uneasy from the fear of death?” Johnson. “A man may have such a degree of hope as to keep him quiet. You see I am not quiet, from the vehemence with which I talk; but I do not despair.” Mrs. Adams. “You seem, Sir, to forget the merits of our Redeemer.” Johnson. “Madam, I do not forget the merits of my Redeemer; but my Redeemer has said that he will set some on his right hand and some on his left.
Boswell tells us that Johnson was now “in gloomy agitation” and concluded the conversation abruptly. He was 75, a great age for that time.

Johnson died exactly six months later, imploring God’s forgiveness for “the multitude of my offences,” but sufficiently at peace with himself and his maker to show more concern for the salvation of his black servant, Francis, than for himself, saying: “Attend, Francis, to the salvation of your soul, which is the object of the greatest importance.” If this isn’t exactly repentance, it’s close enough.

TOPICS: Apologetics; Catholic; Mainline Protestant; Theology

1 posted on 03/30/2007 7:29:55 AM PDT by Alex Murphy
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To: Alex Murphy

Not one mention that the teaching of Hell comes from the Bible in this article. It's about what men believe and teach.

2 posted on 03/30/2007 7:45:24 AM PDT by Bosco (Remember how you felt on September 11?)
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To: Alex Murphy

Balthasar was not a universalist - i.e. not someone who held a personal confession that hell was empty. He posited the theory that, perhaps, since Christ prayed to the Father His desire not to lose a single member of the flock, that the Father would answer the prayer of the Son and save all. Balthasar was skating on very thin ice with this, but it was more a call to contemplate the possibility, not an affirmation that it was Truth.

That said. I wholly disagree (as does the Church) with the universalist theory. It doesn't stand up to the test of Scripture or Sacred Tradition. Jesus insisted that few would find the narrow path that leads to life. He also promised that He would have to one day separate the sheep from the goats. Universalist theory makes Judgment Day irrelevant.

3 posted on 03/30/2007 9:32:21 AM PDT by Rutles4Ever (Ubi Petrus, ibi ecclesia, et ubi ecclesia vita eterna)
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To: Alex Murphy

There are more than a few errors in this article. St. Theresa Benedicta was not a universalist. Nor was von Balthasar. The latter spoke of the possibility that hell is empty and asked if we may hope it to be so. To my knowledge, Cardinal Ratzinger was not one of the principal authors of the new Catechism; Cardinal Schonborn was the general editor, and Cardinal Ratzinger headed up a bishops' commission that had oversight, but to make claims about his specific views from what does or doesn't appear in the Catechism is incorrect.

4 posted on 03/31/2007 3:42:58 PM PDT by pseudo-ignatius
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To: pseudo-ignatius

Article: "Hans Urs von Balthasar, who was a universalist—that is to say, he believed that Christ’s salvation was universal. According to that view, if there is a hell, it is empty."

I think we're jumping logic here. To believe that Christ's salvation was universal is not the same as believing every single soul actually makes it to heaven. Yes, Christ saved all men and women by the events we're about to commemorate this coming week of Holy Week. In that sense, it is universal. But where there is human freedom, salvation is not 'automatic': salvation isn't universally applied. We are given the chance, we're not forced into it. I realize this is simplifying theological issues but I think this is as condensed as I can make it. We could go into freedom, individual consciences, and all that but maybe you should really review the Catechism again and look at the citations (the references are a brilliant part of the text).

(On a side note, I still think Dante was right in including the inferno in his Comedy. I know there's been a lot of hoopla about the pope speaking about hell recently but that really shouldn't be anything new to educated Christians.)

5 posted on 03/31/2007 6:33:56 PM PDT by Jenny Romanne (Freedom and hell)
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To: Alex Murphy

I don't think von Balthasar was a heretic - like many theologians, he had certain areas of doctrinal weakness, but that is probably why he, like Origen and many other brilliant theologians who preceded him but also had doctrinal weaknesses in certain spots, will always remain a theologian and never be a Doctor of the Church. At the same time, some of the other things he wrote, particularly about the papacy and the primacy of Peter, are truly excellent.

That said, I love anything that mentions the great Dr. Johnson.

6 posted on 03/31/2007 6:43:26 PM PDT by livius
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To: livius

Given the demonic actions of some of our fellow human beings, it is fitting that there be a hell, if only because no human justice can make up for such actions. I mean what torture is great enough to" reward" Saddam for the thousands he killed out of malice?

7 posted on 03/31/2007 7:01:57 PM PDT by RobbyS ( CHIRHO)
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To: RobbyS

Oh, I agree. I was just talking about whether von Balthasar was really a heretic or not; I don't think he outright denied the doctrine of Hell, in any case, but he obviously didn't like it very much. It makes perfect sense to me, though, and obviously to the Church through the ages.

8 posted on 04/01/2007 12:35:49 AM PDT by livius
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To: Alex Murphy


9 posted on 04/01/2007 12:43:36 AM PDT by fatima (Shut up Murtha)
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To: Rutles4Ever
The Father is just He is righteous.

He has set up certain physical and spiritual laws. The law of gravity is one and that each seed will bear fruit of its same seed, AKA birds don't lay egg and dogs hatch out of them.

God's spiritual law is the shedding of blood for the remission or the covering of sin. The blood has been shed the invitation has been given a call to all who athirst, it is our great gift to give this invitation to those who will listen and it is their choice to respond to the conviction of the Holy Spirit and accept this invitation.

Manny are call and few have chosen to accept. Hell is real my friend and many will be there who foolishly built their houses on the shifting sand of human effort and have not trusted and built their houses on the Rock the Lord Jesus Christ.

Brothers and Sisters the time is getting shorter and shorter and Christ is at the Door it is time to go into the highways and byway and invite them to the wedding. If you feel the prompting of the Holy Spirit to say to some one do you know Christ or if you feel that you should pray for someone on the spot do it. God will use you.

We are the ambassadors of God. From a song of john Michael Talbot Christ has no hand on earth but yours no feet, no eyes, no mouth on earth but yours. Go seek out, reach out, pray God use me today to touch someone in Your love in Your name to be your ambassador to the world that is going to hell in a hand cart on a very steep hill.

The devil has done a great job with this horrendous lie of reincarnation many believe it and say I'll be back some day it don't matter but the bible says it is appointed for man to live once and then judgment, no second chance.

I hope that my rambling has not bored you, I do pray that God will touch you and encourage you to reach out personally with His love and in His name to a sin filled dead and dying world. It will not get any better the world is getting worse sin abounds but God grace and love abounds much more.

As my tag line say If God is your Father then I am your brother and the same goes for you If God is your Father then you are my brother or sister too.

10 posted on 04/01/2007 2:08:16 AM PDT by John 6.66=Mark of the Beast? ("If God is your Father then I am your Brother" Larry Norman)
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