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Do Souls in Hell Merit Such Punishment?

I've just posted another answer on Quora, to a somewhat complicated question that we've all likely asked ourselves in some form or other. The question and my answer are as follows.

I can, for one, and here’s why: practically speaking, greater minds then mine have pondered the question and end with basically the same answer that love does not exclude righteous justice. Simply defined, love is good desired for others, justice is giving to another what is due them. God who is love creates and shares freedom with creatures that they might love Him in return. Creatures share in the joy of their Creator; the Creator delights in His creation. All of this is according to the Judeo-Christian tradition from which I hail.

The purpose of hell in that same tradition is to maintain justice when God’s love is seriously abused. Do away with justice and there is no reason for hell; do away with hell and you are removing the just accountability of rational creatures who are obliged by God’s love to reciprocate with love. If someone doesn’t want to love God, or worse, to manifestly reject His love in a contentious way, God gives them what they want—excluding Himself whom they have themselves excluded. What is there apart from God’s goodness that loves and creates? That is what great minds consistently aver to: apart from God, there is only hell.

If you hold to the Bible, there are passages which posit the atonement of sins for the dead. With that, you may realize that such mercy is a generous gift of God, to allow weak and fallible creatures who struggled with loving God perfectly an opportunity to make restitution. In purgatory, souls have the divinely wrought opportunity to be purified from faults and failings so as to enter into the presence of God who admits no sin in His presence. We see only divine mercy at work here.

But mercy is the other side of justice. When mercy ceases, only justice follows. Why would mercy cease? Because, at some point, justice would demand it. Would it be merciful for souls who reject God only to have God impose Himself on them in the afterlife (with the reward of Heaven for seriously ill-gotten deeds)? At first, one would say, yes! Because “mortally” sinful people don’t realize what they’re giving up, and a loving God would give them opportunity to realize just that. But then, I’d ask who is doing the judging of justice here, man or God? The Tradition I am from says that only souls who knowingly reject God choose hell, and who is the one to make that determination? Those souls and God alone. There is no room for a third-party gainsayer to claim that God is being unjust in punishing such souls with hell when it is God and His love that establishes the kind of justice that alone justly judges sins. The really unfathomable question is why would a soul detest mercy that forgives? And yet that is exactly the question asked here: wouldn’t it be really quite unfair, to impose God’s love on those who reject His love? Not to mention unfair for those in purgatory or heaven who sacrificed banal desires of self gain to the detriment of others in order to choose that same love?

It seems to me, then, that many who have problems with hell have problems with justice. And yet God claims that He gave souls in hell every just and fair opportunity to make that decision for themselves, by choosing to love Him or reject Him. Are we here saying that God’s measure of justice is lacking, and should be fit according to our own measure, that God really ought to forbear with grievous sinners for the sake of justice? But then, it isn’t justice being demanded, but rather, mercy, and who, pray tell, is in a position to demand mercy when mercy is necessarily freely given? What sense of justice are we really wanting? If it is instead mercy we want for all, that mercy has been abundantly shown us on the death of the beloved Son on the cross. Ours here and now is the effort to apply that mercy to ourselves and others. If we reject mercy while treating others mercilessly…what would you say? Do such souls deserve a place like heaven…or hell? Supposedly, even the damned themselves would turn away from such mercy, and I pray for mercy that I am not put in a position to make that testimony myself!

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1 Comment

Sean Murray
Sean Murray
Nov 06, 2022

A really great post and well explained Father.

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