Questions Answered: Does Hell Exist? And, Civil Law vs. Moral Law

Question: I heard that, recently, some Christian theologians are denying the existence of hell? Can you tell me if we must believe in hell?

Answer: The existence of hell is de fide from the Athanasian Creed, which teaches: “But those who have done evil will go into eternal fire.” This is fully ratified in the Dogmatic Constitution Benedictus Deus. In this document, Benedict XII meant to resolve eschatological issues: “According to God’s general ordinance, the souls of those who die in a personal grievous sin, descend immediately into hell, where they will be tormented by the pains of hell.”

Engraving by Gustave Doré, for Divine Comedy, Inferno, by Dante Alighieri.

This problem of the denial of hell is related to a more general one, which is the malaise in contemporary theology caused by certain theologians of the nouvelle theologie in Europe, who deny the transcendent in religion. Benedict XVI discussed this problem in an address he gave to European theologians in 1989: “In the first place, we have to point out the almost complete disappearance of the doctrine of creation from theology . . . the demise of metaphysics goes hand in hand with the displacement of the teaching on creation. . . . The decline of the doctrine of creation includes the decline of metaphysics, man’s imprisonment in the empirical.” (Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, Difficulties confronting the faith in Europe Today, July, 24, 1989). This has led to a complete denial of the afterlife. “Belief in eternal life has hardly any role to play in preaching today.” (Ibid.)

There has been a general tendency to implode nature and grace into one entity, with everything created becoming God. Though this implosion really destroys nature as an objective reality—a fruit of the denial of metaphysics. If there is nothing to distinguish from grace, then the world becomes God. Books like Theology of the World by Johannes Metz popularized this tendency in the 1970s and ’80s.

Modern theology is also characterized by a tendency, derived from Immanuel Kant, which reduces the criterion for metaphysical realities from the objective order of real beings outside the subject to a projection of something which can fulfill my needs. God exists because man needs him. Human need creates God, which also determines God’s nature, changing as human need changes. The study of God is actually the study of man. As Ratzinger observed in 1989: “The ‘Kingdom of God’ has been almost completely substituted, in the general awareness, . . . by the utopia of a better future world, for which we labor, and which becomes the true reference point of morality—a morality which thus blends again with a philosophy of evolution and history, and creates norms for itself by calculating what can offer the better conditions of life.” Against this reduction of “morality” to “progress” and God to “the world,” any doctrine of the afterlife seems incoherent and probably irrelevant.

The Catholic Church has always supported an understanding of the world, based on Christ’s teaching and authentic philosophy, which is just the opposite of this subjective theory of moral relativism, which gives birth to the theology of a better world. Instead, each person, because he has an intellect and will, is individually challenged to realize an objective destiny, which can be nothing less than the vision of God. This experience, alone, can fulfill the intellect’s desire to know the truth.

The love of the will must be involved in this in order to attain it. Choices in the will are either for acts, which can arrive at God’s vision, or not. Christ confirmed this in Matthew 25, “As long as you did this to the least of my brothers, you did it to me” (v.40). This is the standard for realizing our destiny in the other world to which nature is drawn.

As to hell, it is merely the condition of those who die, unrepentant, in which nature (God’s vision required by the intellect), and freedom (man’s choices in the will) disagree. They disagree eternally, with no remedy, leading to the total frustration of a spiritual nature: the primary punishment of hell. As to the fire, there are various interpretations of this, but all express this primary punishment. No one knows how many human beings may be in hell, or who they may be, but the existence of hell is de fide because the devil, and fallen angels, are certainly there.

Do all crimes contrary to the civil law constitute a sin against the moral law?

Answer: The classic definition of law, used by St. Thomas, which has even found its way into canon law, is taken from human law: “An ordinance of reason made for the common good by the lawfully constituted authority and promulgated.” This definition is a serviceable one for all types of law, and is even used analogously for God’s government of the universe through eternal law. It is a proper definition because it contains all four of the classic causes which must define a being.

The material cause, which is the subject in which the being exists, is “an ordinance.” This expresses the fact that law is actually carried out in the will. The will of one person is implemented by the will of another person. This is an application of obedience, demonstrating the presence of moral freedom. Law is, thus, anything but constraint. It is more direction, though, after the Original sin. Because of manipulation, domination and lust, important conditions for law are constraint and sanction.

The formal cause—what makes a law to be what it is—is the term “of reason.” Any law must correspond to the objective nature of man. Since men are directing men in moral goods, these goods must correspond to the truth about man. As a result, any law which commands something which is contrary to human nature or to reason is not a law but a usurpation of law, no matter how powerful the authority is who makes it. In fact, law is not just a competition of wills, based on who is the stronger. Rather, it is an application of intellectual, moral truth. The difference is the source of two conflicting schools about the nature of obedience: that of Scotus, and that of Aquinas. The former emphasizes only the will in authority; the latter the intellect and the truth. When one says that one cannot be obliged to obey an unreasonable command, this does not mean an inexpedient one, but rather one which commands a sin

The efficient cause is how the being comes to exist in the subject. In the case of the law, it is by means of the “competent authority and promulgation.” Many may think they know how people should conduct themselves in order to create a healthy and happy society. But only the properly constituted authority has the competence to bind the members of the society, in conscience, to act; this must be done through a means which allows them to know about the law, since the law engages the intellect. Promulgation is normally by word or document.

The final cause of a law—its purpose—must be “for the common good,” not just the private good of the citizens, even if this is the vast majority of them. The common good is both the end, and the order, used to allow the citizens to realize some good about their nature, which they could not do if left merely to themselves—for example, justice.

With all these conditions, if a law corresponds to the natural law, and is truly about the common good—not just some private matter—human laws, made by men, indeed, bind the conscience. One would sin objectively against the moral law in disobeying such a law, if it were about a matter which is essential to the rights of another—for example, murder. One would sin gravely, if the matter were grave; but one would sin only venially, if the matter were slight. Stealing a loaf of bread would normally be a venial sin.

If the law merely establishes something which is related to the good, as such, but not essential to it—for example, speeding—one would sin in endangering the lives of others in violating it, and the gravity would depend on the gravity of the danger. Otherwise, one would only sin if one were showing contempt for the lawgiver in disobeying the law.

What must be kept in mind is that the sanction of any law, and the authority to command, comes through God, who created human nature and his truth. Human law must respect, and seek to implement, the objective order.

Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, "Questions Answered".

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