Friday, May 31, 2013

Hell, No

It's always telling when people pounce on a piece news and promptly declare I told you so! So it was with much amusement that I watched the stream of giddy reactions to Pope Francis' comments about salvation. The approbation flowed mostly from liberal quarters, Catholic and otherwise, rejoicing in. . . what exactly?

They interpreted Pope Francis' statement to mean that atheists can get into heaven. Now this might seem a charitable and Christian sentiment, and indeed there is a reasonable path to such a conclusion. For example, it's possible to believe God's love so vast that it simply swaddles all of his children in infinite forgiveness, irrespective of creed or deed. That's variously problematic, though not patently absurd, but it and the assumptions about Pope Francis' recent statement, especially in the context of the ambiguities Fr. Z mentions above, are potentially troublesome.

Namely, because some people are known to be quite bad, few think that everyone is going to heaven. So one naturally then wonders what's worse than what, and then because people can reform, how you can make up for sin. There is of course a simple, orthodox answer: repent in the sacrament of reconciliation. There's surprisingly little need to consider details if you're as good and grateful as possible. Of course, since this discussion revolves around atheists, repentance is not an option. The only alternative then is a calculus computing what you can do in life to make up for sin, a calculation in which all actions are fungible and the result of which is that everyone's tally neatly balances so they end up in heaven. If you do good deeds, then God won't send you to hell just for not believing in him. If you do great deeds, then God won't send you to hell for minor sins. If you do certain good deeds, then God won't send you to hell for not doing certain other good deeds. The conclusion here is that no one's in hell except Hitler and Caligula.

The origins of such expectations are not hard to imagine: it's difficult fully to imagine the joy of reunification with God, therefore our most potent experiences with love and joy are with our loved ones. As a result, we really cannot entertain the idea that our loved ones will be punished, let alone infernally, eternally damned. Can you look at your wife, or brother, or parent, and hold in your mind the knowledge that they're going to hell? If you could, you'd probably be deathly afraid. Yet we moderns don't really fear quite so much, we fret and worry and sputter about minutiae, but we don't fear. My thinking therefore, is that, just maybe, we don't entertain rosy notions about salvation because we believe in God's bountiful grace, but because we've refused to confront our fears. Fears about what kind of people we are, fears about the implications of our beliefs, fears about the unknown.

Nicolás Gómez Dávila, one of the great anachronisms of the 20th century, wrote that:
The Church was able to baptize medieval society because it was a society of sinners, but her future is not promising in modern society, where everyone believes he is innocent. [1]
Guilt: what a dismal thought it seems to the modern. To him, guilt is an accident of an insufficiently liberal system of ethics, the puritanism of some obtuse positive law, rather than part of our nature, a part inextricably bound up in our salvation. And so the modern makes paeans to peace and progress and perfection, when the medieval said with humility suscipe deprecationem nostram, and with joy miserere nobis.

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