Interesting Thoughts on Hell from the Catholic Encyclopedia

This is a post meant mostly for Catholics, though others may find it interesting. I want to say right now that I am NOT inviting a Catholic/Protestant debate. Please do that elsewhere if it’s your thing.

I’m finding the article on Hell I’m reading in the Catholic Encyclopedia a little shocking. Not in a bad way – I’m just surprised at how little official doctrine there actually is on Hell.

The article says this:

Many believe that reason cannot give any conclusive proof for the eternity of the pains of hell, but that it can merely show that this doctrine does not involve any contradiction. Since the Church has made no decision on this point, each one is entirely free to embrace this opinion. As is apparent, the author of this article does not hold it. We admit that God might have extended the time of trial beyond death; however, had He done so, He would have permitted man to know about it, and would have made corresponding provision for the maintenance of moral order in this life. We may further admit that it is not intrinsically impossible for God to annihilate the sinner after some definite amount of punishment; but this would be less in conformity with the nature of man’s immortalsoul; and, secondly, we know of no fact that might give us any right to suppose God will act in such a manner.

It’s not very clear to me what the author is saying, so here’s my question: Is a Catholic ALLOWED to believe that a soul in Hell will eventually be annihilated? Or is it just an opinion we’re allowed to acknowledge, not hold? I’m not sure given the way the author worded things.

Even more interestingly, because it’s more direct:

In itself, it is no rejection of Catholic dogma to suppose that God might at times, by way of exception, liberate a soul from hell.

Of course, he also says this:

But now theologians are unanimous in teaching that such exceptions never take place and never have taken place, a teaching which should be accepted.

Very well. What this tells me, though, is not to stop praying for Judas’s salvation – just in case.

The article is fairly long and pretty technical, but it is quite interesting.

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13 Responses to Interesting Thoughts on Hell from the Catholic Encyclopedia

  1. Ibn Yaqob says:

    Technically speaking, in the Catholic doctrinal sense, damnation is merely negatively the loss of the Beatific Vision(i.e. that is why children sent to the proverbial Limbo of infants are said to be damned even thought their fate is not painful). Technically speaking a condemned soul which has died in mortal sin has still eternally lost the Beatific Vision even if s/he is eventually annihilated or given a reprieve from positive suffering.

    Of course the greatest pain in Hell is the soul that feels the loss of the Beatific Vision(which exempts the Children in Limbo who numbed to that pain). This pain is the worst of all pains. Some Catholic spiritual writers I’ve read suggested a fate where you suffered every other pain in Hell but had the Beatific Vision would be more desirable then every other joy in Heaven sans the Beatific Vision.

  2. I think the author is merely addressing the status of natural-theology arguments about the cogency and duration of hell, having already established the Church’s revealed teaching on the matter:

    “The Church professes her faith in the eternity of the pains of hell in clear terms in the Athanasian Creed (Denz., nn. 40), in authentic doctrinal decisions (Denz, nn. 211, 410, 429, 807, 835, 915), and in countless passages of her liturgy; she never prays for the damned. Hence, beyond the possibility of doubt, the Church expressly teaches the eternity of the pains of hell as a truth of faith which no one can deny or call in question without manifest heresy.”

    I think you’re confusing his discussion of the Church’s judgment on naturally accessible certitude of the reality and eternity of hell with the Church’s judgment on hell as such. He admits

    “Many believe that reason cannot give any conclusive proof for the eternity of the pains of hell, but that it can merely show that this doctrine does not involve any contradiction. Since the Church has made no decision on this point [i.e. the claim that (natural) reason can conclusively prove the eternity of hell apart from revealed dogma], each one is entirely free to embrace this opinion [viz., namely that hell is a matter that falls under the jurisdiction of natural reason].”

    It sounds similar to how some might have written about the natural knowledge of God prior to Dei Filius at Vatican I. The Church had always dogmatically taught the existence of God, but had not, arguendo, taught about the capacity of natural reason to know that God exists until its decree at Vatican I had declared that to be the case. I think the “hellish” author’s point is merely that no similar decree on the naturally demonstrable nature of hell has yet been given by the Church. Meanwhile, the Church’s dogmatic teaching about hell is there to aid reason to assent to a truth vital to its perfection.

    • Right, I had certainly always understood that no soul is ever annihilated – it’s either, in the end, Heaven or Hell. It was just worded a little oddly.

      I DO find it interesting that the Church has never actually outright officially declared that a soul CAN’T be rescued from Hell – though it seems like one of the many things that the Church hasn’t officially declared but only because it’s so well established anyway.

      • I didn’t mean to imply that you were loopy on the Church’s dogmas, I was just noting what seemed like a logical slippage.

        It is interesting that the author accepts the notion of God delivering the damned FROM hell, but I put that in the same category as saying that “in itself, it is not against Catholic dogma” that God could have redeemed us without the Incarnation. A very out-orbit theologumenon.

      • Cale B.T. says:

        What about “If anyone says or thinks that the punishment of demons and of impious men is only temporary, and will one day have an end, and that a restoration will take place of demons and of impious men, let him be anathema.” from the Canons of the Fifth Ecumenical Council?

      • Cale:
        That would seem to put the kibosh on the claim, wouldn’t it? I have no idea what the author meant by his claim.

      • It might be worth noting that there’s a longstanding tradition (small t not big T) that there HAVE been souls rescued from Hell — the most famous being the legend about St. Gregory the Great rescuing Trajan from Hell (and then being rebuked by God for his presumption), which is why Dante puts Trajan in Purgatory. It was discussed repeatedly by significant theologians throughout the Middle Ages — Aquinas, for instance, explicitly considers it at least three times, and while as far as I can recall he never fully commits to its actually happening, in every case he carefully avoids ruling it out, but adapts his argument to take the possibility into account. And he’s not the only one. Of course, the position that God could in principle and miraculously, for reasons of His own and in circumstances only He can properly grasp, rescue particular souls from hell is very different from suggesting that this says anything about the nature of hell itself. As Elliot says, the one is just a question of not being able to rule out strange cases, while the other is a question of how things work when God isn’t doing His omnipotence thing.

    • Cale, I think the author would say that the dogma is stating that there will never be a time when the damned will simply be able to get up and walk away. There won’t be an “end” to Hell. The dogma uses the word “men”, whereas in the rare hypothetical cases people can be rescued my guess is you’d speak in each case of that individual man.

      That said, I acknowledge that I’m stretching it. I’m not basing anything I believe off of this, just trying to make sense of the author.

  3. BenYachov says:

    We don’t know that after the End of Days God might create some scheme in the New Heavens & the New Earth to eventually rescue the damned from Hell or reduce some of their punishments but if that is the case God has not revealed it yet & we cannot count on it possibly happening.

    It is mere useless speculation & we should avoid giving people the impression if they cock up this life and end up in Hell there will be a way out.

    God can do what He wants in our future but if & till He does it we shouldn’t presume.

    Better too tell people Hell is eternal & be wrong in the far future

    . Then to not tell them Hell is eternal and be wrong.

  4. Pingback: One hell of a prayer… | FideCogitActio : "Omnis per gratiam"

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