Commentary Magazine


Pope Benedict, Dr. Johnson, and Hell

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.

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