A Reader Has Questions about Hell and Dissent

Published July 7, 2020

He writes:

First of all, thank you for all your work. While I have learned a lot from you, I must say the best thing I ever got from reading your work has been the discovery of the Where Peter Is blog. For that, I owe you much.

Thank you so much for your kind words!

There are a couple things I would like your thoughts on. If you could point me to your previous writings, if any, on the topics below, I would love to read them. If you haven’t and address any of these topics as an “A reader writes…” blog entry then… that would be neat!

One of the things you’ve written is that hell is filled only with the souls of people who actually want to be there. I’ve always had a hard time agreeing with that. It seems to me that all the anti-Francis groups genuinely believe they are defending the church. If their dissent were to actually lead them to hell, my thought is that they’d say, “Oh no! I thought I was serving Jesus! I didn’t want to be here!” Satan can after all deceive people into thinking they are doing good. And this is one of the hard things I have with the concept of hell and an all loving God: that people get there “accidentally” or because they were deceived. I would like to know how this meshes with your thought that only people who want to be in hell are there (which I may not be understanding fully). It seems hell could be filled with a lot of surprised souls who were genuinely seeking Christ. Your “view” (for lack of a better word) almost seems to lead to the argument used by once saved Christians that once saved Christians who convert to Catholicism were never actually saved (the sinners prayer “didn’t take”) i.e. that Christians who end up in hell even though they thought they were defending Christ and his church never actually wanted to serve Christ and defend his church.

I think we are on different pages when I speak about the damned “wanting” to be in Hell.  I think that, by definition, it is not possible for those who are filled with repentance for their sins to be in hell.  Somebody who genuinely despises sins to which he was hitherto blind and seeks mercy will certainly find it.  God is not hoping for us to screw up so he can damn us, grinning cruelly as we beg for pity while he cites some bureaucratic regulation stating that we passed the expiration date and so are damned whether we desire him or not.  Hell is “the definitive self-exclusion” of a soul from the society of God and the communion of saint.  The gates of hell are barred from the inside.  It is not something God does *to* us but something we do to ourselves.  We are punished by, not for, our sins.  So if somebody *genuinely* believes that an objectively evil act is the right thing to do, they have not killed the life of grace in their souls and are still seeking God, albeit wrongly.  Think of Huck Finn.  His whole world has taught him that the worst thing he could possibly do is help a slave escape.  Man and God are both (as far as he can tell) urging him to do the “right thing” and turn Jim in.  It’s a passage that still make me cry and my cheeks burn with shame as an American. (Trigger warning: Twain, as passionate an enemy of slavery and Jim Crow as ever lived in the 19th and early 20th centuries, deliberately wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to capture as closely as he could the regional dialects of his youth. He wrote this scene to deliver perhaps the most savage indictment of the warping and twisting effect slavery had on “Christians conscience” that has ever been set in print. That means extensive use of the N word here.):

I went to the raft, and set down in the wigwam to think. But I couldn’t come to nothing. I thought till I wore my head sore, but I couldn’t see no way out of the trouble. After all this long journey, and after all we’d done for them scoundrels, here was it all come to nothing, everything all busted up and ruined, because they could have the heart to serve Jim such a trick as that, and make him a slave again all his life, and amongst strangers, too, for forty dirty dollars.

Once I said to myself it would be a thousand times better for Jim to be a slave at home where his family was, as long as he’s got to be a slave, and so I’d better write a letter to Tom Sawyer and tell him to tell Miss Watson where he was. But I soon give up that notion, for two things: she’d be mad and disgusted at his rascality and ungratefulness for leaving her, and so she’d sell him straight down the river again; and if she didn’t, everybody naturally despises an ungrateful nigger, and they’d make Jim feel it all the time, and so he’d feel ornery and disgraced. And then think of me! It would get all around, that Huck Finn helped a nigger to get his freedom; and if I was to ever see anybody from that town again, I’d be ready to get down and lick his boots for shame. That’s just the way: a person does a low-down thing, and then he don’t want to take no consequences of it. Thinks as long as he can hide it, it ain’t no disgrace. That was my fix exactly. The more I studied about this, the more my conscience went to grinding me, and the more wicked and low-down and ornery I got to feeling. And at last, when it hit me all of a sudden that here was the plain hand of Providence slapping me in the face and letting me know my wickedness was being watched all the time from up there in heaven, whilst I was stealing a poor old woman’s nigger that hadn’t ever done me no harm, and now was showing me there’s One that’s always on the lookout, and ain’t agoing to allow no such miserable doings to go only just so fur and no further, I most dropped in my tracks I was so scared. Well, I tried the best I could to kinder soften it up somehow for myself, by saying I was brung up wicked, and so I warn’t so much to blame; but something inside of me kept saying, “There was the Sunday school, you could a gone to it; and if you’d a done it they’d a learnt you, there, that people that acts as I’d been acting about that nigger goes to everlasting fire.”

It made me shiver. And I about made up my mind to pray; and see if I couldn’t try to quit being the kind of a boy I was, and be better. So I kneeled down. But the words wouldn’t come. Why wouldn’t they? It warn’t no use to try and hide it from Him. Nor from me, neither. I knowed very well why they wouldn’t come. It was because my heart warn’t right; it was because I warn’t square; it was because I was playing double. I was letting on to give up sin, but away inside of me I was holding on to the biggest one of all. I was trying to make my mouth say I would do the right thing and the clean thing, and go and write to that nigger’s owner and tell where he was; but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie-and He knowed it. You can’t pray a lie- I found that out.

So I was full of trouble, full as I could be; and didn’t know what to do. At last I had an idea; and I says, I’ll go and write the letter- and then see if I can pray. Why, it was astonishing, the way I felt as light as a feather, right straight off, and my troubles all gone. So I got a piece of paper and a pencil, all glad and excited, and set down and wrote:

Miss Watson your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send. HUCK FINN

I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking- thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me, all the time; in the day, and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a floating along, talking, and singing, and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him agin in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had smallpox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around, and see that paper.

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“All right, then, I’ll go to hell”- and tore it up.


Huck thinks he is going to hell.  But in fact he is choosing to “join Jesus outside the camp” and endure suffering for doing his will.  He is, in a word, obeying his conscience, which is always pleasing to God.

Grave Sin involves three things: grave matter, sufficient knowledge, and freedom.  Without all three, you don’t have a grave sin and you may not have sin at all.  Many of the people who are at war with Francis have highly questionable knowledge of what they are talking about.  Others may have little freedom for all sorts of reasons known only to God.  Most argument on the internet involve only the question of grave matter.  Is this or that attack on Francis right about the facts?  Does it state a just case?    I think virtually none of the stuff spoken against Francis is objectively sound.  But I don’t for a minute suppose that makes me capable of knowing the interior dispositions of the people making such arguments, much less their eternal destinies.  Many of them seem to me to be deranged.  Some of them seem to me to be liars.  But even then, I don’t know why they are crazy or why they may feel it necessary to lie.  The heart is a puzzle box beyond my reckoning.  So I leave it to God.  Having myself experience many times the shock of realizing, “Dear God!  How could I have been so blind?” I trust that God in his own time will give revelation to all who really want it.  Or at least, that he will try.  What I can’t know is that all will accept it.  The warnings about Hell are warnings that it remains possible for a heart to say, and really say and mean, “NO!  I WILL NOT LISTEN.  LEAVE ME ALONE!”  The hope is that some who think they are saying that will discover, as Huck Finn will be shocked to discover, that they were saying “Yes” to God with all their heart in defiance of a false and evil gospel.

You and those at Where Peter Is (I’ve asked them too about this topic) have written much about how the “traditionalists” who attack Pope Francis use the same arguments that protestants use against Catholics, especially in how they use the “fall of Pope Vigilius/Liberious” to justify why they don’t need this / a pope. What I have not heard addressed is the specific issue that this behavior undermines the traditionalists’ ability to counter protestant arguments (since they’re using the same ones!). Are they so focused on attacking the Pope that they’ve intentionally “left that part of the battlefield” unguarded? Or has that never been a part of their battlefield to begin with? This absolutely boggles my mind i.e. that it never hits them such that they say,”Wait a minute… weren’t protestants using these same arguments again US? Maybe we should rethink our position.”

You’d think that would occur to them.  But then, one of the things that frequently strikes me about Traditionalists is how little they actually know of the Tradition.  I once wrote a series on Catholic Social Teaching for the National Catholic Register.  When I covered the Church’s teaching on the Common Good, virtually the whole article was just biblical, patristic, conciliar, and papal quote after another.  Didn’t matter.  I was informed in the comboxes that I was a Marxist and a socialist.  Much of Traditionalism seems to me to hark back ton 1956 Cleveland as the glory days of the Church.  It is, ironically, a thing younger than the Beatles and almost entirely a creature of the internet and right wing media from the past 20 years or so.  It evaluates the Holy Father’s teaching not in light of the Tradition, but through a lens of American culture war shibboleths and a few selected passages from Catholic right wing folk heroes.  It is shockingly ignorant.

All these attacks on the Pope, the inability to see that they are using the same arguments they used to defend against, and the seemingly obstinate refusal by commenters on the Where Peter Is blog to consider any possible orthodox explanations of Francis’ actions has enlightened me to something. I used to think (because I’m no scripture scholar) that the “666” or the mark of the Antichrist that is to be stamped on the hands and foreheads of everyone during the reign of the Antichrist must be metaphorical, surely. Because if someone proposed to start stamping foreheads with 666… I think Christians would know who that person really was and the charade would be exposed. It would be too obvious. So it had to be metaphorical. Now, after seeing what is going on, I’m not so sure. I can see that it might be entirely possible for some Christians to find a way to justify putting that mark on their forehead. I don’t know what that justification could possibly be but I now don’t doubt that they’d come up with a few. I can now actually envision a path to that happening. I don’t think Trump is the antichrist by any means but given how, as you have written, many Christians seem to have sold their souls for him, I think he can provide a small glimpse into how it could come about ie that the Antichrist could force people to put the mark on their foreheads and for those people to not to see the antichrist for who he truly is.

I don’t’ have any particular views on 666.  I gather it is symbolic of giving one’s mind and labor to the glorification of a false messiah (the letters in “Nero Caesar” add up to 666, If memory serves).  I don’t read Revelation as “future history”.  But I do think that Revelation is presenting us with a liturgy-based reading of the struggle of the Church against the world system which seeks not only to oppress but, especially, to seduce the Church.  And I do, in fact, regard Trump not as *The* Antichrist but as very obviously *an* antichrist (! John says they are a dime a dozen).  And given the stupid, mindless spite of his Cult, which is willing to offer itself as human sacrifices over things as idiotic as wearing a mask to get a loaf of bread, I could certainly imagine them wearing a literal mark if he commanded it.  But I doubt that will happen.  I think End Times speculation is pernicious and a waste of time.  Do not worry about tomorrow.  Tomorrow will worry about itself.  Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

Thank you for your time and for all the work you do.

God bless you for your kind words!  May God bless you and yours through Christ our Lord!

17 Responses

  1. On a side note, “666” as I understand it is just coded numerology. The number 7 represented the perfect complete number and therefore heavenly things. 6 (being one less) was therefore symbolic of incomplete, imperfect, earthly things. The use of a number three times emphasises the total, comprehensive nature of the judgement. To say “the number of the Beast is 666” is simply to say that the “Beast”, which in the relevant passage of Revelation is the second “Beast” and an emissary of the first, and doing signs etc to mislead people to worship its master, is in fact completely and 100% worldly, sinful and wrong.

  2. “Grave Sin involves three things: grave matter, sufficient knowledge, and freedom. Without all three, you don’t have a grave sin and you may not have sin at all.”

    You actually need five things. You need “Matter X” to be declared a grave sin. And you need someone, often self appointed, to declare that he — and it’s almost always a he— To declare that he speaks for God, knows the mind of God, and will be happy to inform you of your transgressions against the speaker and his particular and peculiar version of God.

    And no, I won’t hijack the thread. But you know what I’m talking about.

  3. Come on. You are here every day railing against one grave sin after another. Pretending that the idea of grave matter is just a matter of taste is silly. You think the people lynching that black guy in Indiana the other day just had different taste than you? No? Then stop the bullshit of pretending that any act of grave sin is just an arbitrary choice made by some random Catholic.

    1. Assuming you are directing the comment towards me, I have to say I don’t have the slightest idea as to what you are talking about. It sounds like sin leveling, but I’m not sure about that.

      Sin leveling is a Christian pastime, and not one of mine.

      But this is what YOU said: “Grave Sin involves three things: grave matter, sufficient knowledge, and freedom. Without all three, you don’t have a grave sin and you may not have sin at all.” A grave matter? All righty then: my sex life, such as it is, being a “grave matter” is simply What You called it— a matter of opinion. The only people that it seems to matter to, apart from my husband and me, are people whose business it is most assuredly not, who choose to be “affected” by it, but only in the imagination of their hearts, and because some guy somewhere said so, based upon his opinion of highly dubious passages in a holy book.

      Right now, evangelical superstar Jen Hatmaker is under fire from her fellow evangelicals, because she dared to say that she loves her daughter more than she likes the evangelical opinion of her daughters alleged sex life, and their opinions of what a book written 2000 years ago might have to say about it, depending on the translation.

      So, you tell me what’s more important: the love she has for her daughter, or the opinion of some guy that she should not affirm her daughter, should do whatever she can do to correct her daughter, when her daughter is harming NO ONE- surely you have a grave matter right there if she is harming anyone— and her daughter isn’t going to change who she is, no matter how much Christian love/opprobrium/condemnation is healed upon her.

      1. The issue is the false dichotomy where “‘sin’ = made up, relative, oppressive, bad” but “‘some acts being inherently morally objectionable, wrong, or harmful’ = obvious, true”. You use a different word to refer to the same concept – that some stuff is always wrong, and some stuff is wrong under certain circumstances. It can be frustrating to have nonreligious people rail against the concept of sin as if they didn’t also believe some actions are wrong.

        We may disagree on all the nuances of morality and ethics – there is disagreement within groups as well as between them, it’s sometimes complex stuff – but we also broadly agree on many things like “murder is wrong (a sin)”, “lying is usually wrong (a sin)”, “screaming at your waitress for bringing you the wrong soda is wrong (a sin)”, “telling people not to wear masks and that it’s better to let the weak die off than lose money is wrong (a sin).”

  4. Excellent words, Mark, and believe me when I say that the Catholic idea of salvation is much broader and for more merciful than the Protestant one I was raised with. Thank God!

  5. Just so you know, that resignation of “I guess I’ll go to Hell”, is exactly how many people feel about the Church’s stance on homosexuality; even if its the official dogma of the Church, they can’t get past how demeaning and dehumanizing those teachings are at their core.

    And I know you disagree and you think the Church is right on this. And I know that you think that you go about it in a much better way than many others who really dial the bigotry up to 11, and you’re probably right.

    But just like with slavery, the people at the time also thought they were right on that issue, and they also gave themselves props for treating their slaves with kindness and compassion. But slavery is still slavery, and discrimination is still discrimination.

    So look, the point is not to argue about which is the correct Catholic position regarding homosexuality, but its to say that for those who dissent from the Church’s teaching on that issue, they are doing it because they are following their conscience.

    Even if that means risking Hell.

      1. I have absolutely zero idea how everything will “come out of the wash in the end” (as my gram used to say) but I strongly suspect that the measurement of a rule has everything to do with love, and how lavishly we gave it, rather than how well we colored within the lines. We are a Church of rule breakers. The Church is extremely serious about “life giving love”, but theologians recognize that this fecundity of love can be greatest in those who never had physical offspring to consider, thus freeing up those living the “consecrated” or single life to serve *more* of the children of God.

        Of course the consecrated life presents plenty of its own temptations. I laughed when the founder of a religious order admonished his priests to serve!– lest they become “fussy old ladies”. I could elaborate on the subject but will bite my tongue out of charity for the narcissist priests that couldn’t have fathered a kid for half a day (and are/were more concerned about food, wine and travel…) (none of these things being bad in and of themselves of course…)

        As for living a gay lifestyle, I don’t think about measuring it in any way. I measure people by their kindness, which is the biggest deal of all PLUS, there are enough temptations in my own garden to keep me quite busy. I defer to what Jesus said about not boasting about something that never tempted me. For me the temptation would be/have been more along the lines of saying “no” to life via artificial birth control. I like the Church’s rule on the subject, but *only* because I never, ever would have had the courage to have some of my favorite people in this life, had it been otherwise. *But* for me it was perhaps a MUCH less complicated choice than if I was –let’s say–working in a sweatshop, or on the flip side, lived in a place like San Francisco, with a high power job. A friend of mine from the Philippines who is a numerary of Opus Dei, told me that mothers in the United States have the *least* amount of help than anywhere else in the world. That sounded like an odd statement to me at first but it makes sense. I believe it. The rugged individualism of Americans puts the biggest burdens upon women. As Mark said, some sins aren’t even sins because of the circumstances of the individual.

        Anyway, that’s my two cents. I will now symbolically step on the toes of my Mom who thinks potty words are HORRIBLE, but has a picture of Trump on her fridge (now sporting a Hitler mustache from yours truly) and pronounce:

        “Hell is where the assholes go”

        Yes, the Church demands a mountain of good from of us, but I know with certainty that at the end of my life, the question will have very, very little to do with my sex or orientation. The question will be “DID YOU LOVE?!” and I have no doubt that there will be a plenty of gay people who lived up to the task magnificently.

        I honestly think your war with the Church is a war against *abuse* in the Church, and not the Church itself. It’s important not to smear the good with the bad. Church haters (there are plenty of them out there with a rock in the hand) –are just another flavor of bigot.

    1. “you go about it in a much better way than many others…” Well, that all depends on your point of view.

      “We’re going to hit you with a bigger, softer hammer, so that we can say ‘at least we’re not as bad as Father Likesboys or Cardinal Ihitonseminarians or Pope Lookstheotherway CLX.” You know, the guys with the most pronounced and public homophobia, which they use as a fig leaf to hide their nakedness from god.

      It’s all the same garbage: orders from “heaven” based upon dubious “translations” producing even more dubious “interpretations” on subjects that are ripped from any and all contexts that might shed a different light on the subject…

      …And all pronounced by MEN who clearly have a lot of issues around and pointing at sexuality, especially issues with four fingers pointing right back at themselves.

      Thanks for putting it in Mark’s terms better than I could.

    2. There are corrupt doctors, corrupt hospitals, corrupt pharmacos, corrupt medical research. Ergo medical science is bogus. We have anti-vaxxers, since there are no angels among humans?

      .”..those who dissent from the Church’s teaching on that issue, they are doing it because they are following their conscience…”

      and what about those who assent to Catholic teaching? They are all bigots or ignorant?

      I don’t see anything particularly specific in Catholic moral theology towards sexuality or homosexuality. It is against hedonism and nihilism and consistently so. What it teaches about sex, of all kinds, is a logical outcome of that. I would say that per Catholic theology, consensual non-adulterous homosexual sex is less gravely sinful than adulterous heterosexual sex. ( granting that on this, …corrupt doctors, corrupt hospitals etc. do give you a different idea about medicine… )

      One can disagree with Catholic faith. Take the position that hedonism and nihilism are true philosophies, and Catholic theology is wrong. But to have a beef about Catholicism about its stance on homosexuality is not a credible position, Have a beef about Catholic position on hedonism then. Or even junk the entire Catholic theology as fiction.

      I just don’t believe in misstating the other side of a debate. There is no special “if clause” in Catholic theology that can be amended to make just homosexual sex right with it.

      1. That you conflate being gay with hedonism and nihilism pretty much puts you on the bigot side of the equation. It is neither.

        You don’t understand the subject any more than the church does, but you have an opinion. And from your self assigned but otherwise wholly Imaginary position of superiority, you don’t need to.

  6. First of all, its not about “being” gay.

    Second, you – not me – associated hedonism and nihilism with “bad”, and addressed me as a bigot for associating “being gay” with “bad” hedonism & nihilism.

    Hedonism: Pleasure is good and pain is bad. Human actions should seek to maximize pleasure, happiness etc, and minimize pain and misery

    Nihilism = There is no objective reality. All values are man-made. There is no absolute moral or ethical values, and such claims to absolute morals are all made-up by convention or by bunch of “men” who have power

  7. Wow, that Mark Twain reading was powerful. I’m going to have to go back and read Huckleberry Finn again as an adult.

    1. “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn,’” – Ernest Hemingway

      I don’t think it is possible to understand America without reading Huck Finn.

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