If hell is empty, as some hope, does this fundamentally alter our evangelical zeal? Paul Krause, writing for Crisis Magazine, thinks so. He argues that without a recognition of what Christ has saved us “from,” then we risk completely misunderstanding the whole point of Christian love and what it is “for.” If everyone is saved and no one needs to be saved from anything, Christian love is perverted and everyone can do what they want; in Krause’s mind, it appears that unless “a very crowd hell” is asserted, the concept of love is but a “Satanic counterfeit version”! Krause writes, “To love your neighbor is to will him or her to God. This, of course, is effective only if there is an eternal hell and damnation that awaits those perfidious and sinful souls who have chosen other goods instead of the Supreme Good.”
What Krause is primarily arguing against is universalism. The universalist position states that we can have knowledge that all men are saved or perhaps more boldly that hell itself does not exist. He also takes issue with other writers, notably Hans Urs von Balthasar, who argue that, while we cannot have knowledge that hell is empty or that all are saved, we can have a sure foundation to hope for such a case.
To be clear, in the Church’s teaching, to assert that hell is empty is not appropriate, but to hope that hell is empty is an entirely Christian position. Krause’s concern is that even this weaker form of universalism saps Christians of their zeal.
What Krause does not realize is that his anti-Balthasarian argument risks a type of Pelagianism. Krause rejects the hope that all might be saved because it is more important to cultivate a fear of punishment. However, in the fearful Christian, grace is far from the operating principle. Instead of grace, fear of immense suffering infects every activity. The more sinful one is, the more that fear is foremost on the mind and in the heart of such a Christian. Consequently, this leads to an even greater distance from the mercy and grace of God that can transform the soul.
Scripture says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love” (1 Jn 4:18). This was also Augustine’s vision. He wrote,
“He, then, is an enemy to righteousness who refrains from sin only through fear of punishment; but he will become the friend of righteousness if through love of it he sin not, for then he will be really afraid to sin. For the man who only fears the flames of hell is afraid not of sinning, but of being burned; but the man who hates sin as much as he hates hell is afraid to sin. This is the ‘fear of the Lord,’ which ‘is pure, enduring forever.’ For the fear of punishment has torment, and is not in love; and love, when it is perfect, casts it out.”
If perfect love drives out fear, what then are we to make of the holy Christian? Does she live in fear of hell? No! Because it is precisely the Christian rooted in Christ’s love who has no need to fear death! Krause’s vision of Christian love is deficient, as he fails to see that a love that is predicated on fear is not real love at all but in fact is opposed to it.
Why then say anything more? Krause is obviously wrong in this regard.
Because the very character of evangelization is dependent on getting this right. Fear is contagious. Visions of hell and fire and brimstone certainly wake people from complacency, that’s not nearly enough. Fear limits the imagination. Fear stops only to consider the least we must do to escape suffering. Far from encouraging evangelical zeal, our fear can become self-serving and insular. Ultimately, fear is corrosive; it lacks the hope that can spur us on through life’s challenges (cf. Spe Salvi 37). Christian joy is sparked by the divine and God’s great promises, and orients us always to something outside ourselves. Fear of suffering is self-consuming. When we root our understanding of holiness in fear of hell, we become defensive about our convictions and emotions. Living in fear inevitably causes anxious worry. Eventually, we burn out and lose our zeal, becoming filled with frustration, despondency, and despair.
Seeking God above all else means pursuing complete and radical acceptance of the gift of life he gave us—that Christ won for us through his suffering, death, and Resurrection. “O happy fault” that we can share even greater intimacy with God than that of Adam and Eve before the Fall. If we truly believe that grace heals, frees, and transforms, we don’t need the threat of hell to inspire us to share the Gospel with others.
Indeed, if we want to understand the message of Pope Francis, we must realize that he is trying to instill in us the transformative power of God’s radical mercy. God’s mercy attracts and pulls us toward the fullness of Love. Evangelical zeal is responding in gratitude to this great gift. Pope Francis’s teaching echoes St. John’s approach in the New Testament, that “we love because he first loved us.” Francis opens his first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, with these words:
“The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew. In this Exhortation I wish to encourage the Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy, while pointing out new paths for the Church’s journey in years to come.” (1)
Krause is correct when he says Christian love that does not lead to God in his fullness, but seeks only to confirm sinners in their ways is not true love. Francis wholeheartedly agrees (cf. Amoris Laetitia 307). When we receive this great gift, so perfect and selfless, the sacrifice of God’s Son on the Cross, we become inspired to grow in that same love. To fail to grow in virtue—knowing what Christ did for us—is nothing less than a rejection of the faith itself. This point was made in the Letter of James: “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (2:17). God’s love never fails to inspire greater acceptance, greater embodiment of his love. So infinite is God’s his love that the room for us to grow and to increase in charity is limitless. True Christian love always inspires greater holiness.
The grace of God has fundamentally altered the course of human history, and this grace does shine through at times in the world. Because our world is marred by sin, however, the life we experience on earth is more like the illusion of hell than the reality of heaven. It seems much easier to imagine an eternity of pain than the complete joy of everlasting union with God. As Pope Benedict wrote beautifully in Spe Salvi,
“To imagine ourselves outside the temporality that imprisons us and in some way to sense that eternity is not an unending succession of days in the calendar, but something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality—this we can only attempt. It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time—the before and after—no longer exists. We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy.” (12)
Our failure to attract new saints and new Christians is not because we have failed to scare people sufficiently, but because we have failed to show how the Christian life can be so much more joyful and life-giving than what the world has to offer. Anything short of a radiant, infectious joy is only a derivation of what is promised us through faith in Christ.
Image: By Follower of Hieronymus Bosch – wellcomeimages.org : Home : Info, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36508662