Hell: Vacancy or No Vacancy?

“I am and always will be the optimist, the hoper of far-flung hopes and the dreamer of improbable dreams.”—The Eleventh Doctor

The above passage is one of my favorite quotes from Doctor Who.  There’s nothing exactly profound about it, but that’s often what’s so genius about The Doctor.

In the past, I struggled with being an optimist. I always preferred to see myself as a realist. Life is what it is, and it’s best to accept it and deal with it.

However, since I became Catholic, and thus began to see everything (not just my faith) in an entirely different way, I’ve found myself filled with hope for not just my own life, but the lives of everyone in our world, as well as the souls that have departed to the next. And since I have found that hope, I’ve begun to look at the concept of Hell, and it’s occupancy, in a much different light.

Some may believe that Hell is not a reality, that all people, no matter the conditions, will be saved. This view is called apocatastasis, and it is rejected by the Catholic Church.

The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire.” The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs. CCC 1035

Perhaps Hell is not a spatial place as depicted in cartoons with flames ablaze and tortured people toiling away to demon slavemaster, but the Church assures us that it does exist, at least as a state of condition and, more importantly, as a consequence of our free-will actions.

We can be sure of the existence of Hell since Christ himself spoke about it often throughout his ministry. Throughout the scriptures, Jesus speaks of being thrown into Gehenna, he speaks of angels casting evildoers into eternal flames, and he says that the road to Hell is wide and many will follow it.

But there is something interesting to note in the scriptures. Christ doesn’t speak of who has gone to hell, but who can go to Hell. He is warning us

You see, God does not intend for his creation to be eternally separated from Him. God does not “send” anyone to Hell. We send ourselves. We must accept that as an indisputable fact.

God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end. CCC 1037

We don’t know who is or who isn’t in Hell, and The Church has never declared such.  In fact, not a single person on Earth can say who is in Heaven and who is in Hell.  We cannot peer into either place and take a head count.  Even for those who immersed themselves in evil and went to the grave defiant, we simply cannot know — with one-hundred percent certainty —where they are now.

Therefore, we can optimistically hope that Hell is empty — or at least scarcely populated. It is what Father Robert Barron calls a theologically grounded and reasonable hope. And shouldn’t that be our prayer?  Shouldn’t we want everyone to make it to Heaven?

We can’t deny the fact that Hell is a reality and a very real danger to all of us. But that’s all the Church requires us to believe about it. As long as we are allowed to hope, I will continue to pray that all people find salvation in the end.

Call it a far flung hope. Call it an improbable dream, but I am — as The Doctor says —“always the optimist.“

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