Bringing hell upon ourselves

Fra Angelico: The Last Judgment (Winged Altar)A subsidiary theme from Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Dare We Hope? (see previous post) is that of self-damnation: in other words, the assertion that the hell with which Jesus and the New Testament writers confront me if I persist in rejecting God is one which is brought on myself, rather than something imposed on me by God.

To quote Cardinal Ratzinger again:

Christ allocates ruin to no one; he himself is pure salvation, and whoever stands by him stands in the sphere of salvation and grace. The calamity is not imposed by him, but exists wherever man has remained distant from him; it arises through continuing to abide with oneself. The word of Christ, as the offering of salvation, will then make evident that the lost man has drawn the boundaries himself and cut himself off from salvation.

As an example of how this works, Balthasar then cites C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, in which “the standpoints of heavenly love and hellish egotism confront each other in some particular context”. Balthasar quotes one of the most memorable of these confrontations:

“I only want my rights”, says the one who approaches from hell. “l’m not asking for anybody’s bleeding charity,” “Then do”, says the heavenly one. “At once. Ask for the Bleeding Charity. … You weren’t a decent man and you didn’t do your best. We none of us were and we none of us did.” “ ‘You!’ gasped the Ghost. ‘You have the face to tell me I wasn’t a decent chap?’ ” (loc. 678)

As another of the Ghosts puts it: “I don’t want help. I want to be left alone.”

Lewis then puts the following in the mouth of George MacDonald, “whom he encounters in the novel, as did Dante his teacher Virgil”. As seen in yesterday’s post, we cannot second-guess God when it comes to the outcome of judgment. To do so is to attempt to both to step out of our status as creatures living within Time, and to imperil human freedom:

every attempt to see the shape of eternity except through the lens of Time destroys your knowledge of Freedom. Witness the doctrine of Predestination which shows (truly enough) that eternal reality is not waiting for a future in which to be real; but at the price of removing Freedom which is the deeper truth of the two. And wouldn’t Universalism do the same? Ye cannot know eternal reality by a definition. Time itself, and all the acts and events that fill Time, are the definition, and it must be lived. (loc. 690)

As Balthasar observes, with these words:

all those candles of apokatastasis are now blown out with which certain writers — especially Russian ones and certain figures in Dostoevski — tried to enchant us.

Later in his book, Balthasar discusses Maurice Blondel’s rejection of Dante’s description of hell as “the work of primal and highest love”:

[Blondel] rejects in disgust the condemning gesture of Michelangelo’s Christ and refers us instead to Fra Angelico, who depicts Christ, at judgment, as only displaying his wounds: “And at the sight of this, the unrepentant sinners turn away, beating their breasts to indicate that they hold themselves to blame.”

One of Fra Angelico’s paintings of the Last Judgment can be seen at the start of this post.

But again, the final word goes to hope in God’s saving love, even in the face of the warnings which we cannot, must not, set aside:

Therefore we must read the New Testament, and read it ever anew, in the light of divine love. Certainly there is talk of fire, worm and the second death that excludes one from the kingdom. Christ does not recognize the evildoers, distances them from him. But hell, as refusal of divine love, always exists on one side only: on the side of him who persists in creating it for himself. It is, however, impossible that God himself could cooperate in the slightest way in this aberration. (Gustave Martelet S.J., loc. 2191)


The Gospel never presents such a refusal to us as a credible possibility that Jesus could be satisfied to accept. (ibid.)


3 thoughts on “Bringing hell upon ourselves”

  1. Hi John. I’m not sure MacDonald would have approved of the words Lewis put in his mouth, My reading of MacDonald is that he did not view universalism as involving a kind of necessity that ruled out freedom.

    1. Hi Joel, thanks for this. Must admit I’ve not read any Macdonald, but what you say doesn’t surprise me. But bear in mind this is Macdonald in heaven, where he has learned the truth (and now agrees with Lewis 😉 ).

  2. Haha, good point!
    MacDonald’s works are excellent. I also discovered F. D. Maurice through reading MacDonald. And (re)discovered Thomas Erskine of Linlathen. Wow. Perspective-changing reading. I’m afraid there is no going back to husks and sawdust after this.

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