Dermott J. Mullan, 404 Park Circle, Elkton MD 21921; 410-398-3368




Summary: Pope Benedict XVI has recently re-iterated Church teaching that hell is a real place where sinners are separated from God for all eternity. This teaching stands in stark contrast to certain ideas of a popular modern theologian, who hopes that hell will eventually be emptied of all its inhabitants, and that everybody will eventually reach heaven.  I suggest that considering the Crucifix from the perspective of covenant helps us to understand why the Church teaches that hell is eternal.





One sometimes hears the claim that there is a fundamental difference between the Old and New Testaments (OT and NT). According to this claim, in the OT, we (supposedly) encounter a God of justice and condemnation, whereas in the NT, we (supposedly) meet a God of mercy and compassion. A common stereotype of the NT God is contained in an erroneous interpretation of a phrase from a children’s prayer: “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild”.


Based on the above claim, some members of the Church, including some well known theologians, have been led to question the eternity of hell. This question, which has sprouted up at various epochs in Church history, is typically couched as follows: will souls stay in hell for ever? or will their torments come to an end at some point, with everyone then proceeding to heaven? Theologians who raise these questions proceed to claim that hell will not last for ever.


On first hearing this claim, the immediate reaction may be that it does sound appealing. But is it true? The Church has more than once taught that the answer is No (Constantinople synod in 543 and Lateran Council in 1215). In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI chose to reiterate the traditional teaching, thereby rejecting the above claim in no uncertain terms. 


Why does the Church reject a claim that seems so consistent with the infinite mercy of God? How does the Church arrive at such a position? The answer in part has to do with some words that Christ Himself offered on the subject (Matt. 25, 41).


But I submit that we can also find an answer to these questions by considering the Sign of the Cross from a certain perspective, namely, the perspective of Covenant. The purpose of this article is to explore this perspective.


First, however, it is worthwhile need to look briefly at the history of the topic, especially since a famous modern theologian has engaged in a very public discussion which seems to run counter to the Church’s position.  


History, ancient and modern


The possibility that hell might not last forever was first raised by Origen, a non-canonized father of the Church who died c. 254 AD. Origen’s discussion was centered on the interpretation of a single Biblical phrase: “the restoration of all things” (Acts 3, 21). The Greek word which is translated as “the restoration of all things” is “apokatastasis”: this word occurs only once in the Bible, so when we translate it, we do not have the luxury of going to another context to make sure that we are interpreting the word correctly.


The crux of the matter is that Origen interpreted “apokatastasis” to mean the following: the damned angels and human beings will, after a long period of purification, be re-established in grace, and will return to God.


In our own day, this interpretation of apokatastastis has been publicized by the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar in his book “Dare we hope that all men be saved?” (Ignatius press, 1988). Von Balthasar claims that Origen himself did not actually believe this interpretation: the trouble began (von Balthasar writes) after Origen’s death, when certain of his disciples “indiscreetly spread his alleged doctrine”. As a result, we shall refer to the above interpretation as “Origenist”.


It is easy to see where the Origenist claim originates: since Jesus is gentle, meek, and mild, surely (the Origenists say) He would not subject any soul to eternal punishment. Souls who die in mortal sin will certainly suffer for a “long time” in hell (the Origenists admit), but it is unthinkable (they say) that “gentle Jesus” would actually prolong the sufferings forever . 


Von Balthasar claims that he personally does not believe in the Origenist interpretation. However the very title of his book (“Dare we hope...?”), as well as the quotations he marshalls in the text, indicates that von Balthasar certainly hopes that all men will be saved. It is true that such hope may be based on charity. But since “faith is the substance of things hoped for” (Hebr. 11,1), it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that von Balthasar’s hope leads him to favor the Origenist belief.


In support of this conclusion, we note that in von Balthasar’s book, the author devotes many pages to two contrasting approaches to the topic of hell. On the one hand, von Balthasar caricatures the beliefs of those who believe in the eternity of hell: “there was never any lack of ‘popular sermons’ in which the congregation was ‘given hell’”. If I am a believer in hell, then “I must know that hell is full”. There is even an entire chapter entitled “Joy over Damnation”, as if belief in the eternity of hell always goes hand in hand with finding delight in the punishments of others. Personally, I find these caricatures in von Balthasar’s text nothing short of offensive.


On the other hand, von Balthasar devotes dozens of pages to a multitude of quotes from many Christian writers who, over the centuries, have commented in ways which are more or less favorable to the Origenist interpretation. Some of the writers who are quoted are canonized saints, some are not, and some are doctors of the Church. Von Balthasar saves for last a long excerpt from “the recently beatified” Edith Stein. In her discussion of the effects of grace in a soul, Stein asks: “can grace complete its work without man’s cooperation?” At first, the answer is in the negative, and she admits the “possibility, in principle” that there are souls who “remain perpetually closed” to God’s love. Such souls would (according to Church teaching) be confined to hell. But then Stein writes that this possibility is, in reality, “infinitely improbable”. How does she arrive at such a conclusion? Because grace (Stein writes) can “steal its way into souls”, occupying the soul “in an illegitimate way”. In this way, Stein claims that God respects human freedom (to choose grace, or to reject it), neither breaking that freedom, nor neutralizing it. But “it may well be” (Stein writes) that human freedom is “so to speak, outwitted” by God. In such an event, grace would do its work even without man’s conscious cooperation, and thereby we may (at least) hope for universal redemption. 


By finishing his argument with a long quotation from Edith Stein (who now occupies the status of doctor of the Church), von Balthasar probably expects that no true Catholic would question her reasoning. But the writings of a doctor of the Church are not infallible when it comes to questions that have not been defined by the Church at the time when the writing was done: St Bernard did not believe in the Immaculate Conception, but he is still a doctor of the Church because that was not part of Church teaching in his lifetime. The Church has not taught formally on the question of God “outwitting human freedom”. So Edith Stein could be wrong on this issue.  In particular, I am concerned that reasoning of this kind appears to divest the Crucifix of much of its meaning: if God can save people without their cooperation, then what are we supposed to learn from Christ’s passion and death? According to traditional Church teaching, the passion and death were essential aspects of the process of establishing the New Covenant. 


The widespread publicity that accompanies the writings of von Balthasar may be contributing to a modern resurgence of Origenist belief. Certainly, as many members of Sunday congregations can attest, sermons about hell have essentially disappeared from Catholic Churches during the last few decades.  The subliminal (but false) message seems to be: there is no need for the laity to worry about hell. When Pope Benedict XVI reiterated the Church’s teaching on the eternity of hell in 2007, it may have been with a view to rebutting this false, but widespread, message.  


Covenant in Catholic life


In order to appreciate why the Church teaches that hell will last for ever, let us turn to the Sign of the Cross, and start by considering the topic of “covenant”.


It is unfortunate that, even though we Catholics hear the word “covenant” every time we go to Mass (“This is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant…”), an explanation of covenant is rarely heard by Catholics.


As long as ago as 1939, when the late Father Romano Guardini was teaching his parishioners how to get ready for Mass, he lamented as follows: “It is strange how completely the idea of the covenant has vanished from the Christian consciousness”.  (The quote can be found in “Preparing Yourself for Mass”, English edition published by Sophia Institute press, 1997, p. 191).


Even in official reference works, a Catholic will find almost nothing about “covenant”. For example, there is not a single entry for “covenant” in the indices of any of the following five reference books: (i) the Baltimore Catechism, (ii) Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (by Dr Ludwig Ott), (iii) The Church Teaches (Documents of the Church in English Translation: TAN books 1973), (iv) The Catholic Catechism (by Father John Hardon), (v)  Enchiridion Symbolorum (by H. Denzinger, editio 18-20).


Even in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), there is no entry for “covenant” in the Index. It is true that the word “covenant” appears many times in the text of the CCC, but in no case is there a definition of covenant. Neither is there any description as to the manner in which a covenant is established.


However, in his book “A Father who keeps His promises” (Servant Publications, 1997), Scott Hahn has argued that all of salvation history can be viewed in terms of a succession of covenants of increasing broad scope between God and a group of people. Hahn suggests that each of God’s covenants can be considered as establishing a family bond of some sort. In Hahn’s view, the Catholic Church involves the final covenant, extending so far that its eventual aim is to include all human beings in the family of God.


And based on the words of consecration at Mass, a case can be made for considering covenant as the very essence of religion, binding us back again to God (see my article “Covenant: the Heart of Re—Ligion” in Homiletic and Pastoral Review, April 2002).


In order to understand why the Origenist claim is false, it is worthwhile to consider covenant in some detail, especially as regards the signs that are used to establish the covenant.



Covenant Signs and their Consequences


In its most basic terms, a covenant establishes a relationship between two parties. A covenant is not merely a contract. A contract involves the exchange of things, whereas a covenant involves a commitment of persons. In order to highlight the seriousness of the event, the covenant is sealed with a sign that is understandable to both parties. Here, we are interested in the covenants into which God enters.


What signs does God choose to seal the various covenants that He offers in the course of salvation history? With Noah, there was the “sweet odor of holocausts” and the rainbow. With Moses, there was the blood of an animal sprinkled on the people. With Jesus, there is the Sign of the Cross. But the sign that may teach us most in the present context has to do with the covenant God established with Abram. It is worth considering this sign in detail before we turn to the Sign of the Cross.


In Genesis Chapter 15, God orders Abram to do something that to us seems downright bizarre. Abram is instructed to fetch several animals and birds, kill them, cut each of them into two pieces, and place each piece on the ground opposite the other. Then God appears in the form of fire and passes between the two pieces of each of the animals and birds.


In present-day culture, a religious ceremony of this sort is well-nigh incomprehensible. The butchery, the gore, and the terror that is involved is far removed from our experience of religion. It also seems far removed from an image of God who sees to it that “not a single sparrow falls to the ground without your Father’s consent” (Matt. 10, 29). The modern Catholic’s reaction is likely to be: can we really be talking about the same God?


As a result of this culture gap, it would not be too surprising if most modern Catholics were to skip over this passage of Genesis, and pay little heed to it. Nevertheless, it is a fact that “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching” (2 Tim.3, 16). In view of this, we ask: what is Genesis 15 useful for teaching us?



Covenant violation


The beginnings of an answer are found in Jeremiah 34, 18: in that verse, God describes what is to happen to those who violate a covenant that they had made with God. “The men who violated my covenant and did not observe the terms of the agreement which they made before me, I will make like the calf which they cut in two, and between whose two parts they passed”.


In his booklet “Covenant in the Old Testament” (Franciscan Herald Press 1975), Father Michael Guinan O.F.M. comments on this passage from Jeremiah as follows. “This dramatic action is a ritualized self-curse. As a form of sealing a covenant, it is well known from other documents of the ancient Near East. One treaty in Aramaic even contains a sentence which gives the meaning quite explicitly: ‘As this calf is cut in two, so may Matiel [one of the parties to the covenant] be cut in two [if he breaks the covenant]”.


Father Guinan also draws attention to 1 Samuel 11, 7. In that passage, Saul has just heard the news that disaster is about to befall some of the Hebrew people, so he needs to gather an army quickly for their protection. The spirit of God rushes upon Saul, and Saul acts as follows in response: “Taking a yoke of oxen, he cut them into pieces, and sent them throughout the territory of Israel by couriers with the message: If anyone does not come out to follow Saul, the same as this will be done to his oxen!”


The implications of Genesis 15, Jeremiah 34, and 1 Sam 11 for covenant theology are clear. If someone breaks a covenant, that person will suffer the same fate that befell the living subjects which were used in the covenant ceremony.



The Sign of Christ’s covenant


What does any of the above have to do with the Sign of the Cross? Well, the Cross (or more specifically, the Crucifix) is the sign of God’s covenant with the (new) People of God. Christ came into the world not simply to mediate a new covenant (Hebrews 8, 6), but actually to BE the covenant: in the description of the Lord’s servant, it is written “I formed you and set you as a covenant of the people” (Isaiah 42, 6).


Christ chose to bear the sign of the covenant in His own flesh by becoming one of those living subjects that are put to death as part of covenant ceremony. This is surely the significance of the phrase that we hear at every Mass: “Behold! The Lamb of God!”.


In this context, the Sign of the Cross contains a message analogous to those in Genesis 15, Jeremiah 34, and 1 Samuel 11. And the message is this: if anyone enters into the New and Everlasting Covenant, being sealed with the Sign of the Cross, and then breaks the Covenant, that person will suffer the same fate as befell Jesus on the Cross.



A Sign of Infinite Suffering


And what exactly happened to Jesus on the Cross? Clearly, He suffered. Anyone who has seen Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ” has an appreciation of the enormity of the sufferings that Jesus underwent.  But in the present context, the question that I would like to raise is more specific: how much did Jesus suffer?


If Jesus were purely human, one would answer this question simply enough: He suffered pain (excruciating, in the most literal sense of that word) for several hours, and then, after the passage of a finite amount of time, He died. If Jesus were purely human, His sufferings, however excruciating, would have been finite.


But it is crucial to note that Jesus was not merely human. He was also divine. When He suffered, it was the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity who was enduring the suffering. Such a Person is by definition infinite in His actions. Therefore, even though the Crucifixion process lasted a finite amount of time, the suffering that Jesus endured on the Cross was actually infinite. The living subject who bore the sign of the New and Everlasting Covenant in His own body endured infinite suffering in the course of the ceremony which established the Covenant.


Therefore, in the context of covenant theology, the message of the Crucifix is clear: if you break the New and Everlasting Covenant, you will incur the same punishment that Jesus endured, namely, infinite suffering.


Now because Jesus was divine, He was able to undergo infinite suffering in a finite time interval (a few hours). But human beings do not have an infinite nature: they are finite. Therefore, when they are required to undergo covenant justice (i.e. infinite suffering), there is only one possible way they can satisfy this requirement: they must endure the suffering for an infinite period of time.


According to this argument, it seems inevitable that a soul who enters into covenant relationship with Jesus Christ, and then breaks the covenant, dying unrepentant, will spend an infinite time in hell. If such a person were released from hell after a finite time, it would appear that God would not be faithful to the Sign of the Cross.


OT God versus NT God?


This suggests that there are no grounds for imagining that the “God of the NT” is to be considered as more lenient than the “God of the OT”. As far as I can see, none of the covenants into which God entered in the Old Testament was accompanied by a sign of infinite punishment. At most, the death of a mere animal was involved. In consequence, a violator of such a covenant would have had to undergo “only” death of the kind that an animal undergoes, i.e. death of the body. But I cannot see that there would have been any question of eternal punishment attached to such a violation. This may explain why nowhere in the OT is there a clear teaching about eternal punishment: the Hebrew word “Sheol”, which is sometimes translated as hell, does not have definite connotations of punishment, and certainly not eternal punishment.


The NT is quite different in this regard. Clear teaching about hell as an eternal location emerges in the Gospels, and it comes from the mouth of Jesus Himself. A particularly important example occurs in Matthew 25, 41.


In order to stress the new aspect of His teaching on this matter, Jesus makes a clear distinction between punishment which brings about “merely” the death of the body, and punishment which has worse consequences than the death of the body.  But I will shew you whom you shall fear: fear ye him, who after he hath killed, hath power to cast into hell. Yea, I say to you, fear him.


This leads us to conclude that the God of the New Testament is (to the extent that any difference is possible) less lenient than the God of the Old Testament. This conclusion is consistent with a statement that appears in the book “Called to Holiness” by Ralph Martin (Ignatius Press 1999): “violations of the New Covenant will receive a greater punishment than violations of the Old Covenant” (p. 62).




Who is in hell?


The argument that I have presented above is limited in scope: it merely says that if a Christian is sent to hell, that person will stay there for eternity.  The argument says nothing at all about who is actually in hell.


In the book “Dare we hope that all men be saved?”, von Balthasar considers it a matter of prime importance to quote the following passage: “Neither holy scripture nor the Church’s tradition of faith asserts with certainty of any man that he is actually in hell”. So important is this quotation in von Balthasar’s opinion that it appears twice in the book: once as a quotation before the text of the book begins, and once on p. 164 of the text, in the first chapter of his Short Discourse on Hell. Von Balthasar seems to consider that the above quotation provides material support for his hope that no-one will remain in hell forever.


But this inability to name names in hell does not in fact support von Balthasar’s hope at all. The inability to name names is a simple consequence of the way in which Jesus established the Church: He gave to Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven only (Matt. 16, 19). But Jesus kept the keys of hell for Himself: “I hold the keys of death and of hell” (Apoc. 1, 18; Vulgate).


As a result, St Peter (or a Pope) certainly has the power to declare who is in heaven, i.e. he has the authority to canonize a saint. But no Pope has the authority to declare who is in hell. Only Jesus has that authority.


Therefore, the fact that the Church has never “asserted with certainty of any man that he is actually in hell” has a simple explanation: the Church has no competence to make such an assertion. Von Balthasar’s hope that the absence of the above assertion means there is no-one in hell is based on a false premise. If we were to believe von Balthasar’s premise, then the fact that the Church has never taught (for example) that nuclear reactions occur in the Sun would be interpreted to mean that Catholics may believe that such reactions do not actually occur. But the false logic is apparent: the Church simply has no competence to make assertions about nuclear reactions.


By analogy, the fact that the Church has no competence to make assertions as to who is in hell does not mean that there is no-one in hell.


And through the Sign of the Cross, on which Jesus Christ suffered infinite torments in order to establish the New and Everlasting Covenant, may He have mercy on us all.