On the Nature of Hell

Inferno di Dante.png

«Sorrow engenders hatred, and resentment, which separate us from the Way drawn for us by the Heaven. We feel confused, lost, betrayed, and thus we shout out our despair to the Lord: why have you forsaken us?

And we don’t realize that we are drifting away from Him, that Christ always walks beside us, and we don’t want to listen to His voice, to the words He cried out from the Cross, and now are addressed to our soul: lama sabachthani?»

(M. Ciminiello, Astragon – L’Era del Drago).


Although a self-citation may be inelegant, a few days ago I was reminded of this passage: and it occurred to me that it may contain a clue on the nature of Hell.

Anything and everything has been said about this place/no place: some, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, don’t think it exists; others, like most Christian theologians, believe it’s a physical location – a place of eternal damnation; Orthodox theologians claim it’s a real condition – but limited in time; finally, some argue that it’s an effective reality – but it’s empty.

20th century Italian mystic Maria Valtorta, author of The Gospel As Revealed to Me, reports that Jesus told her that, had Hell not existed, a bigger Hell would have been created for Judas. These words may confirm the existence of Hell – but they don’t specify what’s its nature.

Personally, I am persuaded that Hell is something more than the Kingdom of darkness and everlasting fire: I believe it’s a sign of us moving away from God. Every time we turn our back on Him, on His word, on His salvation, we dig a little bit of our personal Hell: and if soul longs, by nature, for the Highest Good, and the Supreme Happiness, then it’s consumed – like the most horrific fire – by the self-inflicted grief caused by the distance from the Infinite Love it aims at. In fact, as stated by the great G. K. Chesterton, «man cannot love mortal things. He can only love immortal things for an instant» (Heretics).

Then, our discomfort, our earthly suffering are reflected in the wound which only the Doctor of the soul can heal: a Doctor tormented by the same torments as ours because, being at once «He who loves, He who is loved and Love itself» (M. Ciminiello, Astragon – L’Ombra dell’Aurora), He cannot but mourn our misery. That could be the thrust of Nietzsche’s insight, that «even God has his hell: it is his love for mankind» (Thus spoke Zarathustra).

That’s why God will never give up on anyone of us: because it’s not His will «that one of these little ones should perish» (Matthew 18, 14). If we abandon His path, bending our very nature, we ourselves will build our Hell. And this will be our punishment: we’ll be well aware of what we lost, but there won’t be anything we can do about it.

Why does Evil exist?

Why does Evil exist

Last summer, a young friend of mine asked me the following question: if God already knows that we are going to misbehave – then why doesn’t He prevent us from doing it?

That’s a really clever question, which deals with two long-debated issues: free will and theological determinism. The latter is the view that all the events are pre-ordained by God, and it’s a special form of determinism: the philosophical position that every event is necessitated by antecedent events and conditions together with the laws of nature.

If this is the case – which I don’t think[1] -, free will may be at risk, because man wouldn’t really have a choice: to the extent that Martin Luther (De servo arbitrio, 1525) and John Calvin (De aeterna Dei praedestinatione, 1552) could claim, on this basis, that people can’t achieve redemption through their own decisions, and are predestined to salvation or damnation regardless of merit and guilt.

This is in conflict with the Catholic tradition mostly represented by Saint Thomas Aquinas, who was sure that human beings have free will, and salvation depends on us. Yet, if so, another concern rises: the problem of theodicy, or divine justice. Put another way, why does Evil exist?

That leads us back to my friend’s question: if, in fact, God is omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent, that would mean He knows what we are going to do and, since He’s wholly good and has unlimited power, He could and should want to stop us from making bad decisions – then why does He let it happen?

Protestants try to respond we can’t pretend to understand God’s mind – which is actually a non-answer. On the other hand, those who relate the issue to people’s decisions, state that free will is a gift granted to us by God – thus, it can’t be simply removed.

That’s an unsatisfactory answer, especially considering bad examples like Stalin or Mao or Hitler – but it can be a starting point. In fact, I think the premise that man has got free will is right[2] – and free will is the reason why bad things can happen. But there’s another question to raise: what are the conditions which allow us to exercise free will?

In order to answer, I’d like to quote Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, who thought that men are the miracle of creation because, alone among all other beings, they are constrained by no limits, and can determine themselves according to their free will – unlike, e.g., the Angels, who are necessitated to do good (Oratio de hominis dignitate, 1486).

That’s the key point, to me. Evil is the flip side of free will – better, it’s a prerequisite for free will: because, if Evil didn’t exist, man would have no choice – no other choice than doing good.

This means that God has a terrible price to pay, because He leaves us free to choose – to choose even our fate -, although it isn’t His will “that one of these little ones should perish” (Matthew 18,14): that’s what Friedrich Nietzsche called God’s hell – His love for mankind (Also sprach Zarathustra, 1883-85). Such an absolute love as to enable man to rise to the level of the Angels, although this implies the risk of degenerating to the level of the brutes.

Therefore, free will may be the answer. And certainly, love is the last word.



[1] I don’t want to enter into the debate between compatibilism and incompatibilism: for I view I subscribe to, I would refer to De Caro, Il libero arbitrio. Una introduzione, 2004.

[2] Again, I’m not going to enter into the debate about the existence of free will: I shall confine myself to suggesting that the sceptical arguments, mostly based on a metaphysical background (see, e.g., Roderick Chisholm, Responsibility and Avoidability, 1961), can be opposed by De Caro’s argument (quoted above) about an ontological-causal pluralism, according to which men, as agents, can act through a peculiar form of causation, irreducible to physical causality.