Quodlibet 13 – Salvation and Hell

Quodlibet 13 – Salvation and Hell


If the saved know that some of their loved ones are damned how is it that they can have perfect happiness? How is it that they could not lament the loss of souls? How, indeed, could God not lament their loss?


God is the Answer, and in Heaven we will know God as He is (see John 17:3, I John 3:2, St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I 12, 1) – but since, even then, we will not be able to fathom Him completely (Summa Theologiae I 12,7), I wonder to what extent we will, even then, understand how absolutely everything fits together under God’s providence.

“God wills all people to be saved (I Timothy 2:4).” Now, If God wills something, in the most absolute and unqualified sense, then what He wills, comes to pass (Summa Theologiae I 19, 6; 19,8). If God wills Fred to be saved then Fred will infallibly be saved. Not because God will over-ride Fred’s will, but because God will create in Fred a good will, such that Fred loves God freely; He will draw Fred to Him in such a way that Fred journeys into Him voluntarily.

According to many Gospel passages, it is at least possible that some human beings are not saved; it seems certain that the fallen angels are not saved (See Matthew 25:41 and Revelation 20:10). Therefore it seems that God does not, in the absolute and unqualified sense, will all His rational creatures to be saved. We must take “God wills all people to be saved” in a less absolute sense. In the present case, we can say that God provides superabundantly for the salvation of all, through Jesus’ Passion, Death and Resurrection, and through planting in all people at least an implicit thirst for Him, one they can honour or resist. The basic shape of God’s plan is a plan for salvation; He has no plan of damnation – that is, it never happens that He creates, say, Joe with the intention of sending Joe to hell. But it can happen that God permits Joe to reject Him, and to die refusing to journey into God. Then, Joe gets eternity without God.

If we say, “Of course, God gets everyone to heaven” we run the risk of effectively obliging God to do this, and salvation ceases to be a gift; and we run the risk of making our decisions and actions eternally irrelevant. We cannot rule out the possibility of hell but we are obliged to hope for heaven (Summa Theologiae II.II 20,1; 20,3; 22,1) building our lives on the energising conviction that God who has begun a good work in us will securely bring it to completion.

By charity, we are obliged to thirst, pray and work for the eternal salvation of all people. When we get to heaven we will delight in a special way in the glory of the greatest Saints, but also in a special way in the glory of those who have shared our journey (Summa Theologiae II.II 26.13). We are obliged to pray, “Thy will be done,” but we are not in fact obliged to want the damnation of any whom God permits to go to hell! While they live, we are obliged to be concerned for the salvation of all, even if it turns out that some we try to save, will not be saved.

At the Last Judgement, the attitude of each to God is revealed on the public stage, and the mysteries of God’s grace and providence are revealed for praise and thanksgiving. Presumably this means that we see, to some extent at least, why God has permitted the evils He has, and how He has brought good out of them. Will we give praise and thanksgiving for the damnation of those (if any) who are lost? I suspect not. To some extent, we have to praise God for His judgements (Revelation 16:5-7, 18:20, 19:1-3). But we don’t have to picture God positively punishing the damned, nor do we have to picture the saved watching the torment of the damned. Julian of Norwich says there is no mention of satan or of the lost before God and His elect (Revelations of Divine Love, long text, chapter 33) – the vision of God, and the common rejoicing of those who have journeyed together into Him, is more-than-sufficient delight. Further, if the lost have rejected life with God, they have opted for next-to-nothingness and for insignificance (for it is only in God we find our meaning). The pictures of lakes of sulphur and the like are not so much pictures of a positive retribution as of the stupidity of choosing life without God.

Although the image of God’s grief is in Scripture (Isaiah 63:10, Ephesians 4:30) we know that He is beyond emotion so that we can’t say He is literally “hurt” by anyone’s loss. But how His delight in being and goodness is compatible with permitting anyone’s loss is a mystery. We will give eternal thanks for His justice (the wisdom and beauty of His ways) and for His mercy (His steadfast, saving love, which “goes before and beyond” justice [Summa Theologiae I 21,4]). We will rejoice in the glory He wills to give us, and the way He has brought us to it, without envy of those whose glory is greater, and without any sadness due to its limitations (Augustine, City of God, Book XXII, ch. 30; Summa Theologiae II.II 26,13; Dante, Paradiso, Canto 3). I will not be sad because I never had any brothers or sisters with whom to share the journey to heaven. If I notice the absence of some cousin with whom I have shared the journey, and for whose salvation I have prayed, it is hard to see how that could increase my joy – but presumably I will see, in God, how it should not spoil my joy.

I end by pointing out with Julian of Norwich (Revelations of Divine Love, long text, chapters 11 and 32) that we expect the Holy Trinity to do something on the Last Day that will ensure that all manner of thing shall be well, and will show how, since all that is done, is done by God, all is well done. Which does not mean God does evil, since, as Julian explains, following Augustine and Aquinas, evil has no being in itself, but is the absence of a good that should be there.

Richard Conrad, O.P.

fr. Richard Conrad teaches dogmatic and sacramental theology at Blackfriars, Oxford, where he is also the director of the Aquinas Institute.