Choosing Hell

This post originally ran (I’ve cleaned up a few typos, but otherwise left it unchanged) back in 2006, but the topic has been on my mind, and having found it via Google while researching the topic of the Fundamental Option I decided to rerun this one rather than writing a new one.

Quite some time back, Pontifications ran a post about the theory of “fundamental option”, which it seems is the theological term for the idea that one’s salvation is based upon a fundamental choice that one makes either for or against God.

This image for the determination of one’s salvation has a certain utility in that it is simple and evocative. C. S. Lewis uses it in The Last Battle, where all of Narnia’s creatures face Aslan and swerve either to his right (with loving expressions) or to his left (with hate in their eyes). And yet, like any image or illustration, applying it absolutely leads to distortion. The ‘encounter God and choose’ image helps to emphasize that God’s judgment is not some arbitrary judgment imposed upon us. It also helps to explain how someone externally appearing to have sinned many times might be saved, while someone who to all appearances led a virtuous life, yet held pride in his heart, might reject God and be condemned. And yet, taken as an absolute of ‘salvation by choice alone’ the theory of ‘fundamental option’ becomes just as much a heresy as ‘salvation by faith alone’.

John Paul II said as much in Veritas Splendor:

To separate the fundamental option from concrete kinds of behavior means to contradict the substantial integrity or personal unity of the moral agent in his body and in his soul. A fundamental option understood without explicit consideration of the potentialities which it puts into effect and the determinations which express it does not do justice to the rational finality immanent in mans acting and in each of his deliberate decisions.

It is keeping this integrity between the human agent’s identity, will and action that is the difficult balance for most of us, I think. Our culture tends to think of each choice as a totally free activity. Thus, the idea of experiencing for an instant the clarity of the Beatific Vision and in that instant choosing for or against God seems like an isolated decision point, unencumbered by past decisions. Indeed, some use this view to support the claim that perhaps all will be saved, because no one (when truly seeing God for what He is) would reject Him.

And yet, classic Christian moral theology does not support this view of total personal freedom. Virtue is often described as ‘the habit of doing good’ while attachment to sin is that moral habit which, once one has sinned, makes it hard to make the right choice in the future. Thus, the first time you lie in order to get out of a difficult situation, you struggle to make it come out convincingly and fear for days that your lie will be found out. But with each transgression the lie comes more naturally, until it becomes nearly impossible to tell the truth in a difficult situation — the convenient lie comes out without even thinking.

It is because we are changed as moral agents by our past choices that our fundamental choice for or against God at the particular judgment cannot be divorced from the moral decisions we have made throughout our lives. Each time we sin or resist sin, makes it harder or easier to make that decision at the moment of personal judgment.

Perhaps, as in so many other things, the analogy of marriage is useful. One can, as a moral agent, choose at any given point in one’s marriage to do something that is good for or bad for one’s spouse. And yet, a given man with a given history can make it harder or easier to treat his wife well by building a history of good or bad behavior. While, in theory, a man who has lied and mistreated and been unfaithful to his wife can still, at any given decision point, choose to treat her well, he has vastly decreased both his ability to treat his wife well, and also his knowledge of what his wife truly wants, and thus his ability to treat her well even if he wants to.

24 Responses to Choosing Hell

  • Mundabor says:

    In my eyes, the entire discussion about “fundamental choice” is easily misleading.

    The Church doesn’t say that after death there will be a moment when we can choose between (oh what a difficult choice) eternal suffering or eternal supernatural beatitude. I’ve heard of Medjugorie people who truly think this is what is going to happen, and this is extremely dangerous in my eyes.

    It is rather so, that if in our lives we decided to put ourselves willingly and deliberately in frontal conflict with God’s rule and we persevere in this to death, at that point the decision is taken altready. There is no necessity – and no possibility – of an expressly stated decision – absurd in his very object – of “oh yeah, I do want to go to hell”.

    The fundamental choice is, I would say, already included in the life we live and in the way we die.

    Mundabor

  • Cool post. Oddly I don’t see this sort of stuff getting talked about all that much.

    I see where you’re going – and where Bl. John Paul II is going – with this thought, and I suppose we have to assume in this day and age that somebody is going to mis-interpret the idea behind the fundamental option to mean that you can choose or reject God the same way you can choose or reject sugar in your coffee. It’s just that the fundamental option is going to end up being an ontological option. A man, by his chosen mode of being, is going to choose one way or another; and that choice would have to be, I imagine, like the choice of the angels in the beginning: resolute and immutable. Unless we believe in apokatastasis now, which I suppose is also not out of the question in this day and age. :/

  • Tom K. says:

    In her diary, St. Faustina writes of a “special light” or “final grace” given to every soul in need of it at the point of death. Yet, pace Mundabor, she also writes that even this is not sufficient to save everyone:

    “Although a person is at the point of death, the merciful God gives the soul that interior vivid moment, so that if the soul is willing, it has the possibility of returning to God. But sometimes, the obduracy in souls is so great that consciously they choose hell; they make useless all the prayers that other souls offer to God for them and even the efforts of God Himself…” (#1698)

    As far as I know, Bl. John Paul II did not explicitly endorse this “interior vivid moment” in his promotion of St. Faustina and devotion to the Divine Mercy.

    In his “Death on a Friday Afternoon,” Fr. Neuhaus famously endorsed the “vivid moment” doctrine, but broke with St. Faustina in saying he couldn’t imagine anyone rejecting God under the circumstances.

    But I’ve understood the “fundamental option” doctrine to refer, not to the moment of death, but to a general tendency or inclination toward God with which one may live one’s life. One corollary of this is that, broadly speaking, there’s no such thing as a mortal sin; what is traditionally called a “state of grace” would be maintained, regardless of individual acts, for as long as the actor in some sense fundamentally chooses God.

  • Michael says:

    I guess I’m doomed to hell because as an atheist my morality prevents me from respecting, let alone worshiping for all eternity, a being that purports to be a parent but allows its children to choose suffering for all eternity in hell. I wouldn’t even want that for the Osama bin Laden.

    It’s a lot of mental justification for a behavior that’s unjustifiable.

  • Michael,

    As an atheist, aren’t you kind of assuming that there’s no point where you’d be faced with the choice? Perhaps I presume too much, but I would assume that should you find yourself in such a position, a lot of things would be up for consideration very quickly, as some basic assumptions would have changed.

  • T. Shaw says:

    The following is from a sermon (sadly I no longer have the name of the priest) on St. Dismas’ “final grace” conversion and salvation.

    ” . . . Suffering accepted saves this gangster and changes him from a bandit into a saint — the first who entered paradise.

    “How mistaken those who think it easy to be saved after a life of sin, through a conversion at the last minute, like the good thief’s. He had to recognize his sins, renounce his past, accept his cross in the present and desire only the reward promised by Jesus. The conditions for being saved remain the same at the last minute as before: ‘If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me’ (Mt. 16, 24).”

    St. Dismas not only was converted and repented, he also showed Our Lord compassion and to his unrepentant companion: charity.

    “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins; save us from the fire of Hell; take all souls to Heaven; amd help especially those most in need of Thy mercy.”

  • “I guess I’m doomed to hell because as an atheist my morality prevents me from respecting, let alone worshiping for all eternity, a being that purports to be a parent but allows its children to choose suffering for all eternity in hell.”

    You would prefer a God that produced obedient robots or a God that gives us only an illusion of free will? Man was made in the image of God in that he has free will, just like God. As a result of that free will we can raise ourselves as high as the angels or debase ourselves as low as the demons, it is all up to us.
    As CS Lewis noted in The Great Divorce, “There are two kinds of people: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, “Thy will be done.”

  • michael says:

    Who made the rule that says you either obey God or suffer eternal torture? If I say to my child not to disobey me and he does and he persists in it do I have the moral right to torture him for months on end? Of course not, but some people believe God has the moral right to do this for all eternity. And what does it tell you about a God who has to make creatures who have to obey him under threat of damnation. It’s like a little boy with his plastic soldiers and when one disobeys him and won’t stand up because it was mal formed throws it in the stove to be destroyed.

  • How odd for an atheist to take this line of attack, unless you are against capital punishment, life imprisonment and all wars. You believe that life ends at the grave. All human societies have used various forms of punishment to enforce the laws they live by which often involve depriving a person of their life or depriving them of the enjoyment of it. What you accuse God of being society always is, to one extent or another. Such power is exercised by societies justly if the punishments are based upon bad conduct of the individuals so punished. We believe that this life is only a prelude to our lives in eternity and what we do in this life has eternal significance. Through our conduct and our conduct alone, we destine ourselves for eternal reward or eternal punishment. It is you who would reduce man to a mere automaton, a toy soldier in the grip of an all-controlling deity. Instead God made us his sons and daughters, free to love and follow him, or to hate and reject him.

  • Michael,

    Part of the problem here is that you’re using a very primitive conception of hell and judgment. You say:

    Who made the rule that says you either obey God or suffer eternal torture? If I say to my child not to disobey me and he does and he persists in it do I have the moral right to torture him for months on end? Of course not, but some people believe God has the moral right to do this for all eternity.

    Now, I think that, correctly thought about, the punishment model for thinking about Hell is not unfair or irrational in the way you want to suggest, but let’s look at it this way instead, (which, incidentally, you can find in works such as C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce.)

    You want to make a comparison to a parent child relationship. Say, however, that your child says to you, “I hate you. I hate everything about you. I hate your house. I hate your food. I hate being near you. I want nothing to do with you.” Is it your belief that the good parent would respond, “Too bad, I’m going to lock you in the house and hold you in a big hug all the time so that you can see how much I love you!”

    No. This would be a denial of the rebellious child’s freedom, and indeed would almost be a form of torture. A good parent would try for a long time to bring the child around, but once that child grows up there will come a point when if the only thing that child wants to do with his freedom is go live under a bridge, drink malt liquor, never shower, and never see his family, the parent is going to be forced to allow that to happen.

    By the same token, if one of God’s creatures refuses to be near God, refuses to follow God’s will, refuses to have anything to do with God, there will come a point where God, if he is to respect our freedom, must let us suffer the consequences of our choices. Even if those choices are the to all appearances a choice to be utterly miserable.

    Sin is not so very different from the more obviously destructive addictions to which humans are subject — and when we insist on giving ourselves over utterly to sin and putting ourselves at an infinite distance from God, we are, by our freedom, able to create for ourselves our very own, private… hell.

  • I generally think of the inscription that Dante put over the gates of Hell when thinking about this topic:

    Per me si va ne la città dolente,
    per me si va ne l’etterno dolore,
    per me si va tra la perduta gente.
    Giustizia mosse il mio alto fattore:
    fecemi la divina podestate,
    la somma sapienza e ‘l primo amore.
    Dinanzi a me non fuor cose create
    se non etterne, e io etterno duro.
    Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’entrate

    Through me you go to the grief wracked city; Through me you go to everlasting pain; Through me you go a pass among lost souls. Justice inspired my exalted Creator: I am a creature of the Holiest Power, of Wisdom in the Highest and of Primal Love. Nothing till I was made was made, only eternal beings. And I endure eternally. Abandon all hope – Ye Who Enter Here.

    So to be honest, Hell itself is more an act of love than anything else. Or at least Dante chose to look at it that way. And it makes pretty good sense to me as well.

  • Der Wolfanwalt,

    Agreed.

    One of the things that people who haven’t read Dante (or haven’t read him closely) seem not to get is that the damned in Dante are generally not being punished by some force outside themselves, their punishments are physical manifestations of the sins for which they are damned. The kingdom of hell is the land that they’ve built for themselves, in which their choices can be seen in all their reality.

    Dante himself, as the character in the poem, takes a while to catch on to this. With the lustful (who are being blown about by the wind just as they allowed themselves to be blown about by their passions) and the horders and the spendthrifts (rolling great boulders up and down hills at one another, just as they sought to make the piling up, or spending, of material things their highest good in life) he mostly feels sorry for them. It’s when he confronts the swamp of the violent, endlessly fighting each other while sunk in the mires of hatred, that he begins to really see the physical manifestations of sins as what they are and how people are simply doing now what they did before.

  • “So to be honest, Hell itself is more an act of love than anything else. Or at least Dante chose to look at it that way. And it makes pretty good sense to me as well.”

    Wolfie, I am shocked! We agree on something. The ending of the Paradiso sums up that God is Love:

    “But my own wings were not enough for this,
    Had it not been that then my mind there smote
    A flash of lightning, wherein came its wish.

    Here vigour failed the lofty fantasy:
    But now was turning my desire and will,
    Even as a wheel that equally is moved,

    The Love which moves the sun and the other stars.”

  • Michael says:

    Yes, indeed a child may decide to turn away from his parents, so if he or she does then the child should “be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb.” and where the child may cry out “have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.” and “go away into everlasting punishment” where “the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night…”

    How can one have a sophisticated view of this sadism?

    There is an easy way out. You just say the Biblical writers were influenced by the prevailing ethic of their time that viewed eternal damnation as acceptable for heresy but not we know that is unsupportable. And just say the concept of hell is no longer believed, at least not for a good God.

  • “Yes, indeed a child may decide to turn away from his parents, so if he or she does then the child should “be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb.””

    It depends entirely upon the conduct of the person being judged by God. I can understand why a professed atheist would find the concept of judgment by a God after death that one has spent one’s life denying rather inconvenient.

    “There is an easy way out. You just say the Biblical writers were influenced by the prevailing ethic of their time that viewed eternal damnation as acceptable for heresy but not we know that is unsupportable.”

    Christ Himself spoke of Hell. Your argument is not with us, but with God, not an unusual situation for an atheist to find himself in.

  • Michael says:

    “I can understand why a professed atheist would find the concept of judgment by a God after death that one has spent one’s life denying rather inconvenient.” First I spent the first 35 years of my life as a ardent believing Catholic and I’m old enough to remember all the pre-Vatican II sermons on hell that the Church is rather embarassed about now. Secondly I don’t find hell inconvienient, I find it immoral.

    “Your argument is not with us, but with God, not an unusual situation for an atheist to find himself in” Then you agree with me on this? :-> The trouble with arguing with God he never replies, you’a almost begin to think he wasn’t there.

  • “First I spent the first 35 years of my life as a ardent believing Catholic and I’m old enough to remember all the pre-Vatican II sermons on hell that the Church is rather embarassed about now. ”

    Now if you had only listened to them. Judging from your commenting on a Catholic website I would say you are as firm in your atheism today as you were in your Catholicism yesterday.

    “Then you agree with me on this? :-> The trouble with arguing with God he never replies, you’a almost begin to think he wasn’t there.”

    Oh he always replies. Some of us simply pretend not to hear him. The parable of Lazarus that you find so disturbing speaks to this:

    “27 Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father’s house:
    28 For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment.
    29 Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.
    30 And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent.
    31 And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.”

  • T. Shaw says:

    Bishop Fulton J. Sheen:

    A heckler asked Bishop Sheen a question about someone who had died. The Bishop replied, “I will ask him when I get to heaven.” The heckler replied, “What if he isn’t in Heaven?”
    The Bishop replied, “Well then you ask him.”

    A man told Bishop Sheen he did not believe in hell. The Bishop replied,
    “You will when you get there.”

    Pray for the conversion of sinners.

  • G-Veg says:

    The earlier exchanges are among the more interesting I’ve read on The American Catholic. I wonder if I might ask about a different part of the post though:

    “Virtue is often described as ‘the habit of doing good’ while attachment to sin is that moral habit which, once one has sinned, makes it hard to make the right choice in the future. Thus, the first time you lie in order to get out of a difficult situation, you struggle to make it come out convincingly and fear for days that your lie will be found out. But with each transgression the lie comes more naturally, until it becomes nearly impossible to tell the truth in a difficult situation — the convenient lie comes out without even thinking… It is because we are changed as moral agents by our past choices that our fundamental choice for or against God at the particular judgment cannot be divorced from the moral decisions we have made throughout our lives. Each time we sin or resist sin, makes it harder or easier to make that decision at the moment of personal judgment.”

    This does not match my experience. The opposite is often true.

    I have found that it is when I am CLOSEST to what He wants me to be that I am most and most cleverly tempted. Doing good and avoiding bad are certainly habits but I have come to think of Satan as a very real and dynamic person – one most anxious for the souls most difficult to acquire. It seems to me that he doesn’t extend more effort than is needed. If one is wallowing in a particular sin, he simply provides the opportunity and lets the sinner do the rest. However, if the sinner is truly sorry and begins to struggle for freedom, then it is though the particular attention of the beast focusses on him.

    I don’t know that I’m disagreeing but it seems to me that the more clearly one sees one’s faults and frailty, the more one clings to ever-present Mercy. Perhaps this is why greatness in human terms can be so terrible a curse.

  • It sounds to me like you’re saying one notices temptation most when one is trying to do right, but still has that strong tendency towards sinning. Which I would agree on.

    It seems to me that there is a tipping point where it becomes easier again, king of like the point in quitting smoking when you realize that at some point it turned from a constant struggle into not actually wanting a cigarette any more.

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