If you thought death and taxes were unpleasant topics, just try thinking about Hell. Is hell for real? Yes, it is because Jesus told us about it many times in the New Testament. Who is in Hell? The souls of the damned, that is, Lucifer and his minions. Other than that, we don’t know for sure who is there. While the Church has a formal ceremony to declare a person is in heaven, a Beatification or Canonization, there is not a corollary called a “damnification” to declare that a person is in hell. And still, as Cardinal George once wrote, we all probably have a short list of people we think should be there, including extraordinarily ruthless and evil tyrants that ruled countries in the 20th century.
In Dante’s “Divine Comedy” (c. 1320), there are nine circles of hell and we read of three Popes who are there: Nicholas III, Boniface VIII, and Celestine V. All for different reasons, but all in the lower circles of hell. Only five Popes have been canonized as saints in the last five hundred years: Saint Pius V, Saint Pius X, Saint John Paul II, Saint John XXIII, and Saint Paul VI. If Dante were writing today, would he have placed others in hell?
St. John Paul II wrote about this topic in his epic book “Crossing the Threshold of Hope” in 1994 (Knopf) with these fascinating words:
“The words of Christ are unequivocal. In Matthew’s Gospel, He speaks clearly of those who will go to eternal punishment (cf. Mt. 25:46). Who will these be? The Church has never made any pronouncement in this regard. This is a mystery, truly inscrutable, which embraces the holiness of God and the conscience of man. The silence of the Church is, therefore, the only appropriate position for the Christian faith. Even when Jesus says of Judas, the traitor, “It would be better for that man if he had never been born” (Mt. 26:24), His words do not allude for certain to eternal damnation.
At the same time, however, there is something in man’s moral conscience itself that rebels against any loss of this conviction: Is not God who is Love also ultimate Justice? Can He tolerate these terrible crimes, can they go unpunished? Isn’t final punishment in some way necessary in order to reestablish moral equilibrium in the complex history of humanity? Is not hell in a certain sense the ultimate safeguard of man’s moral conscience? (pp. 185-186)
And remember what Jesus himself said: “I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of perdition, that the Scripture might be fulfilled.” Jn 17:12
In other words, if there were no Hell, then “all hell would break loose here on earth” because there would be no consequences for our actions. The day a country abolishes the prison system and police force, is the day that people truly hope there is no hell for bad people.
And yet, we want all people to be saved and to repent from their sins. Even Rudolph Hoess, the Kommandant of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp?
Some years ago I came across a unique book, “Kolbe and the Kommandant” by Ladislaus Kluz, O.C.D. It’s a side-by-side biography of two people, one chapter for Saint Maximillian Kolbe and one for Rudolph Hoess. They were contemporaries. As youngsters they were both altar boys and dreamed of becoming priests. But Rudolph got in a fight on the playground one day, later confessed the matter to his parish priest, who foolishly divulged the information to Rudolph’s father, and young Rudolph was humiliated and deeply, deeply hurt. His faith was crushed. Perhaps that awful experience in part explains his heinous behavior later in life? After World War II he was put on trial in Nuremberg for war crimes against humanity, then turned over to the courts in Poland and condemned to death in 1947. The night before his execution for his responsibility in the death of 3,000,000 innocent Jewish victims, Rudolph Hoess went to Confession.