Is there or isn't there? The infernal question: Hugh Montefiore responds to the declaration by the Bishop of Durham that Hell does not exist

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'HELL,' said the Franciscan friar. 'Of course, a God of love could never allow such a place to exist.' 'On the contrary,' replied the Dominican, 'you are quite wrong: there are certainly people in Hell.' Then the Jesuit chimed in. 'Yes, there is a Hell,' he said, 'but I don't know whether anyone's in it or not.' The Jesuit, as so often, was right.

The idea of Hell as a place where an angry God exacts eternal retribution from transgressors is very hateful. It should have no place in Christian thinking, despite the traces of it in the New Testament, derived from its Jewish origins. It is shaming to read in Christian writers about the blessed in heaven feasting their eyes on the torments of the damned. God wills all to be saved. And Christ died not for the elite, but for all.

What, then, is Hell? It is eternal inability to respond to the love of God. It is quite different from purgatory, which is further preparation for souls to enable them to reach their everlasting destiny, eternal communion with God and other souls. This preparation has its painful aspect, because self-knowledge is always painful. By contrast, eternal inability to respond to God results in eternal separation from him, and this must bring pain, because human beings are made in God's image; and so a fundamental decision to turn away from truth and goodness and beauty must inevitably be frustrating. This is not the infliction of punishment by God, but a perversion of human nature, self-inflicted because we are all ultimately responsible for our own choices, however much we may be influenced by our genes and our environment.

If there are any lost souls, perhaps God in his mercy 'decreates' them. Man's 'fundamental option' to choose against God is not the same as the commission of particular 'mortal' sins because it involves the whole movement of the personality rather than a momentary or habitual commission of what is known to be wrong, although the one can lead to the other. Nor is it always to be equated with the rejection of God, which may often be really the rejection of false ideas about God in which people have been brought up, or which they have heard from the pulpit.

So long as there are human beings, the option of Hell remains open. This is brilliantly brought out in Jesus' parable of the sheep and the goats. We are not robots: we are free to choose. But in God's great experiment of an expanding universe in which intelligent beings have emerged capable of communion with him, would it not be an admission of failure if some freely chose the option of Hell? Would it not suggest that God's love is not omnipotent? How can we hold together the eternal option of Hell and the conviction that all human beings will in the end respond freely to divine love?

There is a human analogy that makes some sense of this. In human relationships we can be aware of human love which it is impossible to resist, as yet we know there is no external compulsion on us to respond to it. In the end, perhaps not in this world, God may love us all into responding to him.

The author, a former Bishop of Birmingham, has just published 'Credible Christianity', Mowbray, pounds 16.99.