Letter: Truth of the Christmas story and the reality of Hell

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The Independent Online
Sir: Regarding your leading article 'The value of a Doubting David' and the accompanying article 'Anger as Bishop takes torture out of hell' (15 December), both of which were concerned with the Bishop of Durham's denial of the reality of Hell and the Second Coming, the views attributed Fr Herbert McCabe do not represent authentic Catholic teaching.

It is an article of Catholic faith that those who die in a condition of grave personal sin go to Hell, which is a place of eternal punishment for those who have rejected God. The Athanasian creed states, 'But those who have done evil will go into eternal fire', and the Fathers of the Church unanimously attest to the reality of Hell.

While the primary punishment of Hell is eternal separation from God, the major theologians of the Church have always held that a form of fire, although not our physical fire, is part of the suffering of Hell. So the constant teaching of the Church is that this fire is not to be understood in a metaphorical sense: it is not then the case that 'All Catholic theologians and all Catholics realise that this stuff about flames is metaphorical', as Fr McCabe asserts.

The bishops and theologians quoted in the article seem to be denying the eternal nature of Hell, and turning it into a sort of purgatory, where even those who have done the most evil deeds will be 'rehabilitated'. The problem with this approach is that it is ultimately denying human responsibility and really makes Christian belief somewhat nonsensical, to say nothing of the way it totally contradicts the Gospels.

What is going to happen to the groups in Bosnia that are torturing, raping and murdering people, to say nothing of the Pol Pots, Hitlers and Stalins, who have caused so much suffering? If there is no ultimate responsibility, then all moral effort, and the idea of Christ redeeming humanity, become pointless: he could just have let us get on with it, then purified everyone at the end, without having to go through all that troublesome business of dying on the cross.

Hell represents the ultimate level of human responsibility, concerning which we have to make a final choice for or against God.

Yours sincerely,