” The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” – Jeremiah 17:9
One of the most famous verses in the book of Jeremiah it reminds us that despite all our intellect and puffed up pride about how rational we are, humans are swayed far more by their feelings than their mind over the course of their life. Emotions are powerful things and they can easily override our better judgement even at the best of times. A lot of the time we consider this tendency in terms of negative emotions. Greed and envy causing people to steal for example, even when they know such actions are immoral. Anger causing people to lash out violently even when on an intellectual level they understand physical violence is generally wrong. However it is also possible for our positive emotions to misguide us and blind us from obvious truths.
In this case we’re talking about universalism, the doctrine that hell is not eternal and that all people will eventually be reconciled to God. It’s a seductive idea, especially in a time when our societies are abandoning capital punishment and more and more people view the idea of an eternal hell as something morally abhorrent. “How can a good God allow such a thing?” people reason. Indeed it’s difficult to comprehend. The idea of people being tormented eternally is horrific, and yet scripture reinforces that it is truth over and over.
It is for this reason that people have begun to reject the dogma of hell entirely, claiming that it’s a relic of an age where people were less morally developed. They claim such a thing is incompatible with their concept of God as an all loving being and so they decide the dogma of hell must simply be wrong. I think most people can sympathize, which is what makes universalism such an insidious heresy.
The fundamental error of universalism is one of pride. Universalists believe that their understanding of life and morality is such that if it conflicts with scripture then it is scripture that must be wrong. Surely, they reason, it cannot be that they lack understanding, or that Gods justice in itself is a good thing. It must be that God allowed a minor error to slip into the scriptures He so carefully guided his inspired messengers to create. A universalist places their own wisdom above Gods revealed truth, believing that if God is good then God must to conform to their current belief of what is good. The obvious problem here is that we as humans don’t really know what true goodness is. Only God does. As Jesus said, “only God is good”. Claiming that Gods actions must be such and such because otherwise He wouldn’t be “good” is essentially saying that what you believe is good trumps what God says is good.
As Catholics we are called to submit to God and His teachings which He has given to us through His Church and the scriptures. We need to remember that even if a teaching is difficult for us to accept that it doesn’t mean that teaching is in error. The temptation for someone to reject a clearly true teaching of the Church because their heart tells them that it cannot be right is very strong, and yet to abandon all prior preconceptions about what we think is right and to accept Gods teachings entirely is what we must do. The dogma of hell is not an easy one to accept but it is true. Any honest reading of scripture will come to that conclusion, reading the writings of the Saints will only reinforce it. The desire to reject sound doctrine in favor of something that is clearly false because it’s comforting is a tendency that needs to be resisted.
It’s something we’ve lost sight of, but justice is a good thing. When we see someone commit a heinously evil act we want to see justice done. You’ll often hear even secularists using phrases like “there’s a special place in hell for him” and other things that show their desire for justice. There is a deep seated need in people to see justice done, to see what is unfair righted and for people who do evil things to receive their due. Hell is justice. If someone is sent there, they deserve it. Why? Because God has judged it so. That is what it means to have faith, to trust in God. You might think that it’s a disproportionate penalty, but are any of us in a position to judge?
Universalists are not evil, their hearts are in the right place. It’s an error produced by their love for their fellow humans, to want to see everyone avoid the most awful fate imaginable. Yet it is still error. Ultimately what we need to accept is that if we want people to avoid hell, which does exist and which is eternal as taught by the Church, scripture and the Saints throughout history, then the only way to do that is to bring those people to Christ. We cannot abandon our duty to save souls on a naive hope that Jesus was just joking around when he told people that it would be preferable to cut off their hand or pluck out their eye than end up in hell, “where the fire is not quenched and the worm does not die”.