Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.: What We Know About Evil, Hell, and Final Damnation

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“Hell is the place God created for the angels who rebelled against him. We say ‘place,’ but since angels are spirits the word ‘place’ is metaphorical. Hell is a condition but also a society of those who are separated from God. Having rejected God and having lost his angelic privileges to God’s company, the devil in his envy has made it his aim to seduce human beings away from God and into his own dominion. And the place of that dominion is hell. Hell is Satan’s society.”  ∼ Adrian Reimers, Hell and the Mercy of God

“Damnation arises from the turning away from one’s authentic good and towards an idol. From this it follows that to turn away from the truth is death for the intellectual being…. Satan’s rejection of God’s offer of the vision of the Divine Essence led to his misery and wrath—and to his project of supplanting himself into God’s place in the minds and hearts of other rational beings.”  ∼ Adrian Reimers, Hell and the Mercy of God

The progressive and optimistic mood of our secular times makes any reminder of hell and damnation almost an insult to the human race. We are, so it is said, about defining and saving ourselves by our own powers. No divinity is needed. Hell is at best a myth. Damnation of all or even a few—save for Hitler, who is on TV in some form almost every day—is simply incomprehensible. Talk of demons and their not-so-benign influence is positively weird. And yet, is there nothing further to be said of these long discussed topics that appear in one form or another in almost every culture?

Pope Benedict’s Spe Salvi went into these issues in some depth. The modern world, in many ways, is a Christian eschatology adapted to this world. If absolutely everyone is “saved,” no matter what he thinks or does, why worry about our destiny? Hell, however, is in fact the one doctrine that makes our lives significant. What we do to ourselves and to one another, at any time or place, has eternal consequences.

Adrian Reimers is a philosophy professor at Notre Dame. What he set out to do in Hell and the Mercy of God is literally to think through what revelation and philosophy tell us about evil, hell, and final damnation, things about which we should know as much as we can. What is perhaps unique about this clear and remarkable book is the way Reimers puts everything together in a coherent unity. He reminds us right away that what has no body can have no sensation. What has a body will die.

Properly speaking, as Msgr. Robert Sokolowski noted, the human soul is not a “spirit,” though it is immaterial and thus immortal. The human person is intended to have a body and a soul in the unity of one personal being. God and the angels are not bodily beings. The human being possesses a mind but it is a mind that naturally operates through the senses. It can understand principles that transcend matter.

This new book contains eight chapters, the mere listing of which gives a good overview of its basic subject matter: “The Fall of Satan,” “Original Sin and the Fall,” “Judgment and the Mystery of Evil,” “Resurrection and Final Judgment,” “Mystery of Iniquity,” “Hell on Earth,” “Damnation,” and “The Fullness of Good.”

Reimers’ project, as I understand it, is not to challenge the truth of the basic Christian narrative that accounts for sin, judgment, damnation, and eventual glory. He sets out to think it all through, largely with the help of Aquinas. Does not that theological account contain much sense after all? On careful examination, the charges of incoherence against it do not stand up to reason. Thus, Reimers confronts head-on popular notions like “A good God could not punish anyone” or “If hell exists, God is cruel/evil” or “No human act could merit divine/everlasting punishment.”

The human mind is a mind, not an idol. Its normal functions of perception are through the senses. Abstraction and judgment do reach truth. However, the human mind is not the divine or angelic mind. It usually learns but slowly and is subject to many confusions and errors that it must clarify. The refusal to clarify is itself a sign that one suspects error in his own reasoning. In one sense, the work of the Church, of its theology and philosophy, is to sift out and make clear what is the truth. When revelation is disputed, it is usually on the grounds that it is not true. This background explains why arguments that it is true are continually needed. The presenting of these arguments is the primary value of this book.


The Christian understanding of human destiny, the narrative, begins with there being in the universe God alone. God is both truth and love. This one God has an inner Trinitarian, personal life. It needs nothing else but itself. But it is possible for this one God to act in such a way that what is not God can exist. What is not God primarily consists of angels and men, beings with reason as part of their being. But in the case of men, they need a whole cosmos to make their existence over time possible. They are given “dominion” over the world.

When God creates from nothing what is not himself, he does not change himself, though he does know and love what he has made. But God does invite into his inner Trinitarian life beings capable of loving him, that is, capable of understanding and living in his presence. This invitation is itself beyond the natural capacity of either angels or men. The one difficulty in this “plan” was that no one can live in God’s friendship and life who does not, as a real, autonomous being, want to be there. This is the drama found in Genesis. The fall of man and his need of redemption stem from his initial reaction to this initial offer.

In Reimers’ presentation, the brightest of the angels, Lucifer, in the moment of his creation, rejects this divine offer. He chooses his own world over the one he is invited to join. Hell is the place where this complicated being continues his existence. Reimers’ discussion of the nature of the angelic mind and will is quite convincing. As a result, there is at least one person in hell, namely Satan, whose angelic reality and cleverness are not destroyed. His “mission” becomes that of preventing other free beings from accepting God’s offer of eternal life.

Each human being is invited, in the course of his earthy life, to accept or reject this divine offer of eternal life. Human existence is primarily about making this decision. Human beings make this decision by the way they live and think in whatever era or place they come to be. Through his detailed discussion of virtue and vice, of the seven capital sins, and of the beatitudes, Reimers gives a very intelligible explication of why each of our sins is a disorder. He recognizes mercy and pity as divine efforts, beyond but not against justice, to give us other opportunities if we have sinned. But the fact and reality of sin are the context out of which proceed the issues of hell, damnation, and punishment. While it may be easy to claim that all this talk of devils, temptations, sins, judgment, and eternal punishment is improbable, it is only because we do not accept the reality of our sins, their effects on others.

One of the striking points of this book is the way that the good and bad thieves come into play. Both are killers and evidently admit that they accept their severe punishment as just. Yet one thief, seeing the same Christ, repents and the other does not. One is to be in Paradise “today,” the other is not. Reimers extends this discussion to what he calls “ordinary sinners.” Hannah Arendt in her book on Eichmann and Jean Elshtain in her book on Augustine made the same point. Some of the greatest crimes are committed not only by evil men but by ordinary people in ordinary times and places. The whole modern abortion industry is proof enough of this point. This attention to ordinary sin is but another way of saying that, in God’s eyes, no human life is unimportant.


Reimers is convinced that ultimately the issue of hell and damnation is a matter of our souls, of our personal choices. About the only direct application of his reflections to current events is found in the following passage:

The road to hell is a road of despair, which is the sickness specific to the spirit. The ultimate end for the human being, the end for which he was created, is communion with God. Because as a spiritual being he is ordered toward truth and the good, if he is not ultimately ordered to God his life can find meaning only in terms of created goods—and these cannot satisfy…. It is worth looking at the facts, specifically at the fact that phenomenally prosperous and comfortable Americans—one of the wealthiest societies in human history—turn increasingly to amusements and drugs to fill their time (241).

Such words, no doubt, recall the “bread and circuses” said to be at the root of the fall of most great empires.

This book faces the difficult question about the punishment due to sin. All love is rooted in the initial love that God has for us. No love in its depths reaches only the finite beloved. Present in all love is the love that God has for each of his creatures. In loving our neighbor, even the worst sinner, we love what God loves in him. But God’s love for us includes a final judgment about our lives. We are finally placed where we want to be. If we reject God, there is no middle ground. We end up in the kingdom that Satan has created. Reimers’ account of the logic of this kingdom is very detailed and insightful.

In our literature, many efforts are made to place the blame for the rejection of God on God’s own shoulders. All the stories of blaming God for the suffering of one child bring us back to the meaning of suffering and the nature of the Incarnation itself, which indeed resulted in the Cross of the man-God. The history of punishment and suffering in the world does not point to God’s lack of mercy or power but to our nature, which is made in God’s image. In that sense, we are free to “create” the kind of beings we want to be. Hell, in one sense, is letting us live with ourselves. But it is also that part of God’s providence that sees the good surrounding our evil deeds. It brings further good into the world because of it.

This book is a very careful reading of that one topic, our final destiny, that we only avoid thinking about at our peril. But to know God’s order and why it makes sense is the blessing we all have when we come across a book that gets even the most delicate of topics right. In the end, “hell and damnation” turn out to be topics most worthy of our detailed reflection.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is “Human Skulls” painted by Gottfried Libalt in 1660.