If God is love, as the New Testament teaches us, hell must be impossible. At the least, it represents a supreme anomaly. In no case can being a Christian imply believing more in hell than in Christ. Being a Christian means, first of all, believing in Christ and, if the question arises, hoping that it will be impossible that there is a hell for men because the love with which we are loved will ultimately be victorious. And yet this love has not extinguished our freedom, for a love bestowed will always have to be also a love received. Neither Christ nor the Spirit nor the Father, no one, can do anything against a freedom that closes itself up so much within itself that the more the love bestowed shows itself to be infinite, the more its refusal makes of itself an absolute. But such a refusal, which is absurdity itself, cannot be regarded as the ultimate word on “ultimate things.”
The Gospel never presents such a refusal to us as a credible possibility that Jesus could be satisfied to accept. For hell is the real absurdity. It is no part of a whole in which it might have a meaningful place but is a true outrage that is not able to be affirmed. It is an act of violence that freedom can inflict upon itself but that is not willed by God and never can be willed. Now, this absurdity nevertheless exists in at least one case: for the one whom Jesus reveals to us as the absolute liar and supreme destroyer of men (Jn 8:44). Apart from that case, hell, this unthinkable and absurd thing, still retains in the Gospel the character of possibility. But that is to be correctly understood: if we speak of a refusal of love, then never of God who would refuse love. There will never be beings unloved by God, since God is absolute love. Should that case exist, then God would have to find himself accused—even if it were only in a single case—of not having truly loved.
Therefore we must read the New Testament, and read it ever anew, in the light of divine love. Certainly there is talk of fire, worm and the second death that excludes one from the kingdom. Christ does not recognize the evildoers, distances them from him. But hell, as refusal of divine love, always exists on one side only: on the side of him who persists in creating it for himself. It is, however, impossible that God himself could cooperate in the slightest way in this aberration, above all, not for the purpose of vindicating the magnificence of his denied love through the triumph of his righteousness, as has, unfortunately, often enough been claimed. Thus, if there is any reaction in God to the existence of hell—and how could there not be such a reaction?—then it is one of pain, not of ratification; God would, so to speak, find a brand burned into his flesh: we can guess that it has the form of the Cross. Our pain in the face of hell would then be only an echo of his own pain. The meaning of the New Testament text is thus surely not “hear of what is to befall you” but rather “Hear of what should in no case befall you.” If Christ speaks to us in the Gospel of the possibility of man’s becoming lost through a refusal of love, then certainly this is not in order that it should happen, but only in order that it should not happen. How could Christ, who has thrown himself against death and sin, impose such a loss, even consent to it, given that he has, after all, done everything to avoid it?
Should, however, God’s love be absolutely refused, then this refusal would amount to the senseless struggle to create a counterworld that would be the opposite of life, and thus a radical decreation of itself.
Gustave Martelet, S.J.