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“Ask a Priest: Do Only the Wicked Go to Hell?”
Q: I hear people ask about hell and the injustice of it, and I hear from Catholic apologists that, hell is just a natural consequence of evil, it is justice being served, it’s for people who have totally suppressed all good and love. This makes it a bit more palatable. I don’t have a problem with hell as a natural consequence of life lived in bitterness and hatred. Where it bothers me, though, is when the same people who speak in defense of hell turn around and write articles or make videos sneering at the idea that all you have to do to not go to hell is be a “good person.” So, I guess my question is, who goes to hell? If it’s truly just a place for people who live in hate, then it would logically follow that the vast majority would not end up there. But at the same time, I see Catholics writing articles about how many people are going to hell, and how it’s foolish to think good people who haven’t believed won’t be condemned. I would really like some help on this issue. – A.N.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: Let’s say at the start that the Church teaches that mortal sin can lead to the loss of a soul.
Mortal sin, by definition, is a serious offense. To die in a state of unrepentance for mortal sin can doom a soul.
Perhaps a few clarifications would be helpful.
First, the Church hasn’t declared what percentage of people could end up in hell. That kind of thing hasn’t been revealed, notwithstanding Jesus’ warning that “the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many” (Matthew 7:13). There is a wide range of speculation in this area about numbers and percentages. But that is what it is: speculation.
Second, it’s not prudent for us to think that only people who have led degenerate and wicked lives face the risk of hell. Rather, lots of people who seem to lead generally good lives can fall into all kinds of serious sins — pornography, fornication, lust, detraction, sloth, greed, etc. If someone fails to repent from and battle against serious sins like these evil and destructive actions, they are clearly not living in friendship with God, and so they are moving in the wrong direction.
Some folks are under the impression that only figures such as Hitler and Stalin are candidates for perdition. The list of candidates can be a lot longer.
Third, while I can understand the skepticism of people who criticize that “good person” line of reasoning, I don’t think it’s helpful to be derisive online (or offline, for that matter).
Rather, a dose of humility would help all of us. We are all sinners. We all have a fallen human nature. We are all prone to sin.
Whatever good is done in and through us is a grace of God. The only thing we can call our own is sin. That should keep us sober and thankful for God’s help.
For related reading see Cardinal Avery Dulles’ article, “The Population of Hell.”
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