Prefatory note: this post is not intended to deny or question any aspect of developed Catholic teaching on Hell; it is merely an attempt to put things in perspective.
When the Jacobean version of the New Testament was in process of evolution the pious and learned men engaged in the work insisted by a majority vote on translating the Greek word "Aides" as "Hell"; but a conscientious minority member secretly possessed himself of the record and struck out the objectional word wherever he could find it. At the next meeting, the Bishop of Salisbury, looking over the work, suddenly sprang to his feet and said with considerable excitement: "Gentlemen, somebody has been razing 'Hell' here!"
(Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary, “Hades”)
It has been common in Catholic and Protestant circles alike to suppose that unbelievers would go to Hell. Both were convinced that Heaven was something one did not gain by one’s own efforts, but only through the mediation of Jesus, and that disbelieving in Jesus meant rejecting salvation. Preaching strongly on Hell served a double function: for unbelievers, to heighten the sense of urgency of conversion; for believers, to dissuade them from leaving the fold.
When in the last centuries an increasing number of people voiced doubts as to whether the existence of Hell was consistent with a merciful God, it was pointed out that most of the sayings on Hell came from the mouth of Jesus himself, to whom friend and foe ascribe great compassion. So, because Jesus himself threatened unbelievers with Hell, this cannot be so unmerciful as people suppose.
Whether or not the conclusion is true, the logic is flawed. It is flawed because the statement ‘Jesus spoke often about Hell’ cannot be substituted by ‘Jesus threatened unbelievers with Hell’. In fact, my cursory (and possibly deficient) examination of the Gospels revealed the following:
(1) The ones threatened with punishment are generally insiders, not outsiders.
(3) The Gospel of John, which uses the starkest terms to describe the contrast between faith and unbelief, talks about judgment but not about Hell.
The first time that ‘Gehenna’ is mentioned, an ancient site of idolatry outside of Jerusalem where children were formerly sacrificed (used to indicate a place of final punishment), is in the Sermon of the Mount. Here Jesus intensifies the demands of the law with the formula ‘You have heard that it was said … but I say unto you …’ The first two sections aim at eradicating the roots of anger and lust, respectively. The person who openly insults his brother by denying his rightness of mind ‘shall be liable to fiery Gehenna’. And the person who looks at a woman lustfully is told that it is better to cut off wayward body parts than to be cast bodily into Gehenna.
This theme of self-mutilation must have made an impression, because it occurs a second time in Matthew with a parallel in Mark. In this case the warning is not against the lustful look, but against anything that causes sin, especially in the ‘little ones’. Someone who weakens the character of those still in need of protection and encouragement cannot count on God’s sympathy.
Mark is rather explicit in his description of Gehenna: it is a place where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched’. This is a quote from the final vision of the prophet Isaiah, where the corpses (not souls) of the rebels against God will be eternally devoured outside of the city. However, this punishment is introduced by the consoling thought ‘All mankind shall come to worship before me’. (The ingathering of the Gentiles, i.e. the outsiders, is a major theme in Isaiah, as is the destruction of those who exhibit aggression towards the holy place.) Unquenchable fire, by the way, is a prophetic image for the ‘muscle power’ with which God reacts to evil.
Those sent on a mission by Jesus are exhorted to take God more seriously than outside pressure from others, because those can hurt our body, but God can destroy our soul in Gehenna. This warning occurs in two Gospels (Matthew and Luke) and is addressed to the closest insiders in Jesus’ circle.
So is there no threat of judgment for the ‘outsiders’ – in current terms, those to whom Jesus seems like a distant historical figure, difficult to see through the fog of Christian legend? Yes, there is, because the whole world will be judged at the end of history. However, the judgment is based not so much on belief as on the character of one’s heart. In the Gospels, Jesus teaches that everyone has to meet certain negative and positive expectations on God’s part. Negative: ‘all who cause others to sin and all evildoers’ will be thrown out. Positive: only those who have practised active mercifulness towards those in need will escape eternal punishment.
Mostly, however, Jesus’ warnings involve a reversal of expectations for those who are in some sense ‘insiders’, but who have not lived up to this relationship. The first occurrence could serve as a textbook example: after preaching on what the people are like in the kingdom of heaven (which the nation of Israel is called to embody), Jesus meets a Roman centurion. In other words: a military leader of the occupying force in Israel, which often made it difficult for Jews to worship God freely and without compromises. At the moment, however, the centurion is on a mission of peace: he asks Jesus to heal his servant, with complete trust in Jesus’ ability to do so. Jesus is struck and says: ‘Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I say to you, many will come from the east and the west, and will recline with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the banquet in the kingdom of heaven, but the children of the kingdom [of Israel?] will be driven out into the outer darkness, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.’
This is quite a slap in the face of his Jewish hearers! Isaiah’s vision was that the Gentiles would come to worship with Israel, not that they would take Israel’s place. Since Israel was God’s people, every Israelite could be considered an ‘insider’, but now they are excluded while the ‘outsiders’ are allowed to approach Israel’s founding fathers!
Jesus’ provocations are not ended. Towards the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus pronounces a series of ‘woes’ on the outwardly religious Pharisees, including this one: ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You traverse sea and land to make one convert, and when that happens you make him a child of Gehenna twice as much as yourselves.’ (The title ‘children of the kingdom’ is reversed.) And a little later: ‘You serpents, you brood of vipers, how can you flee from the judgment of Gehenna?’
Lastly, the theme of final punishment occurs in several parables in which a servant or subject has failed to do what was expected of him: the guest who has not dressed properly for the royal wedding; the head servant who abuses his fellow servants and neglects his responsibilities; the servant who buried his talent. They all go to a place where there is ‘wailing and grinding of teeth’. They are punished for thinking and acting as if no effort were required of them; they are ‘insiders’ who do not meet the demands.
The Gospel of John, which has the strongest dichotomy between faith and unbelief, does not say much about final punishment. Rather, there is a sense that unbelievers exclude themselves from the greatest gift God offers, and consequently remain in darkness: ‘He who believes in [Jesus] is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God … He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him.’
Faith and life are interlinked. The sort of unbelief that John has in mind is the kind that refuses to believe because it refuses to be well: ‘the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil.’ So even in John, there is a judgment based not merely on religion but on one’s heart: ‘The hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice [viz. of the Son of God] and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment.’
All this does not really convey the idea that ‘outsiders’ go to Hell by definition. But it is a different thing to have become an ‘insider’ and to fail to act like one. This is attested by Jesus in the Gospels, and also by the author of the Letter to the Hebrews:
If we sin deliberately after receiving knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains sacrifice for sins but a fearful prospect of judgment and a flaming fire that is going to consume the adversaries. Anyone who rejects the law of Moses is put to death without pity on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Do you not think that a much worse punishment is due [to] the one who has contempt for the Son of God, considers unclean the covenant-blood by which he was consecrated, and insults the spirit of grace? We know the one who said: ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay,’ and again: ‘The Lord will judge his people.’