Page 4, 14th July 1972

14th July 1972
Page 4
Page 4, 14th July 1972 — by Paul Redemption or everlasting punishment?

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by Paul Redemption or everlasting punishment?


1%I1MODERN penology concentrates, in theory at least. almost entirely on the reformation of the prisoner. We, and now the Americans, and of course many other countries, have abandoned capital punishment—the outstanding symbol of the retributive principle. Society assumes that no man or woman, however vile their crimes, is incapable of being reformed and, possibly after many years, resuming his or her place in a free community.

Of course this principle is subject to many limitations. We make exceptions for certain categories of the criminally insane. In practice, shortage of cash, and modern accommodation, and trained personnel, make our prisons instruments oar retribution rather than reform. Theory often founders on the grim facts of life.

Nevertheless, there is an almost universal belief that, in time, practice will 'be brought into line with theory, and the redemption of the criminal will hebome the sole function df, the penal system. pfg The overwhelm majority of Christians will surely agree with this a oath; indeed most of them regard any other as un-Christ a. The redemptive principle is central to the whole ethic of Christianity. Yet a problem remains. Ifs in an imperfect world, we believe it right to hold the view that any criminal can be redeemed, and that it is the duty of society positively to assist this process, what becomes of the doctrine of Hell? If earthly justice, based on the limited charity of fallible human beings, refuses to accept the finality of punishment, how can divine justice do less? Must it not, rather, do more—and extend charity in all its plenitude?

I know of no answer to this question, and would be very interested if any theologian can produce one. Christians today, I find. tend to avoid any discussion of Hell. I have recently asked a number of people whether they believe in Hell, and invariably received evasive answers. None of them was prepared to accept the doctrine in all its rigour; none dismissed it completely. They just did not know the answer, and seemed disinclined to search for it. Hell has become the great taboo topic. I was brought up on Archbishop Sheehan's "Apologetics and Christian Doctrine," which made absolutely no bones about the matter. He stated authoritatively, and with copius references to the Fathers, that Hell is a place of eternal punishment, where those who die in mortal sin suffer not merely the excruciating pain of loss but the torment of the senses. "They will he tortured by a physical agency which the Sacred Scriptures call fire . . . Whatever be its

nature, God has given it the power of acting on pure spirits and disembodied souls . . . we may be sure that 'fire', the name given to it by Christ, conveys to us the best idea of its nature that we are capable of receiving."

Well, is this true or not? Do we seriously accept that sinners are to be physically tortured for all eternity? Are we to suppose that a Divine Being, of infinite wisdom and charity, is capable of administering a system of punishment from which the most depraved tyranny on earth would shrink?

The ferocious doctrine of Hell has been subjected To steady erosion over the centuries. In his remarkable study "The Decline of Hell," D. P. Walker shows how certain aspects of the doctrine were progressively abandoned, in practice if not in theory. One of the first to go was the belief that the joys of Heaven consisted, in part, in the contemplation of the sufferings of the damned. Ibis was too much even for the strong stomach of Reformation Man.

In the 18th century, great masses of ordinary people, at least in this country, ceased to respond to the active, everyday fear of Hell fire as a guide to their actions. Walker argues convincingly that the inefficacy of Hell as a deterrent led to the rapid increase in the number of crimes covered by the death penalty — particularly crimes against property. Thus, as the flames of Hell subsided in men's minds, the gallows sprang forth from its ashes.

Now the gallows, in turn, has gone. Yet the concepts of eternal punishment remains, embedded deep in the central doctrines of Christianity. Modern theology can, as it were, downgrade Hell, sweep it under the carpet. We are no longer asked to believe in the physical agency of torture.

Yet theologians have always been careful to point out that the pain of loss is immeasurably greater than any inflicted on the senses. And this, presumably, remains, so long as the idea that sinners are perpetually excluded from the felicity for which they were created is Christian orthodoxy.

There is no way of evading this issue. Divine deprivation is excruciating; or it is not—in which case the theology of Heaven is seen to be defective. Hell is eternal; or it is not—in which case it disappears as a concept. One answer. I suppose, is that no one ever actually goes there.

But in that case we are asked to believe in a theoretical absurdity, embodying a punishment so gigantic that no one, in practice, merits it. What function, then, does Hell serve?

I ask this as a layman, and do not expect to get a very satisfactory answer.

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