In discussions about hell and the sad fact that not everyone will be saved (as is clear from the words of Christ, the writings of His apostles, the consensus of the Fathers, and the consistent teaching of the Church throughout the centuries) one quickly encounters the objection that this teaching is too much to bear. Some affirm that the teaching is not only emotionally difficult and burdensome, but wicked, and perhaps even evidence of heartlessness. The poignant question is usually asked, “Could you stand the thought of your own child suffering eternally?” And the answer, of course, is, “No, I couldn’t”. But that doesn’t make the words of Christ any less true.
Rather than approach the matter from the painful perspective of one’s own child, let us approach it from another angle and look at the case of someone else’s child. We may frame the narrative like a fairy tale, though this fairy tale is a dark one, and does not, like some fairy tales, have a happy ending.
Once upon a time there was a couple whose names were Oskar and Auguste. They had a little girl whom they named Johanna Maria Magdalena. Everyone called her “Magda” for short. She lived in a world that was soon awhirl with exciting possibilities, opportunities, and temptations. People looking at her said that she was to be envied as she rose to prominence, money, influence, and fame, riding an intoxicating wave that took her ever higher. Those able to see somewhat into the mystery and murk of the human heart knew that far from ascending ever higher, she was in fact sinking ever lower. Down and down she went spiritually into ever more dangerous, mad, and suffocating places, but only God could see the true tragedy of her descent. In the glittering world in which she lived and moved, she shone. Everyone knew her name. Everyone knew who Magda Goebbels was, the unofficial First Lady of the Third Reich, wife to Dr. Joseph Goebbels, the powerful Minister of Propaganda.
Fast forward through the shining glitter, the opulence, the refinement, and the champagne parties of her life. All too soon the badly lit, suffocating, and cramped space that was her inner heart became her exterior world as well. Her spiritual descent found literal and architectural expression in another descent as she moved from the sunlit world that God had made into an underground concrete bunker that the Third Reich had made. The music from the parties had died away, as had the singing from the exciting rallies at Nuremberg. Now the only sound was the incessant whine of the exhaust fan keeping air flowing through the bunker and the approaching sound of Russian guns.
It quickly became apparent to her that it was all over. She would never again live in the world she had come to love. The world that was fast approaching would be a world without a triumphant National Socialism, a world in which swastika flags would not hang from every balcony, a world without Hitler, and for her, a world without hope. She could not bear the thought of her and her six young children emerging from the bunker to live in that world. She could not endure living a world without Hitler. Though urged to leave the bunker and allow her children to be smuggled safely out of Berlin, she refused. In a final letter to her adult son from a previous marriage, she wrote, “Our glorious idea is ruined and with it everything beautiful and marvellous that I have known in my life. The world that comes after the Führer and National Socialism is not any longer worth living in and therefore I took the children with me, for they are too good for the life that would follow.”
Her will did not waver: on May 1, 1945 she had her six children drugged with morphine and then murdered with cyanide, and then took her own life. When the Russian soldiers finally breached the bunker, they found only her charred corpse in the Chancellery garden with that of her husband, and down below, the limp corpses of their six children, dressed in their nightclothes, with ribbons still tied in the girls’ hair.
Let us be clear about the lesson to be learned from this tragedy. The question to be asked is not “How should Magda be punished for her evil?” but rather, “What in the world can be done with Magda?” Magda Goebbels found the possibility of a life without Hitler and National Socialism too painful to bear. Living in that post-Hitler world was for her literally a fate worse than death. Life in that world would be agony, a ceaseless turmoil of tears and searing pain. That was why she murdered her children and took her own life.
Fast forward from this tumultuous age to the shining world of the age to come. What in that world can be done with Magda? In that world also there will be no Hitler, and the “glorious idea” that was ruined in 1945 along with “everything beautiful and marvellous” that she had known in her life will find no place there either. Instead, everywhere the Jew from Nazareth will reign supreme, and His face will illumine that world to its furthest corner. Magda would regard that world as an accursed place, for Hitler and the “glorious idea” of National Socialism will not simply be hated. For her it will be worse than that: as age succeeds sunlit age, Hitler and National Socialism will be utterly forgotten, left behind, like a disease which had long ago found its cure.
The question must be faced: if Magda could not endure living in a post-Hitler world, if she would have found that world too painful to bear and a fate worse than death, how would she regard living in the sunlit world of the age to come? Such an existence would be for her worse than a fate worse than death. If a post-Hitler world would be too agonizing to endure, what would her pain be in this world?
This is where the pains of hell find their source. God did not create a subterranean torture chamber to punish the lost for their sins. The pain suffered by Magda Goebbels in that age will not come from the hands of Jesus, but from the heart of Magda. God is love, and His offer of light and joy stands before us now like an open door. Anyone can look to Him and be radiant (Psalm 34:5), anyone can emerge from their own darkness and hear the music of heaven which thunders like a mighty flood, praising the Lamb upon His throne (Revelation 5:11-12). But Magda (in my fairy tale) has shut her eyes to the light, refusing to see anything but the swastika flag flapping triumphantly in the breeze. She has stopped her ears, refusing to hear any song but those that were sung at the Nuremberg rallies. What in the world can be done with Magda?
In the age to come, there will nothing that she would regard as glorious, beautiful, or marvellous. Life in that world will for her be nothing but agony. She therefore refuses to live in that world, even as she refused to live in this one. She refuses to emerge from the cramped and suffocating bunker that is her own heart. She locks and bars the gates to a world that she hates, and insists on remaining safe from it, trapped forever in security of the darkness that she herself has created. Entreaties from Christ, from His Mother, from St. Paul, from Fr. Lawrence, from Dr. Hart, are all in vain. She is safe from all of us.
This is what sin does. For sin is not simply a misdeed. It is a fire, a flame that, however tiny it begins, eventually consumes everything. Everything good that Magda once was—her love for her children, her sense of humour, her courage under suffering, her loyalty to her friends—all has turned to ashes, burnt to cinders by the obsession that has gripped her and that she treasured. Now there is nothing left that Oskar and Auguste would recognize as Magda, their little girl. All her humanity has been burnt away, and now only rage and pain remain, a fire that gives no light.
We live in a world where actions and choices have consequences. That is what it means to be human. Those saying that the cost of living in a world where such consequences are possible is too high a cost are really asking to live in a non-human world, a world of machines running on programmes or animals running on instinct. But God made a world for men and women to live in, a world of consequences, a world full of invitations to joy. A tender soul will grieve for Magda, and since this is a fairy tale where we cannot truly know what was in her heart, we may pray for her as well, hoping that some small corner of her heart remained open to the light after all, and that she will choose to emerge from her fatal and suffocating obsession. It seems unlikely, given the bare facts of her biography, but we cannot know with absolute certainty. What we can know is that such a tragedy is possible, for we live in a world of consequences, a world where choices count, a world made for joy. We must therefore choose wisely.
Ultimately we must face the question about what kind of world we have and what kind of world we want. Do we want a non-human world, a cosmos safe from such dreadful possibilities, even at the cost of excluding the possibility of joy and love? Are we saying that because Magda might choose misery over a world without National Socialism that God should never have created a world where choice and love are possible? That because Magda refuses joy none can ever have it?
Now is the time to bring our own children back into the equation. Should they never have been born with the possibility of knowing love and joy because some will refuse it? One may still insist, “The cost of freedom is too high. Because Magda will suffer for her refusal to live in a world without Hitler, no one, including your own children, may know joy. Better to have cosmos full only of machinery or animals than to have Magda eternally damned by her own refusal.” Maybe that’s the only moral option available. Maybe our children should never have been created because the risks are too great and Magda’s fate is too terrible. But then who’s the heartless one now?
Very well put! In the end, we do not know what happened to Magda’s soul. Yet, does not scripture say that all people will bow to the Lord God? Philippians 2: 10-11 Some Catholic bishops are saying that all souls will be saved in the end.
Yes, every knee will bow, but whether voluntarily to salvation or involuntarily in defeat (such as in the case of Satan and the demons) depends upon our own response and decision. The Catholic Catechism (sections 1033-1037) affirms the reality and eternity of hell, leaving no room for universalism.
I think the point is, that God is merciful and just. That is the only thing we can depend upon. His will is perfect. We cannot know on this earth the salvation of any other soul, including our own children. We have all sinned and fallen short – and only God knows what is truly in a human soul. We know nothing of the true workings of another’s soul. Extreme evil, of the Hitler kind, however, is in a category of its own – but having said that; many ordinary people capitulated to that evil. We see a bit of that in our own times with the snitching in lockdowns. The big evil of tyrants and governments is often mirrored in the actions of ordinary people who collaborate with that big evil. We are all susceptible to this and must fight the temptation every day in whatever form it takes.
Does it say somewhere in scripture that Satan and the demons will bow involuntarily? Or is that assumed from the “every knee and every tongue”. I’m wondering if that’s just referring to people, not demons. It seems like even bowing in defeat indicates a change in attitude towards God. I suppose not if it’s literally involuntarily, but I wonder if that might just be your assumption that it would be involuntarily? Maybe? I don’t see why God would give us free will and then force us to bow in the end.
There is no explicit mention of the final fate of Satan in the NT, apart from Rev. 20, which speaks of him being cast into the lake of fire–presumably with his rebellious heart still intact. The main point of the NT reference to every knee bowing in Romans 14:10-12 is that Christ will be the final judge of all, not us, so that we should not judge our brother. The point of the reference in Philippians 2:9-11 is that Christ’s exaltation above all was preceded by His humble self-emptying, so that we should imitate Him in our humility. In no NT epistle speaking about Christ’s final triumph can the final fate of the wicked be inferred. For that one needs to read Rev. 20. That not all such bowing indicates a change of heart is apparent from Rev. 3:9, which speaks of Jews being made to finally bow down before the Christians and confess that God loved the Christians, despite Jewish animosity to them.
Thank you, Father! That was very clarifying.
“What some people say on earth is that the final loss of one soul gives the lie to all the joy of those who are saved.”
“Ye see it does not.” [says MacDonald]
“I feel in a way that it ought to.”
“That sounds very merciful: but see what lurks behind it.”
“The demand of the loveless and the self-imprisoned that they should be allowed to blackmail the universe: that till they consent to be happy (on their own terms) no one else shall taste joy: that theirs should be the final power; that Hell should be able to veto Heaven . . .
Watch that sophistry or ye’ll make a Dog in a Manger the tyrant of the universe.”
From «The Great Divorce» by C. S. Lewis
I’ve raised and love dearly four children of “my own.” I hope and pray that they (and my wife and myself) will one day be greeted with “Well done my faithful servant.” But I’m not sure that when people ask “Could you stand the thought of your own child suffering eternally?” that they are asking the right question. The problem, to me, is those words “your own child.” They’re given to me to care for for a time, and I have a huge responsibility in that task as well as the blessing those years bring to me. But in the end, are they really “my own children?” As deeply as I love and care for them, they belong less to me than to their Creator. I need to give them over to their Creator fully, because, well, as Jesus says, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” The point being that my love and obedience for God must outweigh even my love for “my” child, who is really His child, not mine.
That is such an excellent point that I will remember and use it.
The inertia of the human soul tends to darkness. Only the mercy of God overcomes that inertia. It is amazing that anyone sees salvation yet it is always to be hoped for.
I wonder why the hypothetical question is not about me or the person asking it rather than children? There are so many invalid assumptions behind that question.
The well of God’s mercy is deep beyond comprehension but I have to drink of it.
God’s mercy endures forever and is closer than hands and feet but we must drink.
Goebbels was a master of propaganda. He seems to have brainwashed his wife. Living in an atmosphere which he had created
and not receiving any input from other points of view, an uncritical woman who enjoyed luxury behaved as others whose vision is limited by their social environment would behave if given the resources she had. Brainwashing still continues, it didn’t die with Goebbels. Her story is a lesson to all. God help us.
Goebbles appealed to a certain set of passions. Not unlike the social media of our age.
Having myself leaned towards annihilation, I’ve been confronted with the fact that prior to the Resurrection, regress might have been more towards a “nothingness” but that following the Resurrection, those who are now immortal cannot regress toward nothing but corruption. St. John Chrysostom in 1 Cor 3:15 takes the verse to mean, saved/not annihilated/preserved for hell. I have entertained the idea that hell, or the inability to joy in the the presence of Christ, and losing the Image of God in man – turning him back into an irrational creature – a mad beast of sorts may be the idea in Rev. 22:15. I’m not sure if this idea has any basis in any of the Fathers but I would be curious of course. Reading St. John Chrysostom’s homily on 1 Cor 3 again, very unnerving, and rightly so – and he does it without resorting to Original Guilt as the basis for the motivation of sin in man.
Very good, Father. Thank you. Someone has already beaten me to the proverbial punch with a quote from C.S. Lewis’ “The Great Divorce”.