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?