Modern theology has become a dreadfully soft, sentimental affair. I suppose the remote causes lie in the Enlightenment reaction to the polemics following the Protestant Reformation, and that more proximate causes can be found in the 20th century dialectical dance between liberalism and totalitarianism, the rise of pop-psychology etc.
Nowhere does this softness manifest itself more than in modern theologian’s attitude towards Hell. A great many post-WWII theologians are complete universalists, but even those who try to stay within the bounds of the orthodox faith, and consider themselves superior to the fads of the times, become all pussyfooted and mealy-mouthed when the subject of Hell comes up.
Take our mutual friend C.S. Lewis. He was surely one of the least modernist of 20th century Protestants, but compare the picture of Hell that he gives in (say) The Great Divorce to the picture that one gets in Dante or in the Suplementum to Summa, and the contrast is amazing.
The picture of Hell that Lewis paints is one where the damned have to have be as near as possible totally depraved. The grumbling lady has to have become such that her whole self has been as near as possible eaten away by grumbling. If there is any little bit of authentic good left in her she can still be saved, as George MacDonald’s soul puts it:
If there is a real woman—even the least trace of one—still there inside the grumbling, it can be brought to life again. If there’s one wee spark under all those ashes, we’ll blow it till the whole pile is red and clear. But if there’s nothing but ashes we’ll not go on blowing them in our own eyes forever. They must be swept up.
Paolo and Francesca could hardly be damned in this picture, but it is one that has great plausibility in modern eyes. There are intimations of it in Faust II, in the onion story in The Brothers Karamazov and so on. Echoes of it are everywhere even in magisterial teaching. There seems to be a similar conception behind the account of Hell in Spe Salvi 45. But I’ll leave the interpretation of Spe Salvi for another time (it has to be read in the light of other Magisterial statements), and turn to what’s wrong with Lewis’s position. “The whole difficulty of understanding Hell is that the thing to be understood is so nearly Nothing.” So nearly is the key expression here. As Lewis well, knows pure evil is impossible; for something to be at all it must have some good, however twisted and perverted by evil it is. The reply to one of the objections in the article in the Supplementum on whether there is a Purgatory uses that truth to show why Lewis’s picture is wrong.
The objection (2) is that charity is to heaven what mortal sin is to hell, but those who die in mortal sin go to hell immediately, therefore those who die in charity ought to go to heaven immediately without first suffering in Purgatory. Here is the reply:
Evil has not a perfect cause, but results from each single defect: whereas good arises from one perfect cause, as Dionysius asserts [Div. Nom. iv, 4]. Hence each defect is an obstacle to the perfection of good; while not every good hinders some consummation of evil, since there is never evil without some good. Consequently venial sin prevents one who has charity from obtaining the perfect good, namely eternal life, until he be cleansed; whereas mortal sin cannot be hindered by some conjoined good from bringing a man forthwith to the extreme of evils.
This is almost (though not quite) the opposite of Lewis’s picture. In Lewis’s picture almost any little bit of good is enough to get someone saved, whereas they have to be quasi perfectly depraved to go to hell. Here a single mortal sin is enough to damn someone despite all the good they have in them. And this follows simply from the what-it-was-to-be of good and evil. Good is determination to one. Evil being some defect in that determination is quasi-infinite. This is the principle on which combination locks are made; there is only one way of getting the combination right, but practically unlimited ways of getting it wrong. And the sad thing is that one only needs a single number off for the whole combination to be useless. The key to the lock of eternal life is conformity to the Son of God through the infused virtues of faith, hope, and charity. Now any single mortal sin, as the practical negation of God, is sufficient to destroy those virtues in the soul, and thus a man can be damned for a single mortal sin even if he is otherwise full of goodness. On the other hand someone who dies in a state of grace, but in whom supernatural virtue has not completely determined his whole being to the image of Christ must first be entirely cleansed in Purgatory before being admitted to Heaven.