Does the Church oblige us to believe that some souls are in Hell?

Yes. For the Church requires us to believe, not only in the teachings found in magisterial documents, but even more so in the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels. And Jesus plainly taught that many souls are sent by God to Hell.

The claim made by many liberal foolish priests and theologians, that Hell might be empty, or that we do not have to believe that any souls are in Hell, is directly contrary to the explicit teaching of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. To say that Hell might be empty of human souls is to call Jesus Christ a liar.

In his blog post, Fr. Robert Barron makes this claim: “Therefore, if there are any people in Hell (and the church has never obliged us to believe that any human is in that state), they are there, not because God capriciously ‘sent’ them, but because they absolutely insist on not joining in the party.” (What the Hell?)

Fr. Barron’s claim rejects the teaching of Christ that many persons are sent to Hell.

One of the more grievous errors about Hell is the claim that Hell might perhaps be empty. To the contrary, very many serious sins are committed throughout the world, by countless persons, and often without any sign of repentance prior to death. Now while some of these persons might have repented, and some might have had a reduction in culpability, it is unreasonable to conclude that they all died in a state of grace. Furthermore, Sacred Scripture clearly teaches that Hell is not empty:

{10:15} And as for you, Capernaum, who would be exalted even up to Heaven: you shall be submerged into Hell.

Capernaum symbolizes the sins of apostasy prevalent in that place. Jesus states unequivocally that these persons will be sent to Hell. He uses the figure of a populous and sinful town to show that the number sent to Hell is not small.

{12:5} But I will reveal to you whom you should fear. Fear him who, after he will have killed, has the power to cast into Hell. So I say to you: Fear him.

If Hell were empty, then there would be no reason to fear being cast into Hell by God. Many souls are sent to Hell to be punished forever, and so, in the grace of God, exercising both faith and reason, we should fear Hell.

{16:22} Then it happened that the beggar died, and he was carried by the Angels into the bosom of Abraham. Now the wealthy man also died, and he was entombed in Hell.

Again, Jesus speaks unequivocally of some persons being sent to Hell. And by this story Jesus warns other persons not to commit the same sins, and be sent to the same place. But if Hell were empty, such a warning would be needless.

{5:20} For I say to you, that unless your justice has surpassed that of the scribes and the Pharisees you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus implies that many of the scribes and Pharisees have not entered the kingdom of heaven, and that therefore they were sent to Hell.

{7:13} Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate, and broad is the way, which leads to perdition, and many there are who enter through it.
{7:14} How narrow is the gate, and how straight is the way, which leads to life, and few there are who find it!

Jesus taught that the way to perdition (meaning Hell) is wide, and that many persons follow that path. If Hell were empty, then this teaching would be false and Christ would be a liar.

There are also many passages in the Old Testament referring to Hell, and plainly stating that there are souls in Hell.

21:13 Their days are prolonged in wealth, yet, in an instant, they descend into hell.

9:17 The Lord will be recognized when making judgments. The sinner has been caught in the works of his own hands.
9:18 The sinners will be turned into Hell: all the Gentiles who have forgotten God.

30:18 Do not let me be confounded, Lord, for I have called upon you. Let the impious be ashamed and be drawn down into Hell.

48:15 They have been placed in Hell like sheep. Death will feed on them. And the just will have dominion over them in the morning. And their help will grow old in Hell for their glory.

54:16 Let death come upon them, and let them descend alive into Hellfire. For there is wickedness in their dwellings, in their midst.

113:25 The dead will not praise you, Lord, and neither will all those who descend into Hell.

5:14 Such things those who sinned said in hell.

9:17 The injury of the unjust should not please you, knowing that, until they are in hell, the impious will not please.

21:11 The way of sinners is paved and level, and at their end is hell and darkness and punishments.

And there are many other such passages.

Fr. Barron’s claim also rejects the teaching of Christ that we are all judged by God.

When a defendant is judged by a court (to use an analogy), the defendant does not judge himself and find himself guilty, nor does he impose on himself his own sentence. Certainly, in a just court, the judgment and sentence is a result of the defendant’s own words and actions. But this does not imply that the court has not judged him and has not imposed on him a sentence of condemnation.

Sacred Scripture teaches that God will judge us; we do not judge ourselves.

{5:25} Be reconciled with your adversary quickly, while you are still on the way with him, lest perhaps the adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you will be thrown in prison.
{5:26} Amen I say to you, that you shall not go forth from there, until you have repaid the last quarter.

God is the judge who will throw some souls into the prison of Purgatory, and they will not be freed until they have paid the temporal punishment that is due. Jesus does not say that we judge ourselves and send ourselves to Purgatory, but that we are handed over to the Judge. And the same must be true of Hell. If the holy souls who die in a state of grace, but needing purification in Purgatory, cannot judge themselves, then certainly the wicked souls who die in a state of actual mortal sin are not fit to be judges over themselves either.

{7:1} “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.
{7:2} For with whatever judgment you judge, so shall you be judged; and with whatever measure you measure out, so shall it be measured back to you.

{8:50} But I am not seeking my own glory. There is One who seeks and judges.

We shall be judged by the One God based on the choices of our lives.

{22:11} Then the king entered to see the guests. And he saw a man there who was not clothed in a wedding garment.
{22:12} And he said to him, ‘Friend, how is it that you have entered here without having a wedding garment?’ But he was dumbstruck.
{22:13} Then the king said to the ministers: ‘Bind his hands and feet, and cast him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

In this parable of Christ, the king is God. The man without a wedding garment is anyone who dies not in a state of grace. Notice what happens to this man. He does not judge himself, but the King judges him. He must be bound in his hands and feet because he does not go to his eternal punishment willingly. Although his judgment, condemnation, and punishment is of his own making, due to his own free choices in life, nevertheless he does not literally judge, condemn, or punish himself. The King and his ministers do so.

The Magisterium teaches that God will judge us; we do not judge ourselves.

The Creed states that Jesus Christ will “judge the living and the dead.”

“Christ is Lord of eternal life. Full right to pass definitive judgment on the works and hearts of men belongs to him as redeemer of the world. He ‘acquired’ this right by his cross. The Father has given ‘all judgment to the Son’. Yet the Son did not come to judge, but to save and to give the life he has in himself. By rejecting grace in this life, one already judges oneself, receives according to one’s works, and can even condemn oneself for all eternity by rejecting the Spirit of love.” (CCC, n. 679).

In a sense, we condemn ourselves by freely choosing to commit actual mortal sin and freely choosing not to repent. But we do not literally judge and condemn ourselves after death. Christ passes definitive judgment on us, due to our interior and exterior acts, sinful or virtuous, in this life. At the particular judgment, Christ shows us our life and we know that His judgment of our life is true and just. But it is undeniable that in this judgment, Christ stands as our judge.

Pope John Paul II: “Each individual in fact has moral responsibility for the acts which he personally performs; no one can be exempted from this responsibility, and on the basis of it everyone will be judged by God himself (cf. Rom 2:6; 14:12).” (Evangelium Vitae, n. 74.)

As for the punishments of Hell and of Purgatory, we do not punish ourselves; it is God who punishes us. Only the all-powerful and all-knowing God can dispense punishment that is perfectly just, and yet perfectly merciful, and also perfectly fitting to the sins that the person made in life. It is absurd to claim that a person who dies in a state of unrepentant actual mortal sin is in charge of selecting and applying his own punishments in Hell. Such a soul entirely lacks grace, and therefore is entirely unable to punish himself justly and mercifully, in accord with the unrepentant mortal sins of his life.

God judges, God punishes, for God is Just. The Love of God is not an unjust Love, and the Mercy of God is not an unjust Mercy.

{9:3} And when the hearts of the sons of men are filled with malice and contempt in their lives, afterwards they shall be dragged down to hell.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and Bible translator

The Catechism of Catholic Ethics
The Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible

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