Recently the question was put to me: if a person commits what is objectively a serious sin and then dies in that same frame of mind, can we say that he or she goes to hell?
The answer is NO, we cannot say that anyone goes to hell. You see, we must distinguish between objective sin, and subjective sin. Objective sin means a thought or action or omission which, in itself, is forbidden by the law of God. Killing innocent people is an example; stealing, adultery, fornication, etc. These things are objectively wrong, that is, they are wrong in themselves. However, sins are not committed in the abstract. They are committed by people, many of whom might well believe that what they are doing is good and right. We cannot get inside a man’s head to see how he thinks. Nor can we put ourselves into another person’s circumstances to understand exactly what causes him or her to act in a certain way. Our Lord said of Judas Iscariot, “It would have been better if he had never been born.” Does that mean that Judas has gone to hell? The Church will not say that. She declares that the saints are in heaven; she does not declare that anyone is in hell, since she is not privy to the mercy of God. We certainly believe in the reality of hell and the danger of a sinner going there, but that this or that person is in hell, is not ours to judge. Many people are wrong in their thinking and understanding of the moral law. Those who try to hide their sexual sins, or to escape the burden of pregnancy and child-rearing, by having abortions may honestly think that they are doing the best thing possible under the circumstances. We must leave the judgment of those cases to the mercy of God. Adolf Hitler was personally responsible for the deaths of some 13 million people, and an enormity of human suffering that is simply incalculable. Is he in hell? We don’t know. His thinking was so terribly wrong that he was, in fact, a madman. And we all recognize that insanity is an extenuating factor in assigning guilt.
Let us leave the judgment of human innocence or guilt to God; rather, let us strive always to know clearly what is right and wrong, to embrace the right with all our efforts and to avoid wrong with the same wholeheartedness. Thank you for seeking God’s truth, God bless you. Father Victor Brown, O.P.
Note: This message was composed some years ago.