Freethought Archives > G.W. Foote > Flowers of Freethought Vol. II (1894)


Professor St. George Mivart is a very useful man to the Jesuits. He plays the jackal to their lion; or, it might be said, the cat to their monkey. Some time ago he argued that Catholicism and Darwinism were in the happiest agreement; that the Catholic Church was not committed, like the Protestant Church, to a cast-iron theory of Inspiration; and that he was quite prepared to find that all the real Word of God in the Bible might be printed in a very small book and easily carried in a waistcoat pocket. That article appeared in the Nineteenth Century. In the current number of the same review Mr. Mivart has another theological article on "Happiness in Hell." He says he took advice before writing it, so he speaks with permission, if not with authority. Such an article, being a kind of feeler, was better as the work of a layman. If it did not answer, the Church was not committed; if it did answer, the Church's professional penmen could follow it up with something more decisive.

Professor Mivart perceives, like the Bishop of Chester, that Christianity must alter its teaching with respect to Hell, or lose its hold on the educated, the thoughtful, and the humane. "Not a few persons," he says, "have abandoned Christianity on account of this dogma." The "more highly evolved moral perceptions" of to-day are "shocked beyond expression at the doctrine that countless multitudes of mankind will burn for ever in hell fire, out of which there is no possible redemption." Father Pinamonti's Hell Open to Christians is stigmatised as "repulsive," and its pictures as "revolting." Yet it is issued "with authority," and Mr. Mivart falls short of the truth in admitting it has never "incurred any condemnation." This little fact seems a barrier to his attempt at proving that the Catholic Church is not committed to the doctrine of a hell of real fire and everlasting agony.

"Abandon all hope, ye who enter here" wrote Dante over his Inferno, and Mr. Mivart allows that "the words truly express what was the almost universal belief of Christians for many centuries." That belief flourished under the wing of an infallible Church; and now Mr. Mivart, a member of this same infallible Church, comes forward to declare that the belief was a mistake. Nevertheless, he argues, the clergy of former times did right to preach hell hot and strong, stuff it with fire, and keep it burning for ever. They had coarse and ignorant people to deal with, and were obliged to use realistic language. Besides, it was necessary to exaggerate, in order to bring out the infinite contrast between heaven and hell, the elect and the reprobates, the saved and the damned. Mr. Mivart maintains, therefore, that the old representation of hell "has not caused the least practical error or misled anyone by one jot or tittle"—which is as bold, or, as some would say, as impudent a statement as could be well conceived.

Briefly stated, Mr. Mivart's contention is that the fire of hell is figurative. The pains of damnation, even in the case of the worst of sinners, have not been liberally described by Popes and Councils. "What is meant by the expression 'hell fire' has never been defined," says Mr. Mivart. Perhaps not. There are some things which, for practical purposes, do not need definition, and fire is one of them. Nor is it greatly to the purpose to say that "Saint Augustine distinctly declares our ignorance about it." Saint Augustine was not God Almighty. Ample set-offs to this Father may be found in the pages of Dr. Pusey's What is of Faith as to Everlasting Punishment? Besides, if fire does not mean fire, if torment does not mean torment, and everlasting does not mean everlasting, perhaps hell does not mean hell; in which case, it is a waste of time to argue about details, when the whole establishment, to use a Shakespearian epithet, is simply "tropical."

"Some positive suffering," thinks Mr. Mivart, "will never cease for those who have voluntarily and deliberately cast away from them their supreme beatitude." Do you want to know what this positive suffering is? Well, wait till you get there. All in good time. Whatever it is, the "unbelievers" will get their share of it. The editor of the Freethinker may look out for a double dose. Professor Huxley will not escape. He is an aggressive Agnostic; one of those persons who, in the graceful language of Mivartian civility, do not "possess even a rudiment of humility or aspiration after goodness." "Surely," exclaims our new Guide to Hell, "surely if there is a sin which, on merely Theistic principles, merits the severest pains of hell, it is the authorship of an irreligious book." Which leads us in turn to exclaim, "Surely, yea thrice surely, will hell never be wholly abolished or deprived of its last torture-chamber, while Christians require a painful place for those who boldly differ from them." Mr. Mivart, it is true, confesses that "those who are disturbed and distressed by difficulties about hell include many among the best of mankind." But they must not write irreligious books on the subject. They must wait, in patience and meekness, until Mr. Mivart gives them satisfaction.

Let us now summarise Mr. Mivart's position. Universalism, or the final restitution of all men, he rejects as "utterly irreconcilable with Catholic doctrine." Those who are saved go to heaven—after various delays in purgatory—and enjoy the Beatific Vision for ever. Those who are lost go to hell and remain there for all eternity. They lose the Beatific Vision, and that is their chief punishment. But hell is not a really dreadful place—except, of course, for the writers of irreligious books. It may have its equator, and perhaps its poles; but between them are vast regions of temperate clime and grateful soil. The inhabitants are in a kind of harmony with their environment. They are even under a law of evolution, and "the existence of the damned is one of progress and gradual amelioration." We suppose it may be said, in the words of Napoleon, that the road is open to talent; and enterprising "damned ones" may cry with truth—"Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven."

Hell must be regarded as a most desirable place. Mr. Mivart knows all about it, and we have his authority for saying it is "an abode of happiness transcending all our most vivid anticipations, so that man's natural capacity for happiness is there gratified to the very utmost." And this is hell! Well, as the old lady said, who would have thought it? Verily the brimstone has all turned to treacle.

Curious! is it not? While the Protestants are discussing whether hell-fire is actual fire, and whether sinners are roasted for everlasting, or only for eternity, in steps a Catholic and declares that hell is a first-class sanitarium, far superior to the east-end of London, better than Bournemouth, and ahead of Naples and Mentone. "Be happy in heaven," he cries, "and if you won't, why, damn you, be happy in hell."

But before we leave Mr. Mivart we have a parting word to say. He admits the comparative novelty of his view of hell. "Our age," he says, "has developed not only a great regard for human life, but also for the sufferings of the brute creation." This has led to a moral revolt against the old doctrine of eternal torment, and the Church is under the necessity of presenting the idea of hell in a fresh and less revolting fashion. Precisely so. It is not theology which purifies humanity, but humanity which purifies theology. Man civilises himself first, and his gods afterwards, and the priest walks at the tail of the procession.*

* Professor Mivart is a man to be pitied. First of all, his views on Hell were opposed by Father Clarke, against whom the hell-reformer defended himself. Last of all, however, Professor Mivart's articles on this subject were placed upon the Index of Prohibited Books, which no good Catholic is allowed to read, except by special permission. Rome had spoken, and the Professor submitted himself to Holy Mother Church. In doing so, he destroyed the value of his judgment on any question whatever, since he submits not to argument, but to authority.

Previous Chapter | Home | Contents | Next Chapter

HTML © 2002 - 2024