Q. How does God deal with suicide bombers who believe they will go to "paradise" and be with Allah? How can they go to hell if they don’t even believe in it? For that matter, how can anyone go to hell who doesn’t believe in it? Sometimes I think hell is only for bad Catholics.

A. I am surely not qualified to explain Islamic beliefs on the subject, but Catholic teaching has some interesting and valuable things to say about it.

Contrary to the assumptions of many, including even to this day a fair number of Catholics, the Catholic Church holds that all persons who sincerely attempt to follow the dictates of their conscience, what they believe to be right and good, are saved.

This concept is by now well entrenched in church teaching. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says it clearly: "Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – these too may achieve eternal salvation" (No. 847, quoting the Vatican Council II Constitution on the Church).

Pope John Paul II elaborated on this in his message for the World Day of Peace, Jan 1, l999. Speaking about religious freedom, he concluded, "People are obliged to follow their conscience in all circumstances and cannot be forced to act against it."

All this assumes, of course, for all human beings whatever their culture or background, a diligent and honest attempt to inform one’s conscience with all the grace and wisdom possible, and then to live one’s life in accord with what is seen as "religious duty," however the individual sees that duty.

Some will claim, of course, that no human being could honestly envision as morally good inhuman and appalling acts of cruelty – acts which are perpetrated in countless nations of our world to this hour by people other than Muslims.

Many people, among them religious leaders, have publicly proclaimed that all the dead terrorists are burning in hell, and those still alive will do so. Arrogance like this is unworthy of any thoughtful human being, let alone any Christian.

Judgments like this about the condition and fate of other people’s souls are wholly beyond our reach. The pretense of having sufficient knowledge and wisdom to make such judgments invades territory that belongs to God alone.

God created all of us, including the terrorists, out of love. And Jesus, as St. Paul declares, died for each of us. It is, therefore, the worst sort of blasphemy to dare to tell God which of his children he will reject or to tell Jesus which of those for whom he died must be condemned.

Does this answer your question? To be sure, whether an individual explicitly believes in hell or not, someone of any or no religion is capable of rejecting God and his law by a deliberate, radical, eternal choice of evil over good. But that is not the whole story.

We must also confront our complete ignorance of how God’s grace and truth may have transformed a person, not only during his or her life, but also in the last moments. We believe God performs incredible miracles of mercy. Who knows which ones take place during a suicide bombing?

We don’t know, of course, and will never know in this life. But it is with these instincts of faith and hope, aware that we all desperately need his mercy, that the church has us pray, just after the consecration at Mass, that God will bring our deceased "brothers and sisters, and all the departed," all people in the world who have died, into the light of his presence.

Q. I take exception to your answer about suicide bombers. The wording of the Catholic Catechism, which you quote, is carefully chosen.
It says those who through no fault of
their own do not know the Gospel
or the church, but who seek God with a sincere heart and "moved by grace" try to do God’s will as their conscience dictates can be saved.

Those words "moved by grace" are important. If we think God’s grace would lead us to kill ourselves and slaughter innocent people, we make Christ’s victory over evil meaningless. A person could do these things and not be eternally condemned only if he is mentally ill or cannot choose between good and evil. It is unthinkable that a sane person could believe God is leading him to wipe out dozens or thousands of people. This is the core of our faith in God’s power over evil.


A. First of all, all good that is done in this world, by anyone, is done, one way or another, by the movement of God’s grace. In many human actions, there is a complex mixture of good and bad, of worthy and unworthy motives. One cannot use the Catechism’s words to make them say more than they can say.

You make some good points, but I think we must be extremely hesitant before we claim absolute certainty about what is or is not going on in the depths of anyone’s heart, in that person’s personal relationship with God. We’re in territory way beyond our reach when we try to limit what God can or cannot do in his saving love.

Perhaps a more urgent reminder to be humble and cautious about such condemnations is that massive horrendous evils have been committed in God’s name by people of many other religions, including our own.

Some of the more cruel destruction of innocent lives (carnage perpetrated in the course of the eight or more Crusades (11th to13th centuries), accompanied by bloodbaths massacring Jews, "heathens" and other Christians; and merciless executions of thousands of real or suspected unbelievers, especially during the Spanish Inquisition, to mention only two Catholic examples) were ordered and carried out by people, from common folk to popes, who sincerely and absolutely believed they were doing God’s will. We’re still apologizing for that, and coping with the consequences.

It is not at all unseemly or unfaithful of us to ask God’s mercy on them all, and on us. -

Q & A with Father John Dietzen

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