That’s right, hell saves. The doctrine of hell, that is, saves many souls. So argues Garrigou-Lagrange.
I cite from his little book Everlasting Life, p. 97:
There is today an unwillingness to preach [about hell], and therefore people often forget revealed truth that is very salutary. They do not give attention to the truth that the fear of hell is the beginning of wisdom and the beginning of conversion. They forget that, in this sense, hell has saved many souls.
Someone might object: But that is negative. We should be positive. Start with the positive. And doesn’t perfect love cast out all fear? So, isn’t all fear of punishment evil? Isn’t it selfish?
Let us calmly reason. First, to love one’s own life is not “selfish” but just natural. And good. And God gives us this love of self in giving us life. Hence, his commandment to love neighbor is premised on love of self: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” So, let us get this clear and very clear. Recent heretics reject love of self, and then they prey on your inveterate love of self to make you hate yourself. (It is what certain “leaders” are doing with nations, when they say that all efforts to protect borders are evil.) This is very perverse and we must return to it in another post. Second, to fear what opposes your good is itself good. If I don’t fear the lion, I do not love myself. I am thus unnatural, sick. Third, hell indeed opposes my good. So, I should fear it. Fourth, whoever is not yet justified, not yet holy, does not have charity for God above all things. When you are reaching out to this person, you cannot appeal to the charity they do not have. You have to appeal to something they love naturally. They naturally love their own good and what they think will constitute their happiness. So, you can argue it out with them that none of these things will deliver. And further, if they believe in God and his providence, you can remind them of his coming judgment and the possibility of hell. Fear of hell can motivate them to stop sinning. This is not yet love of God, but it is better not to fornicate than to fornicate. It is a step in the right direction in this sense: It is to stop stepping in the wrong direction. Fifth, so many saints began their journeys this way. Teresa was shown hell. Ignatius begins the Exercises with mediation on hell. Dante teaches us by taking us down to hell. Newman – O Kindly Light – is very sober about true religion. True religion shows us hell before it shows us heaven. That is Newman. Newman! (See Grammar, chapter 10).
Lastly: Yes, the fear of hell is a sign that one is not yet perfect. But since we should accompany sinners, we should start where they are at. If they are not yet perfect saints, we should remind them of hell, or inform them of hell. “But in the proper context.” Yes, of course; this is obvious. It need not be stated. We get it. The context is important. Namely, One God, creator of all, freely made us and calls us, we sinned, he redeems; we balk, he calls; etc. BUT DO WE PRESUME ON THE GRACE OF HIS KINDNESS? DO WE NOT REALIZE THAT HIS KINDNESS IS MEANT FOR OUR REPENTANCE, SO THAT WE MIGHT STAND ON THE DAY OF JUDGMENT WHEN HE JUDGES THE SECRETS OF HEARTS? (ROMANS, CHAPTER 2)