It is almost the stereotypical cliche: Someone challenging the Faith or the necessity to abstain from some sin asks "Will God send me to Hell if I ...?" to which the classical response given is "no, God does not send anyone to Hell. If you go there, you paddled your own canoe." It has always struck me from the first that such a conversation is two people talking at cross-purposes. The response does not answer the question, nor even address it, but merely serves as the standard preachment that the inquirer indeed needs to hear, but it is not what they were asking for.
While others may disagree with me, I for one have found it to be rude to not answer a direct question put to me, unless of course I don't know the answer, don't understand the question, or else am not at liberty to say. Going back to the question given by the inquirer above, it is clear that such an inquirer has a certain scenario in mind, one which the response utterly does not address. He is evidently picturing the moment of death, and some sort of disembodied "soul" or "spirit" oozing itself out of the newly dead corpse and beginning to float off into the ether. But then, if found to be "not good enough," a bunch of burly angels (or devils) drag the unfortunate soul, kicking and screaming, off into the fires of Hell. This is what the inquirer is picturing in his mind whenever he mentions the idea of God "sending" anyone to Hell. In this sense (to whatever limited extent such a scenario might correspond to the actual nature of one's final judgment), it would have to be said that God indeed sends certain ones to Hell.
The standard response (also given above), though rudely skipping or bypassing any real or direct answer to the question posed, nevertheless is of merit, all the same. Indeed, the main problem is that in giving it in response to the inquiry as given above, one has skipped over a great many steps. But indeed, Hell is as much a choice made in our lives right now by sinning, as indeed any of us who do end up there will have at least indeed have "paddled our own canoe" into the sins that warrant such an outcome.
So little is really known of the afterlife, and even much of what we commonly believe, even as doctrinaire Catholics, amounts to little beyond speculation. Despite what references Divine Revelation (Scripture and Tradition) have to it all, none of us can even faintly imagine what either is to be actually like. What does emerge clear is that one is so desirable as to be far beyond worthy of every suffering we might endure to attain it, and the other so frightfully horrific as to warrant anything it may take whatsoever in order to avoid it. For myself therefore, I prefer to work with what I genuinely know about both.
There are bits of Heaven and Hell that are seen even in this life, though barest hints only, they each show the character of each respective place. We see this first and foremost in the kind of people we become. There are those whose hearts are truly large, with genuine Christian love for all who cross their path, and whose lives are truly models of Christian charity and humility and wisdom and genuine spiritual attainment, but then there are also those whose lives are vile, mean, and petty, who tend towards hate and spite and cruelty and malice. Most confusing of all are those people whose lives truly seem to be good and loving, and yet somehow just seem to have no room for the Gospel. What are we to make of such people?
Can such "good people" go to Hell? And if so, then would that not be unjust? The fallen and secular world around us indeed possesses this view, if they even take Hell into account at all, that is. There are some Hollywood movies that really do take Hell into account. But what one finds is that only the most truly evil and contemptible sorts ever go there (or else those who sign any contract with the Devil).
It is easy to believe that Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin or any of several deceased serial killers have all gone to Hell, but what of the general run of people? In movies, again it is only the real villains who go to Hell. For example in the James Bond spoof Casino Royale, it is only the evil "Dr. Noah" (Jimmy Bond, James' short and evil little brother (Woody Allen) who goes to "a place where it's terribly hot." In Ghost, the vile and false "friend" who arranged for a street thug to steal a wallet (and which gets out of control, thus killing the main character) so as to get a password from it for use in an evil drug money laundering scam with the bank's computer gets pulled, kicking and screaming, by these dark shadows, while the main character gets to walk into the light from above.
In the mind set of the world, and as seen in what few sorts of Hollywood movies as actually allow for a Hell at all, "good people" never go to Hell, and that is despite immorality, lewdness, irreverence, consulting with spirit-mediums, living together without marriage, and so forth on the part of those who do not go to Hell.
I would have to think that as Christians we should all know that such a facetious and simplistic view of Heaven and Hell is unfounded, and as cartoonish as portrayals of Satan as some guy in a red union suit, with pointy ears, beard, and tail, and carrying a pitchfork.
At the opposite extreme, certain Christians (of various Protestant groups, but even some poorly informed Catholics as well) tend to see attaining Heaven as purely a function of what might most charitably be described as "Jesus partisanship." "Christians are not perfect, just forgiven," reads a popular bumper sticker one sees from time to time. As if being saved were purely a function of being related, committed, devoted, or belonging (in some sense), or united, to Jesus Christ, and sometimes even in some particular sect or belief within Christianity.
Such a viewpoint reduces all of the afterlife into what amounts to a kind of cosmic game show: "Well, you chose door number three, so let's see what's behind door number three." Ho! It's the Lake of Fire! Too bad! Oh well, next contestant, please." Such a view can only be described as blasphemous. It is true that Scripture states that "there is no other name under Heaven in which we can be saved (than Jesus)" but how much erudition and knowledge is required to pick the right door?
That blasphemous and simplistic view has its roots in the uniquely Protestant notion of "imputed righteousness." This heresy has it that when you have become a Christian (been "saved" once and for all time, and cannot lose your salvation under any circumstances), then when God looks at you all that He sees is Jesus in all His perfection, not you in all your sins. An illustration that I have in my personal collection, appearing in (of all places!) a Protestant tract, shows a sinister looking guy clutching his bottle of booze in one hand, and a flat "Jesus" board, with Jesus painted on one side, and shaped to accommodate His shape on His knees, in his other hand. A caption reads "God sees Jesus, not my sin." In fairness to the author of the tract, I should point out that he prints it as a refutation of such a belief system, himself being from a different strain of Protestant thought, one much more Catholic in this particular regard.
The Church teaches that God can neither deceive nor be deceived. Yet such a heretical view claims that God does both by practicing what can only amount to self-deception. Imagine a "Heaven" inhabited by such wretched beings. It would be as full of corruption and misery as this earth, just another level of the same nonsense as we endure today. No doubt apologists for such a heresy would claim that when they die, they are somehow magically transformed into great saints who never sin anymore nor have any attachment to sin. That amounts to saying that when they die, God completely eliminates (annihilates) the person and then creates another in his place who has nothing in common with the one existing before.
No, Heaven is about attaining spiritual perfection, itself intrinsically a gradual process. An "instant saint" as envisioned by such heretics would be a synthetic, artificial person, and in no way any sort of a continuation of the fallen sinner they have replaced. Rather a person must truly repent, do penance, confess their sin, and amend their life. Only then can there be true and authentic continuity between the born fallen sinner and the redeemed Heavenly saint.
So, circling back, it really is only the truly good, as God sees it, who can ever attain Heaven, as Heaven would not be Heavenly if sinners (as sinners) were allowed therein. God is holy, and all that associates with Him in such Divine intimacy must be and will be holy.
But what of those who seem to us to be "good" and yet have no real room for the Gospel or for Christ in their lives? Some few, if their goodness is truly real, will no doubt find God, or rather, God will find them and bring them to Himself. For all such there are missionaries and messengers and evangelists, or at the very least, some evident choice FOR God that they will have made, such that when God's representatives should ever come across their lives, they recognize them at once and welcome them in.
But as for the rest, I have come to conclude that when someone who can even seem truly nice and worthwhile as a person, nevertheless has no room for the Gospel, that means that there is some sin in their life which is more important to them than God is. They may be nice enough to us, even our own benefactors, but to others, perhaps close family members, or else to other remote strangers, they have done ill.
Or even if they have somehow avoided ill to any human person, they still dishonor God by serving something else more. They resent God's claims on their lives, because God will prohibit some sin to which they are attached. Sin is a cruel master, and it can set anyone against anyone else. If a person has made (for example) money to be their god, then anyone who gets between that person and money will feel their wrath. See how they treat the tax collector, or anyone who wishes to collect from such a one. If anything but our Creator is their god, then that god can make them do anything.
If such people are truly sincere, they will not resist the Church and Christ but find in Him (at least eventually) what they sought in their false teachers and ultimately cannot find there. But I think we, in our charity, are often all too willing to see sincerity where there is none. They might be kind enough to us personally, but monsters towards others, or at least towards God. They may be like well-fed lions in our midst, perhaps perfectly happy to have us massage their ears or ruffle their mane, and maybe even lick us clean in return, but let them get only a little bit hungry and they will eat us alive.
So again, can good people go to Hell? If by "good" you include all that we might think of as good, but who choose not the Gospel, then yes, for to know anything of the Gospel is to see the truth of it. It is one thing if, through chance and circumstance, we know little or nothing of the Gospel, and there God can and perhaps often will, be quite merciful, but to learn of the Gospel and not seek to know more of it and to be remedied by it and empowered by it to overcome sin in our lives is to reject so great a gift, and that is a supreme insult. The genuinely good will crave anything of the Gospel that Providence brings their way, and will have proper and due contrition for their sins, a burning desire to eliminate sin from their lives, and to be obedient to their Creator, and I would have to say that such good persons as these will not go to Hell, despite what degree or not they may attain in the Heavenly direction.
But without the Church and its Sacraments and authority and teaching, how much good they attain will be gravely limited, thus limiting their glory in Heaven, or else even lengthening their stay in Purgatory, or both. For there is really only one way to be good, to be the sort of person who is a holy asset to Heaven, and that is within the Church, receiving and being guided and empowered by the Church and Her Sacraments. Any attempt at "goodness" that rejects any aspect of this whatsoever is fake and hypocritical.
No doubt there could be some such for whom we would be the first in line to plead on their behalf at the Great White Throne Judgment, only to learn of the sort of things they have said against us behind our backs, ruining our reputation, and injuring us in ways we never imagined, and yet we thought "Oh, So-and-so, what a nice person he is."
No one who is genuinely good will go to Hell, but many we think to be good will be found otherwise, and then all will agree that they really were not good at all as we see the full truth about them and about their relationships to God and to sin. You can never fool God, and come the Great White Throne judgment neither will you have fooled anyone else. For in that time all that is hid shall be shouted from the rooftops, and all of God's judgments shall be seen by all as being thoroughly just.