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One stark truth conveyed by 19th-century Jesuit priest F.X. Schouppe has elicited, at least until recently, holy fear in the hearts of Catholics: "The dogma of hell is the most terrible truth of our faith. There is a hell. ... Nothing in fact is more clearly revealed" (Fr. F.X. Schouppe, S.J., The Dogma of Hell [Rockford, IL: TAN Books, 1989], 1). Hell is never-ending misery — and sin leads you there. But no one wants to talk about it.
For years, there's been a silence as inexplicable as it is damnable regarding the reality of Hell, in homilies and classrooms. And this endangers souls. The Church has de-emphasized Hell in recent decades in a misguided attempt to "make more room" for God's mercy, at the expense of His justice. Hell's absence from catechesis and liturgy has had a devastating impact on the spiritual lives of the faithful. Too many have replaced St. Paul's admonition to "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12) with today's irreligious everyone-goes-to-Heaven mentality.
For devout Catholics of generations past, the "four last things" — death, judgment, Heaven and Hell — were the subjects of daily meditation. Reflections on eschatology are eminently reasonable, since this life is short and the next is never-ending. But as science, technology and materialism have permeated Western culture, blinding the collective psyche to spiritual truths, concern for physical death has replaced concern for spiritual death (i.e., Hell). Thenceforth, Hell has been avoided like the plague, as has the truth about sin.
This is all kinds of problematic. The dogma of Hell is critical to the Faith and, ironically, to the salvation of souls; it cannot be ignored without doing great harm. Bearing this in mind, let's look at the sundry reasons hearing about Hell is vital to catechesis and liturgy, and, ultimately, to our reclamation.
Several reliable accounts underscore the reality of Hell. The most well-known comes to us from Fatima, Portugal. On July 13, 1917, the Blessed Virgin showed three shepherd children a vision of Hell. One of them, Lúcia, recounted the terrifying experience in vivid detail:
We saw, as it were, a sea of fire. Plunged in this fire were demons and souls in human form, like transparent burning embers, all blackened or burnished bronze, floating about in the conflagration, now raised into the air by the flames ... without weight or equilibrium, amid shrieks and groans of pain and despair, which horrified us and made us tremble with fear. ... Terrified and as if to plead for succor, we looked up at Our Lady, who said to us, so kindly and so sadly: You have seen Hell where the souls of poor sinners go.
Father Schouppe compiled several documented cases of apparitions of the damned who had allegedly gone to Hell. One such reprobate, while alive in 15th-century Florence, had intentionally withheld a mortal sin in confession and subsequently committed many sacrilegious receptions of Holy Communion (Schouppe, The Dogma of Hell, 14–15).
After the man died, the community was preparing for his funeral. Right before the ceremony was to commence, a religious brother was called on to toll the bell. It was there that he saw "the deceased, encompassed by chains that seemed aglow with fire" (ibid., 15). As the brother fell to his knees, terrified, the damned hapless soul spoke to him: "Do not pray for me. I am in here for all eternity" (ibid.). The soul then proceeded to recount to the brother his sin of sacrilege that had cost him eternal life. "Thereupon he vanished, leaving in the church a disgusting odor." In reaction, "the superiors had the corpse taken away, deeming it unworthy for ecclesiastical burial" (ibid.).
Holy Writ is veritably filled with references to Hell. In fact, Scripture mentions eternal punishment no less than 167 times.
The Israelites in the Old Testament believed in a shadowy abode of the dead called Sheol (in Greek, "Hades"). They also distinguished between the souls of the just and the unjust (Luke 16:19–31).
Christ Himself warned of unquenchable fire (Mark 9:43); eternal torment (Luke 16:23); a blazing furnace where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 13:42); the place of outer darkness (Matthew 25:30); the place where the worm dies not (Mark 9:48); and "Gehenna," a trash dump where a perpetual flame burned, located just outside Jerusalem (Matthew 10:28).
According to the Parable of the Last Judgment, the "eternal fire" of Hell was originally "prepared for the Devil and his angels," but is now shared by those who refuse to show works of mercy (Matthew 25:41). And one can't forget the jarring words Christ spoke in reference to one of His 12 Apostles, Judas Iscariot: "It would be better for him if he had never been born" (Matthew 26:24).
Much ink has been spilled over the centuries on the ugliness and terror of Hell. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, "The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of Hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into Hell, where they suffer the punishments of Hell" (¶1035).
Pope John Paul II, in a Wednesday audience in July 1999, reaffirmed that the state of Hell, which is essentially complete alienation from God and His love, is the free choice of the created person, which is only confirmed by Christ at the Final Judgment:
In reality, it is the creature who closes himself to [God's] love. Damnation consists precisely in definitive separation from God, freely chosen by the human person and confirmed with death that seals his choice forever. God's judgment ratifies this state. ... It is the state of those who definitively reject the Father's mercy, even at the last moment of their life.
This all makes sense. Christianity needs Hell to be theologically coherent. It's unreasonable to think God would have created free-willed creatures that determine their own destinies without imposing fitting eternal consequences for their choices. It's true that St. Paul says, "God desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:4), emphasizing God's universal salvific will. But we can't downplay the fact that Christ warned His disciples about Hell more often than He talked about Heaven.
A common question (perhaps one that is most salient in our own time) is, How can an all-loving, all-powerful God send anyone to Hell? The argument has a facile kind of logic to it — If God is love, Hell seemingly can't exist.
But what the argument overlooks is that people ultimately send themselves to Hell by choosing mortal sin and refusing to repent. So the more pertinent question might be, Why did a loving God create us with the ability to sin? Or perhaps, How could God allow us to go to Hell despite our choice? Wouldn't a loving parent intervene on behalf of His children?
Cracking this mystery requires an appreciation of two fundamental truths: 1) Man is God's image, and 2) man is not God.
First, divine revelation shows the tri-Personal God made man in His image as persons with intellect and will in order to have a personal relationship with him in this life and forever in the next (Baltimore Catechism, 2nd rev. ed. [New York: Catholic Book Publishing, 1969], 9). Like any love relationship, this necessitates a free choice on behalf of the beloved. There is no marriage without free consent. Likewise, each member of Christ's Church (His bride) must freely say yes to God and subsequently to Heaven.
By giving us free will, God has, in a sense, bound Himself to accepting our decisions. He could have made us unthinking animals or mechanistic robots, but instead gave us the dignity of being able to respond freely to His love.
The immense dignity of imaging God, however, remains a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we are like God (and unlike plants and animals) inasmuch as we have free will to choose good. On the other hand, we are unlike God inasmuch as our free will can choose evil.
Hence, one might ask: If God has free will and cannot sin, and we are His image, then why can we sin?
God cannot contradict His own nature. In Scripture, God is analogously compared to many things, but is directly identified with two: God is being (Exodus 3:14), and God is love (1 John 4:8). As the Angelic Doctor, Thomas Aquinas, noted, God's unlimited essence as "I Am" is identical to His existence (Summa Theologiae, p.1, q. 3, a. 4). Simply put, He is personal ("I") being ("Am").
So while God cannot contradict the nature of His Being, which is infinite love; we limited, finite creatures have the "ontological space," if you will, to choose evil and do wrong. In other words, while God is love, we must choose love. Keep in mind, God isn't a being, like creatures or as is imagined with pagan gods, having definition and limitation, but He is being itself. He who is limitless love cannot be un-love in any way. Finite creatures, however, with a limited nature can. So when God invites us to union with Him, we have the ability to say yes or no. This is why our first parents in Eden had the choice to eat from the forbidden tree of knowledge of good and evil — even though all they were given in paradise was good.
Keep in mind, in biblical Hebrew, "knowledge" denotes something known experientially, as opposed to merely intellectually. When we choose sin, it becomes part of us, diminishing the goodness of our being and impeding our ability to receive God's love. If we sin mortally and reject divine mercy with final impenitence, there is no logical alternative for our eternal destiny other than Hell.
The human condition requires definitions for intelligibility and boundaries for freedom. A swimmer can't swim freely unless he knows where the shark-infested water is. Children can't play freely without a fence that separates their yard from traffic. Likewise, no one can live freely unless he knows the moral law — which is the "fence" that separates Heaven and Hell.
Everyone who has ever taught religious education to kids and adolescents knows their most common questions on morality begin with "Will I go to Hell if." Fear of punishment is what keeps the spiritually immature in line, and it's a necessary starting point for charity.
A fundamental principle we seem to have lost in our day is that fear of Hell is a necessary first step towards embracing love. Scripture states, "Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Proverbs 9:10) before it proclaims "Perfect love casts out fear" (1 John 4:18).
I dare say one significant reason there is such little faith among Christians today is that this necessary foundation for love of God, holy fear, has been avoided in catechesis and liturgy. The politically correct groupthink is that Hell and fear are beneath us, and that we should begin with God's mercy. This is a huge miscalculation. When clerics replaced preaching on sin and Hell with theological saccharin like "be really nice to each other," they stifled Catholics' spiritual maturity. You can't properly love God and neighbor unless you inculcate a holy fear of Hell. In other words, while fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, fear of Hell is the beginning of salvation.
Although Catholic scholars widely agree that alienation from God (and the resultant total deprivation of grace) is the primary punishment of Hell, there are several theories about the nature of the secondary punishments. Some believe Hell is a place of never-ending fire. Others believe that Hell is a completely cold, dark and lonely place. Another camp holds that Hell is a state in which a person fixed in opposition to God experiences the fire of divine love as burning pain and misery rather than joyous fulfillment.
Beloved Christian author C.S. Lewis went beyond the pains of Hell as depicted in medieval art and focused more on the excruciating loneliness and rejection the damned feel in Hell. He was profoundly affected by Christ's words that Hell is a place of privation, banishment and exclusion. A well-known Lewis reflection bears this out:
We are warned that it may happen to any of us to appear at last before the face of God and hear only the appalling words: "I never knew you. Depart from me." In some sense, as dark to the intellect as it is untenable to the feelings, we can be both banished from the presence of Him who is present everywhere and erased from the knowledge of Him who knows all. We can be left utterly and absolutely outside — repelled, exiled, estranged, finally and unspeakably ignored (C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory [San Francisco: Harper, 1980], 41–42)
Two prominent heterodox theories of Hell that bear mentioning are that 1) people in Hell are eventually annihilated, and 2) all those in Hell eventually go to Heaven. The latter, referred to as "universalism," has been gaining significant popularity of late. Positions falling just short of universalism are championed by theologians Hans Urs von Balthasar and Bp. Robert Baron, who claim we can have a "reasonable hope" that all people will be saved.
Demons know Hell-skeptics are easy prey. So it's worth repeating: While fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, fear of Hell is the beginning of salvation. This is because in the journey to spiritual maturity, knowledge of God's power and justice precedes knowledge of His infinite mercy. The "thou shalt not" Commandments precede the "blessed are they" Beatitudes.
It's of utmost importance that the Church refocus on the four last things, especially the reality of Hell. Christ wouldn't have mentioned Hell so frequently if it were not a real consequence of sin and indifference. The traditional Act of Contrition is invaluable in how it speaks of attrition before contrition, and holy fear before love: "O My God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee; and I detest all my sins because I dread the loss of Heaven and the pains of Hell; but most of all because they offend you, O God, who are all good and deserving of all my love" (emphasis added).