Seventh in a Series on the Life of Grace
Fr. Raphael M. Moss, O.P.
In the nineteenth chapter of St. Luke's Gospel, the Evangelist puts before us a scene which is one of the most beautiful, most touching, and most instructive in Holy Scripture. He describes in most graphic words our Blessed Lord's last and most solemn entry into Jerusalem, the enthusiasm of the crowds that surrounded Him, the joy and gladness of His disciples, the fervor of their hosannas, the impotent envy of His enemies, and then the strange and sudden contrast:
Seeing the city, He wept over it, saying: If thou also hadst known, and that in this, thy day, the things that are to thy peace, but now they are hidden from thine eyes. (Luke 19:41-42)
It is indeed a wonderful picture, and it is likewise a striking and instructive lesson. Holy Scripture is the word of God, whose understanding is infinite and almighty, and therefore it is not surprising that He should teach us not merely by the words He speaks, or which He inspires, but also by the actions which those words describe. There is nothing extraordinary, therefore, or far-fetched, in taking the city of Jerusalem as a figure of the individual soul, and the story of God's dealings with that ungrateful city as a picture of His dealings with so many of His creatures. There is the same abundant outpouring of favors and blessings on the one side, the same ingratitude and repeated rebellion on the other, and the picture is completed by final rejection and terrible punishment when that ingratitude reaches its limit. The inspired writer tells us that the Lord loved the city of Sion above all the other dwelling-places of His chosen people, and yet He caused it to be utterly destroyed and laid waste because it had not known the time of its visitation.
So, contemplating as we are the workings of the supernatural life of grace, its progress and development, we dare not venture to pass by in silence the possibility of its utter failure and all which that implies. We must consider, and consider carefully, in the light of faith and reason, the final state of those souls who, like the city of Jerusalem, have neglected the things that were for their peace, the eternal destiny of those who obstinately refuse to acknowledge the end of their creation and to fulfil it, and who, therefore, are at last crushed down by the unutterable sorrow of knowing that it is for ever hidden from their eyes. We must consider Hell, the only part of God's vast creation on which the sunlight of His blessing never falls, the only kingdom in His mighty empire where grace cannot and may not rule supreme; "the land that is dark, and covered with the mist of death; a land of misery and darkness where the shadow of death and everlasting horror dwelleth." (Job 10-21-22)
|Chinese depiction of the torments of Hell|
It is a curious fact, and one well worthy of our close attention, that belief in Hell is as universal as belief in God. St. Paul reminds us that faith in God, as the rewarder of our works, is an essential condition of our service of Him, but independently of this supernatural knowledge, we can discern in all people, of all ages, a more or less distinct belief in God, and in a future state of happiness and misery, the lingering remains, no doubt, of the first great revelation granted to our race. It would be superfluous to appeal to the ancient writers of Greece and Rome; every student of the classics is familiar with their teaching. The learned writers of the East are not less definite, and even Mohammed, who surely tried his best to invent and propagate what we might call a "comfortable" religion, has nevertheless retained the dogma of eternal punishment. Those who broke away from the Church in each succeeding age of its existence, never based the motive of their separation and revolt on this stern truth; it seems to have been reserved to our own age, so full of pride and independence, so greedy of indulgence and every sort of pleasure, to put itself in opposition to the universal feeling of past ages, and deny not merely the existence, but the very possibility of what we call Hell. In deference, therefore, to the age in which we live, we may begin by seeing what our reason ought to tell us on this subject, and how far its light can lead us in such an all-important controversy.
Faith and reason never can oppose each other. That is a truth we often find ourselves forgetting when specious arguments plunge the mind in darkness; to qualify a dogma of the faith as "unreasonable" is a gross misuse of terms, as well as a proclamation of our own ignorance. Faith and reason, as we tried to show in our first conference, are given to us by God to help us in our search for Him; if they seem to be in opposition, and to impede our progress, the fault is ours, not God's! To quote once more the teaching of the Vatican Council on this point:
God cannot contradict Himself, nor can truth ever be opposed to truth. Whenever there appears to be a sort of contradiction, it is because the dogmas of the faith have not been rightly understood and perfectly explained, or else because the assertions of opinions are taken for dictates of reason.
What then does our reason tell us about eternal punishment?
Without plunging into metaphysics, or indulging in digressions to explain the nature of good and evil in the moral order, we can all admit that they are two opposing forces, working, so to speak, in opposite directions. The difference which divides them is something more than accidental; it is rather what we call essential. To use an ordinary comparison, however poor and inadequate: they run on lines which from the first diverge, and are not merely parallel, much less converging. It would seem to follow, therefore, that as long as good is good, and evil evil, they never can produce the same result, or arrive at the same term, no matter how indefinitely the lines may be prolonged.
St. Paul's comparison of the wild olive (Romans 11:24) is strongly to the point, for the wild olive remains useless as long as it is the wild olive. But if, as the Apostle says, a branch cut from the wild olive be grafted on a good tree, then it will bring forth fruit because it is a wild olive no longer. Hence our Blessed Lord Himself so pertinently asks:
Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? (Matthew 7:16)
But if you do away with the eternity of Hell, you must infer that you do expect to find grapes growing on thorns, and figs on thistles, for you infer that good and evil, sooner or later, produce the same effect, and therefore that the difference between them is but accidental, or, in other words, that their nature is essentially the same. What appalling consequences such teaching would produce if really believed! It would not matter whether we formed our lives after the example of Nero or St. John, Jezabel or the Immaculate Mother of God - the end eventually would be the same! Could anything more absurd be imagined?
But there is another consideration. Belief in God, as we said in one of our former conferences, necessarily implies belief in God's almighty power. He is the supreme and absolute Master of all the works of His hands, and possesses an unquestionable right to their dutiful service. But in His super-abounding goodness, He has bestowed on man the power of free-will, enabling him to give or to refuse this service as he chooses, and a deliberate refusal on the part of man is what we call sin. Sin is, therefore, literally and truly war between the creature and the Almighty Creator, but it is a war which can have only one possible result. The final victory must lie with God.
Of course, there is the victory of grace, which means the absolute submission and repentance of the sinner, but we must put that aside for the present. Our argument here supposes deliberate rebellion, deliberately and willfully and obstinately persevered in until the last. That such folly is possible is necessarily implied by the possession of free will, and it equally implies as a logical consequence the possibility of eternal banishment from God. History records the despairing cry of Julian the Apostate as he fell in battle: "Galilean! Thou hast conquered!" But were there no eternal Hell, he might have hurled a last defiance at his Maker, and then endured with patience all the torments which the Galilean could inflict, triumphing in the consciousness that one day they would end, and that, in reality, he would he the final conqueror.
|St. Thomas Aquinas|
We might almost venture, therefore, to define Hell as the state of mortal sin, made eternal and indelible by the sinner's own deliberate act, and fully realized by him. Father de Ravignan writes:
God has no need of changing anything in the state of the sinner's soul in order to punish him. He abandons him to his sin, and in that the reprobate finds his everlasting Hell.
It is a thought the importance of which cannot be over-estimated. We are so apt to appeal to our imagination in this matter instead of to our reason, and so we imagine eternal punishment as a sort of unending penal servitude, a terrible expiation exacted by vindictive justice for crimes over and gone long ago, when in reality it is nothing of the kind. It is rather the perpetual accompaniment of the conscious malice of deliberate rebellion, eternally persisted in, and eternally realized as hopeless and unreasonable. An old legend represents the devil as reproaching God with never having offered him a chance of repentance after his fall, and there is a world of truth in God's reply, legend only though it be: "Have you ever asked for it?" So also with the reprobate soul. Bishop Hedley, speaking of a soul in Hell, writes:
It is not God who is angry; it is the sinner who places a barrier between himself and that Being who alone is his happiness. The sinner, therefore, damns himself. A soul in mortal sin only requires the dissolution of its mortal frame to be by that very fact in Hell.
It might perhaps be objected that it is very hard to understand how the mere fact of death, "the dissolution of this mortal frame," can effect that tremendous difference which the Catholic faith supposes to exist between the comparative happiness of a sinful life on earth, and the misery of life in hell; and the difficulty is not unreasonable, though a very little thought should be able to explain it.
|Cardinal John Henry Newman|
Perhaps you will tell me that, after death, you will cease to be. I don't believe you think so. I may take for granted that you think with me, and with the multitude of men, that you will still live and that you will still be you. You will still be the same being, but deprived of those outward stays and reliefs and solaces which, such as they are, you now enjoy. You will be yourself shut up in yourself. If, then, on passing hence, you are cut off from what you had here, and have only the company of yourself, I think your burden will be so far greater, not less, than it is now. Suppose, for instance, you had still your love of conversing, and could not converse; your love of the poets of your race, and no means of recalling them; your love of music, and no instrument to play upon; your love of knowledge, and nothing to learn; your desire of sympathy, and no one to love; would not that be still greater misery? Let me proceed a step further. Supposing you were among those you actually did not love; supposing you did not like them, nor their occupations, and could not understand their aims; suppose there be, as Christians say, one Almighty God, and you did not like Him, and had no taste for thinking of Him, and no interest in what He was and what He did; and supposing you found that there was nothing else anywhere but He, whom you did not love and whom you wished away, would you not be still more wretched? And if this went on for ever, would you not be in great inexpressible pain for ever? Assuming then, first, that the soul ever needs external objects to rest upon; next, that it has no prospect of any such when it leaves this visible scene; and thirdly, that the hunger and thirst, the gnawing of the heart, where it occurs, is as keen and piercing as a flame; it will follow there is nothing irrational in the notion of an external Tartarus.
Nothing irrational! The unreasonableness is surely on the side of those who refuse to realize this, and who vainly try to silence the understanding by the murmurs of an unregulated imagination and the protestations of a sickly sentimentalism. To Catholics, at all events, the existence of a place of eternal punishment is a dogma of faith, and we profess our sincere belief in it in the concluding words of the Athanasian Creed:
They that have done good shall go into everlasting life, but they that have done evil into everlasting punishment.
Having seen, therefore, how reason and faith are united in obliging us to admit this stern truth, the existence of a place of punishment which we call Hell, set apart for souls who persist in rebellion against God, and who, therefore, die in a state of grievous sin, we may now look at the subject more closely and endeavor to gather from the teaching of our faith some idea of the nature of eternal punishment. The genius of Dante sums it all up in that terrible inscription which his imagination saw emblazoned on the gates of Hell:
Through me you pass into the city of woe,
Through me you pass into eternal pain,
Through me among the people lost for aye.
Justice the Founder of my fabric moved,
To rear me was the task of power divine,
Supremest wisdom and primaeval love.
Before me things create were none, save things eternal,
And eternal I endure!
All hope abandon, ye who enter here!
|The Gates of Hell|
Auguste Rodin (1840-1917)
But we have no need of poets, even though they be as great and as truly theological as Dante, to help us to put in words the nature of eternal punishment. From the many pages in Holy Writ, in which this truth is plainly put before us, we need only turn to one, in which our blessed Lord Himself describes the day of judgment, and with His own sacred lips formulates the final sentence which He will pass upon the souls of the reprobate:
Depart from Me, accursed, into everlasting fire. (Matthew 25:41)
We need no more. These dread words of God Incarnate sum up briefly but most clearly all that we want to know. Let us do our best then to realize something of their meaning.
St. Thomas writes:
All punishment must be proportionate to the offence or sin for which it is inflicted. But in every sin we may distinguish two acts of the will, inasmuch as by sin, the soul first of all turns away from God, the unchanging, infinite Good, and in this respect is guilty of an infinite offence, and then, in the second place, chooses in place of God some transitory pleasure, an act which is finite in every way. The rejection of God is punished by the loss of God, which may be truly called infinite, since it is the deprivation of an infinite good, and the unlawful preference of the creature is expiated by the finite pain of sense.
Our Blessed Lord expresses this double penalty in the words of His dread sentence: "Depart from Me, into everlasting fire": the pain of loss, and the pain of sense.
The pain of loss! We have already tried to show the origin and cause of this suffering, but a little repetition may help us to see it more clearly. Almighty God has created us for Himself, bestowing upon us a spiritual nature, which implies an instinctive longing for Him, and for the happiness which can only come by seeing Him face to face and possessing Him. During the time of this life of probation, He hides Himself behind a veil, and asks us to give Him our free service, seeing Him only by faith, possessing Him by hope and love. But when death comes, the veil is drawn aside. The time of probation is over. The soul understands perfectly that God is her last end, and she longs for Him and desires to possess Him because the possession of Him is perfect happiness. But, as we have already said, if she be in the state of grievous sin, the love of God, which is the principal and only means of union with Him, is altogether absent; it has been willfully destroyed. The soul sees, therefore, that she never can possess God, that she has lost Him for ever, and the realization of that loss is Hell. The possession of God is eternal happiness, the loss of God is eternal misery; and when those awful words, "Depart from Me," ring through the silence of eternity, they are to the lost soul the revelation of its hopeless fate. God is light, infinite light, uncreated light. In its mortal life the soul has enjoyed the possession of this light to a greater or less degree; now she has approached the unfailing source of it all, only to see it disappear for ever, and to feel herself plunging into an intellectual darkness that will last for ever.
And love has gone, too! Light is the food of the understanding, and love is the food of the will, and God is light, and God is love, for He is the one object of the mind and the heart; we mean nothing else when we say that He is our last end. He Himself is the eternal home of all the souls whom He calls out of nothingness, for He made them for Himself, and, therefore, during the time of their probation in this world, His voice is ever calling them: "My son, give Me thy heart"; "I am thy reward, exceeding great"; but this gracious voice no longer speaks to the reprobate. They chose their own way, they lived for themselves and not for Him, they made their home on earth and in the things of this world, only to realize too late that it has all passed like a dream, and that their heavenly home is closed against them; and with a mind crushed down by darkness, and a will broken by the greatness of its misery, though still rebellious and unrepentant, the lost soul enters on its everlasting exile.
Perhaps we might as well confess at once that we cannot put in words the exceeding horror of the loss of God, because we do not appreciate Him as we ought, nor do we understand His infinite beauty and attractiveness. What a power there is in the beauty and loveliness and attractiveness of earthly things! The wanderer in a foreign land thinks of his own home and country, and because the beauty of it haunts his memory all else grows dull by comparison. The artist lives apart in a world of beauty of his own, a world of ideals it may be, and yet so real a world to him that the ordinary things of earth can hardly win a passing thought from him; and our own hearts too, do they not clothe with beauty everything to which they cling, and faces that have long since passed away still linger on unfaded in our hearts, because of the beauty which is theirs, a beauty none the less real to us because, perhaps, our own creation. Yet the beautiful as existing in the world around us, or as seen by the mind and the heart, is after all but a participation, and a feeble participation, of the unspeakable beauty of God. What then would be its power upon the soul? What the agony of its loss?
It may seem well-nigh useless to speak of the pain of sense, seeing that it must be insignificant when compared with pain which in itself is infinite and eternal; but if, as we have said, the pain of loss would seem to be beyond our understanding because of its greatness and its purely spiritual nature, the pain of sense on the other hand appeals to us with a special force for the very opposite reason. Hence this secondary punishment, and all the suffering which it involves, is frequently put before us by the Holy Scripture in the most vivid language, and is usually expressed by the one term "fire."
Depart from Me, into everlasting fire.
With regard to the nature of this fire, the Church has defined nothing; we are free to follow our own opinion. In the ages of faith, the common Catholic teaching maintained that the fire of hell was a real material fire, but since it is the fashion now-a-days to look askance at the theories of these old-fashioned teachers, and even to reject them as impossible in the light of our superior education, we may devote a moment to the examination of their explanations of this difficulty. It may be, after all, that they are not so foolish or unreasonable as we are tempted to think. St. Thomas shall be their spokesman; he, at least, is never foolish or unreasonable, even when cross-examined by a nineteenth-century intellect, and here as elsewhere there is a weight and grandeur in the arguments of the Angelic Doctor which must win our admiration, even if they fail to win our full assent.
Great as St. Thomas was, or rather because he was so great, he had a child-like reverence for the words of Jesus Christ and His inspired servants, and, therefore, all his efforts go to show how the words of Holy Writ can reasonably bear a literal sense, instead of weakly yielding to the clamors of an empty so-called science, and endeavoring to explain them all away. St. Thomas teaches, therefore, that the spiritual immaterial souls really suffer from the fire of which God's word so often speaks, because it is made the instrument of divine justice, and as such binds them down and holds them fast within its fiery grasp, a penalty so utterly repugnant to their spiritual nature and its natural rights and dignity, as to cause the keenest anguish. For it is unnatural, as he says, that a spiritual being should be so imprisoned in anything material as to be cut off from all enjoyment of its natural freedom, and the torment of the penal fire is due to this power of imprisoning the soul, a power conferred on it by God as the instrument of His justice.
But whatever opinion we may hold as to the nature of the fire, it is surely sufficient for us that our Blessed Lord, who could not and would not exaggerate, repeatedly alludes to it as a very terrible suffering; and yet, after all, as a spiritual writer well says, once we put aside the thought of the loss of God, we are speaking of Hell with the hell left out; so we may pass on to consider one or two of the many objections put forward with such assurance by modern "thinkers."
The objections themselves are not modern. St. Thomas discussed them and replied to them more than six centuries ago, but they reappear from time to time in a new garb and with a fresh flourish of trumpets, as though they were the special intellectual product of each particular age. They are based, as indeed are all objections against revealed truth, on a more or less voluntary misconception and misstatement of the dogma they assail, and though the manner of attack may differ, its groundwork is ever the same. They protest against the doctrine of eternal punishment because they consider it to be altogether repugnant to God's justice and God's love. It is repugnant, they say, to God's justice. St. Thomas thus formulates their objection:
No sin can deserve eternal punishment, because there must be some proportion between the punishment and the offence for which it is inflicted. But what proportion is there between the act of a moment and an eternal hell?
The Angelic Doctor, in reply, points out first of all that this argument, taken literally, would be fatal to all justice, human and divine, for we constantly see crimes that were committed in a moment punished by years of imprisonment, or even death, which is the human equivalent of eternal punishment; the obvious explanation being that the proportion between the crime and its punishment is never based on the duration of the act, but on its malice and gravity. It is quite true that, at first sight, there seems to be a terrible disproportion between the momentary act of sin and eternal reprobation, but we have to take into account what that momentary act involves. It is not easy, and indeed it would be presumptuous to judge of individual acts that come under our notice, but looking at the matter in the abstract, and taking mortal sin to be what we have explained it to be, the willful, deliberate, eternal rejection of God, we are bound to admit that it deserves an eternal Hell. For the soul that consents to such an act does so with full knowledge of the consequences. It is not taken by surprise; it has every chance. It has been sealed with the image of God, redeemed by the blood of Christ, crowned with the most wonderful gifts and graces, and yet it deliberately refuses to listen to the dictates of its own reason, it defaces and destroys as far as it can the beauty of the divine likeness, it willfully abuses and flings away its graces and its gifts, it tramples under foot the blood of its Savior, and then, rebellious to the last, it passes out of this world. It has literally chosen sin for its last end, and therefore, as St. Thomas says, it has the will to sin eternally.
But, it might be urged, may it not repent after death? Even Holy Scripture seems to imply this when it represents sinners in Hell, "repenting and groaning for anguish of spirit," and saying:
We have erred from the way of truth, and the light of justice hath not shined unto us, and the sun of understanding hath not risen upon us. We wearied ourselves in the way of iniquity and destruction, and have walked through hard ways, but the ways of the Lord we have not known. (Wisdom 5:3; 6-7)
|Dante and Virgil in Hell|
William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905)
Is not this something very like repentance, and if so, is it altogether useless? It most certainly is useless, for the simple reason that the time for repentance has passed away. God has given us the day of this life as the time of merit, and He bids us "work whilst we have the day, because the night cometh when no man can work." If He had promised us a second chance in eternity, how should we employ the time of this life? If so many lead careless and wicked lives now, what would it be like under such conditions? Common sense obliges us to see the reasonableness of a fixed time of probation, to be followed by just rewards and punishments. But, after all, is this "repenting and groaning for anguish of spirit," which Holy Writ attributes to the reprobate,true and sincere repentance? Is it repentance at all? According to St. Thomas, repentance or contrition implies a sorrow of heart which is based on the love of God, inspired therefore by His grace, and meritorious in His sight. But it is manifest from what we have said that however real the grief of the reprobate may be, it is certainly not prompted by the love of God. The free will of the reprobate soul is turned away from God, seeing that he loves the wickedness for which he is punished, and would indulge in it again if he could, though he hates the punishment which is its consequence. His grief, therefore, is based on the hatred of punishment rather than on the hatred of sin. And in another place the Angelic Doctor says:
The repentance of the lost is useless, because their wills are confirmed in wickedness. They have no regret what ever for the malice of sin, but only for the punishment it has entailed; and hence, instead of suggesting any hope of forgiveness, their grief only fills them with despair.
Evidently, then, God's justice is not at fault, and so an appeal is made to His love as an argument against eternal punishment; but this objection is even more unreasonable. It is precisely because God is infinite love that there is such a place as an eternal Hell. To quote Dante once more:
To rear me was the task of Power Divine,
Supremest Wisdom, and Primeval Love.
Notice the words "primeval love" - primo amore. Not love such as we know it, full of countless imperfections even at its best; but primo amore - the first, the best, the most perfect, most patient, most generous love: love, in fine, which is infinite and eternal, and when such a love is willfully, deliberately and persistently rejected, and rejected with contempt, it is at last withdrawn, and its absence creates an eternal Hell.
The dogma of everlasting punishment is a standing rebuke to man's self-worship. It is a perpetual reminder of his littleness, his ignorance and his dependence on God, and that is why it is such a stumbling block in the way of those whose only creed seems to be the exaltation of self, the glorification of fallen humanity. It is not that they cannot believe it, the evidence for it is too convincing; but they will not, and no amount of evidence can overcome that obstacle. Our Lord Himself has said it, and as a fitting conclusion we may listen to His words:
There was a certain rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen, and who feasted sumptuously every day. And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, who lay at his gate, full of sores, desiring to be filled with the crumbs that fell from the rich man's table. But no man gave unto him; moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. And it came to pass that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom; the rich man also died, and he was buried in Hell. And lifting up his eyes when he was in torments, he saw Abraham afar off and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried and said: "Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water to cool my tongue, for I am tormented in this flame." And Abraham said to him: "Son, remember that thou didst receive good things in thy life-time, and Lazarus evil things, but now he is comforted and thou art tormented. And besides all this, between us and you there is fixed a great abyss, so that they who would pass from hence to you cannot, nor from thence come hither." And he said: "Then, father, I beseech thee that thou wouldst send him to my father's house, for I have five brethren, that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torments." And Abraham said to him: "They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them." But he said: "Nay, father, but if one went to them from the dead they will do penance." And he said to him: "If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they believe if one rise again from the dead." (Luke 16)