Note: These are my personal reflections on the nature of hell. They are rooted in Catholic teaching on the subject, and (as far as I know) do not contradict it; but not all of them are definitive Church teachings. Mother Church has not defined the minute details of what hell is like, so she gives her children some freedom of personal opinion on those details. For Mother Church's official teachings on hell (which I believe), read the Cathechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 633, 1033-1037, and 1861.
Hell is a rather controversial topic. Many modern theologians reject it as primitive superstition, yet polls (for what they're worth!) seem to show that many lay people still believe in it.
So I've decided to post some of my reflections on the nature of hell. But don't expect an old-time "hell-fire and brimstone" message with heavy doses of Dante's Inferno or Jonathan Edward's Sinner's in the Hands of an Angry God. Such sensationalist portrayals of damned souls in boiling pitch or sinners hanging over the flames of hell like spiders on thin filaments have practically no basis in Scripture - even in a hyper-literal reading of it! The only Scriptural thing about them is the mention of fire (more on that later); the rest of the colorful torments come from someone's overactive imagination.
Gory images of a subterranean torture-chamber for God's enemies also turn a lot of people off to God. A Deity who would "damn" people to an eternity of physical torment does not seem too "loving" at first.
Yet the God who speaks of hell in Scripture is indeed Love. This article will, among other things, explore how Hell squares with Divine Love.
As we begin this exploration, I ask that you set aside your past notions of hell for the moment. This is especially important if those notions involve an angry God, pitchforks, and people's eyes dissolving in their sockets. Anything you may have learned from an overzealous Sunday School teacher or horror movie, please try to forget for the time being. Then we will be able to look at the topic in a new way.
What is Hell
Hell is alienation from God which people impose on themselves by their own free will. God never unjustly imposes it on anyone; all who end up in hell do so by choice in one way or another.
How do they choose hell? by choosing not to love God. Frank Sheed, a Catholic theologian, once wrote that we should "Approach (hell) as a profound mystery - the mystery not of God's cruelty but of man's power to hate God" (1). Some people, for one reason or another, do hate God. I have met such people, and perhaps you have too. They may have many different reasons for their hatred; some may have been taught or otherwise acquired a false concept of God, in which case they really hate a lie, an illusion, and not the God of truth. Such people we should commend to the mercy of the One who knows all hearts.
But there are many other possible motives for hating God. To quote Sheed again:
Sin begins with a preverted love of self. But love of self can grow monstrous, a sort of idolization of self, crowding out the love of all else and capable of turning into hatred of God. That may occur in this life or at death; to self-love grown monstrous God will seem hateful once he is seen as the rival to the adored self (2).If such rivalry develops it could create a true animosity toward the Creator, not based on a misunderstanding of God's Nature but on the difficulty of His demands: die to self, take up your cross, put others first, etc. This animosity will alienate one from God and, if persevered in till death, can lead to a permanent alienation from God after death.
So hell is simply a continuation after death of the alienation from God which one experiences in life. If one chooses to have nothing to do with ones Creator, He will respect that choice and allow one to have nothing to do with Him eternally.
This is not cruelty on God's part; in fact, it may be a kindness. If we hate someone, we would hate being forced to be with him or her. Those who hate God would probably not be happy if forced to spend eternity with Him. God will not impose the Beatific Vision on them against their will. Rather than forcing Heaven on them, God allows them to embrace hell.
That is how I understand "damnation". God isn't tossing poor, unwilling victims into a humungous furnace, He's simply allowing free moral agents their final wish - an eternity bereft of the Beatific Vision.
Biblical Images of Hell
The most well-known image associated with hell is fire, so I will skip over that one for the moment. Right now, I'd like to focus on two less familiar - yet very telling - biblical images of hell: the outer darkness (Matthew 8:12; 22:13; 25:30) and the abyss or bottomless pit (Revelations 9:1-2, 11).
I find these two images intriguing because they describe very well the nature of evil. As we saw in God and Creation, sin is an void, an existential tear in creation. We actually experience this void within ourselves in the form of an inner "black hole"; a dark, terrifying abyss in the soul. We usually encounter it when alone, perhaps at night as we lie awake in bed, or perhaps it startles us in the midst of our lives - with friends or at a party - when suddenly it presents itself before us (quite unwelcome!), silently screaming for our attention. This inner darkness has to be one of the most unpleasant things we ever experience in our lives.
What is this darkness, this inner emptiness? It is what Mother Church calls original sin.
Original sin may not be a very popular concept nowadays (mainly because it is widely misunderstood). Yet Reinhold Niebuhr once said that original sin is the only Christian doctrine which can be empirically verified. Now, I don't agree that it's the only one we can verify, but it certainly is universally obvious and verifiable. Every history book and every newspaper in the world contains ample proof of human sin and failure which result from original sin, and we each experience the mystery of original sin in ourselves in the form of the "inner void".
As discussed in Grace and the Catholic View of Salvation, original sin is the lack of grace in the soul. It is not the guilt of a sin committed before birth, since babies cannot commit sin (Romans 9:11). Nor is it the guilt of a sin committed by our father or mother, for God does not hold us personally responsible for our parent's sins (Ezekiel 18:1-4). We are not even personally responsible for the sin of Adam. Original sin is the inherited result (not guilt!) for the first human sin (Genesis 3:6).
God created our first parents in a "state of grace"; that is, their souls were filled with divine life. When they disobeyed God they "evicted" Him (so to speak) from their souls and lost the sanctifying grace God had given them. This left an immense emptiness where grace once was - the inner void. Having foreited grace, they could not pass it on to their children, as God had intended. As a result, their descendents are born with empty souls, bereft of the life of God. This is known as the "state of original sin".
So original sin is essentially a lack, an emptiness, a void within the soul where grace should be. It is the frightening "black hole" we all experience - which our first parents first experienced after the Fall.
So why does Scripture refer to hell as "darkness" and an "abyss"? Many people go through their whole lives with the dark, terrifying abyss of original sin within them. They spend a lot of time either ignoring it or trying to fill it with all sorts of pleasures - alcohol, drugs, promiscuity, parties, material possessions, etc. Yet nothing can fill this seemingly infinite cavern; everything they toss in it gets sucked down into the void, leaving the black hole just as empty after as before.
The soul who dies bearing this emptiness within "collapses in" on itself, so to speak. Like a star collapsing into a black hole, the soul falls into its own emptiness. The existential void of sin consumes its whole being, immersing the soul in its own darkness, emptiness, despair...
...But that's not the good news.
The Good News is that God has not resigned the human race to that horrible fate. Jesus and Ecclesia (the Church) are the new Parents of a new humanity; they can impart grace to the children of Adam. Baptism is a new birth, in which we receive spiritual life from our Father Jesus and Mother Church. The Holy Spirit infuses our souls with grace so that we are no longer empty (3). This is how Baptism "removes original sin"; original sin is a void which Baptism fills with grace. God's grace is the only thing which can fill the "black hole within".
So what is the significance of "fire" as a symbol of hell? Fire obviously express torment, destruction, perhaps the purification of the cosmos from the polluting effects of evil. But is the fire of hell more than a symbol? Timothy Ware, a Orthodox bishop, explains the flames of hell as follows:
Even in Hell the wicked are not deprived of the love of God, but by their own choice they experience as suffering what the saints experience as joy. "The love of God will be an intolerable torment for those who have not acquired it within themselves." (4)You see, hell is alienation from God, not spatial separation from Him! No creature could be separated from the Omnipresent (Psalm 139:7-8). If God is everywhere, then God is also present in hell (not as saving Grace, of course, but as Holiness and Justice).
To souls eternally alienated from loving communion with the Lord, the Divine Presence is no comfort. Only those filled with grace, who behold the Beatific Vision in Heaven, can enjoy the Consuming Fire of Divine Love. To the lost, this Holy Fire would be torment, for they are immersed in their own selfishness and so unable and unwilling to return their Creator's love for them. This is one possible understanding of the fires of hell.
So the lost are in a pretty sad state; they could never be happy in heaven but are still not happy in hell. Perhaps this is why the Bible says "There is no peace, says my God, for the wicked" (Isaiah 57:20).
My final thought on this topic is that God does not like hell. God made us to share in His life, and hell is for those who flatly refuse to be divinized, who will never realize God's perfect will for them. How could God possibly like such a thing? That is why God went through so much trouble to redeem us; so that no one would have to suffer that fate.
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