The worst possible tragedy for the human being is to be deprived of the fullness of life for which it is destined, and for which Our Lord came into this world. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly (Jn. 10:10). The hard reality of this complete separation was on many occasions taught by Our Blessed Lord. Although we can be sure that He did so with an intensity of sadness and disappointment we could never possibly fathom, He did, nonetheless, speak of it.
Current trends in teaching and preaching that avoid the subject of eternal separation from God fail to communicate a hard teaching that Our Lord Himself was not willing to bypass. The frankness of Jesusís words about hell should be incentive enough for any Christian to witness to this disturbing reality. Below we will explore the meaning of those numerous occasions when Jesus addressed the terrifying fate of those who choose a path that leads away from God and His kingdom.
The words of Our Lord in the Gospels on eternal punishment always imply human responsibility. Those to whom He directs warnings about hell possess the ability to enter eternal life, just as much as they do eternal death. As there is no established course of a personís life that results necessarily in hell, so there is no absolute determination to heaven. Peopleís exercise of the gift of free will given by God is what establishes the outcome of their eternity.
What is at stake in the possibility of hell is the full reality of human freedom. Godís gift of free will was not limited to just choices of what to prepare for dinner, what occupation to take up in life, or what city and what kind of house to reside in. Our freedom touches every aspect of our lives in this world, including the decision to accept or reject the existence of God and His offer of eternal salvation. In fact, in embracing God the human will rises to its greatest possible achievement, and in denying Him ends in its worst possible failure.
Indeed, the acceptance of God is the primary choice we are to make while in this world. This decision is the reason why we are here. Time after time in our lives, God comes to us with the offer of an eternal and exalted existence with Him in heaven, and asks us to make the choices that lead to everlasting union with Him.
Practically speaking this call to choose God comes in the form of His commandments. In choosing to follow them or to reject them we have the daily choice of heaven or hell. As Moses tells the people after giving them a final exhortation on Godís Law:
Once our life in this world has ended, at the moment of death our wills have been formed to either accept God or reject Him. God gives us what we choose. In terms of our understanding of mortal sin, which is a complete rejection of God in this life, bringing about spiritual death in the soul, there is the great need to have true repentance before the end of our earthly life. In fact, the essential definition the Church gives to hell is stated in terms of unrepented mortal sin. This is the fundamental danger the human being must be aware of: The souls of those who die in the condition of personal grievous sin enter hell (L. Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma 479).
As we have seen in the first article of this series on the Four Last Things, Our Blessed Lord is repeatedly attempting to draw souls out of a condition of mortal sin up to the very instant of their departure from this world. The words of Jesus to the twentieth century mystic St. Faustina were: Then [just before the soul departs this life] the mercy of God begins to exert itself, and without any cooperation from the soul, God grants it final grace (Diary 1486). Our Lord, in His infinite love for men, longs for souls to enter into eternal life. This is what He created them for, and this stirs Him to do all that is possible to bring the wayward soul to conversion.
But "all that is possible" does not include forcing the human person to accept Him. If the individual stubbornly refuses that final grace God sends, He will leave the soul in this freely willed state of rejection.
What is apparent from theology and the writings of the saints is that souls that enter hell are not somehow neglected ones, who fall into mortal sin through human weakness, and become helpless and unable to turn back to God. They are not unfortunate ones who, through tragic circumstances, find themselves in serious sin, and enter hell by default rather than by actively rejecting God. Rather the faith is clear: people enter hell because they choose it. When given the option of submitting to God and His commandments, or living separately from Him so as escape any submission to His holy will, they actively and insistently choose separation.
But in saying this, we should not be mislead. A person who conducts his life in a careless and sinful way may not think he is making an "active and insistent" choice for separation from God. Then God will come to him at the moment of death and he may be surprised to find how hardened his will has become to Him. Neglectfully sinful lives here in this world lead to hardened and cold responses to the Divine Will as death approaches. In such a life there can well be a blindness to the need of repentance, and very possibly the rejection of final grace - the last resort for the wayward soul.
Once that choice against union with God has been made, we can then understand the scriptural passages that speak of Godís sending the soul to punishment. Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. . . (Mt. 25:41). He sends them because they desire to be sent. He executes a judgment on them that they have chosen for themselves. It certainly has not been imposed on them from without, but corresponds with a judgment that has arisen by necessity from their own internal dispositions. No one who believes in [the Son] will be judged; but whoever does not believe is judged already, because that person does not believe in the Name of Godís only Son. And the judgement is this: though the light has come into the world people have preferred darkness to the light because their deeds were evil (Jn. 3:18-19).
Various images Our Blessed Lord uses in the Gospels touch on the horrible reality the soul enters that chooses separation. He warns of the terrifying rejection the rebellious souls will hear: Lord, Lord open to us. But answering he will reply, Truly I say to you, I do not know you (Mt. 25:11-12). He speaks of an utter and terrifying darkness where men will weep and gnash their teeth (Mt. 22:13). This is the horrible state of separation from the source of all goodness. The soul is completely goodness starved. No loving human companionship is possible, for all charity is gone. Beauty is nowhere to be found, for there is no beauty apart from God. Any delight of soul or body, any warmth and brightness of light, anything that can be considered a fulfillment of the personís longings is an impossibility, for the one and only font from which all these things flow has been spurned.
This Our Lord was expressing so well in the parable of the wedding banquet in the Gospel of Matthew (22:1-14). There he presents a king preparing a wedding banquet for his son. When the invitation is sent out, those invited make light of it and go about their business. So the king invites anyone from the highways and byways who wishes to come. The wedding hall is filled with guests. But one man comes not appropriately attired in a wedding garment. He is ordered by the king to be thrown out into the darkness where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth. Deprived of the joys of the feast, of being in the presence of the king, of enjoying the banquet table, of delighting in human companionship, the offender is left with nothing but his despair at losing all these goods.
Here is the soul in hell. So much joy and delight was his for the taking. He had been invited to share in the feast. It is not as if he was excluded and never given the possibility of joining the celebration. But refusing to prepare himself with the expected wedding garment - symbolic of putting on the commandments of God, the Gospel of Christ, and the supernatural life of grace - he is cast out. Then in the darkness outside, he realizes all that he has lost. He is filled with envy at those inside experiencing the great joy of the feast. All this sends him into the worst despair and hatred.
This is what theologians have called the pain of loss of those in hell. They have excluded themselves from communion with God and the saints, an exclusion that took place, St. Thomas relates, through mortal sin: according to Divine justice, sin renders a person worthy to be altogether cut off from the fellowship of Godís city, and this is the effect of every sin committed against charity, which is the bond uniting this same city together. Consequently, for mortal sin which is contrary to charity a person is expelled forever from the fellowship of the saints and condemned to everlasting punishment (Suppl. 99, 1).
At root, hell is the destiny of those who die without charity. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him (1 Jn. 4:16). Where there is no charity there can be no union with God. One does not have the where-with-all for union to take place. There is simply no basis for complete oneness with God other than charity.
St. Thomas goes through a number of opinions mistakenly maintaining the repentance and return to God of those in hell. In one erroneous position, Godís mercy would at some point forgive both men and angels and, after some time in hell, bring the condemned into eternal life. In another false proposition, Christians will eventually be brought from hell to eternal life because they died believing in Christ, although they failed to truly love God and neighbor. And finally, he examines those who did works of mercy in this life and yet had also rebelled against God through serious sin. His response? In the negative. There is no getting around the vacuum left in their lives with regard to charity: Without charity nothing can be acceptable to God, nor does anything profit unto eternal life in the absence of charity (Suppl. 99, 5).
Ultimately, then, it is not God's patience, nor the faith of the Christian, nor even humanitarian works that lead to eternal life. Only charity present in a man's will. If that is alive in the soul at the end of this earthly life, even the slightest trace, God leads it to union. If charity is non-existent at death, there can be only one result - eternal separation.
Again, we find the truth expressed in a nutshell in the Churchís dogmatic formulation: The souls of those who die in the condition of personal grievous sin [i.e., in whom charity no longer exists] enter hell. The wonderful words of St. Paul on the importance of charity reflect this as well: If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing (1 Cor. 13:1-3).
For the human person, in whom God placed longings that could never be fully satisfied apart from union with Him, this, in effect, is the complete devastation of his being. Nothing could be worse for him than to be eternally deprived of the object of his longing, the one for whom his whole being craves. Those in hell know they are made for God. They can clearly see that they could have been united with Him had their choices in life been different. Yet they will never have Him.
Do they wish for the reversal of their fate and the opportunity for union with God? Only as an alleviation of their sufferings, says the Angelic Doctor: The damned will wickedness, but shun punishment: and thus indirectly repent of wickedness committed (Suppl. 98, 2, ad 1). They are not persons who love God. Heaven, as the abode of all goodness, is repulsive to them. They are thoroughly locked into evil.
The pain of loss, then, is the punishment that goes deepest for those in hell. It cuts to the core of their being. But with the resurrection of the body there will be another dimension to their suffering. Suffering enters the physical realm of the person, called the pain of sense. St. Thomas, following St. Augustine and St. Gregory the Great, says that the references in Holy Scripture to a fire punishing the condemned speak of this mystery. As no person is complete without the body, so no punishment would be addressing the whole of human nature without effecting the person in a bodily way, by a physical fire of sorts (Suppl. 97, 5). This fire, dark and lacking that characteristic of light which is of divine origin and not found in hell, will bring about in the resurrected bodies of the condemned a suffering that will never cease.
Such are the consequences of rejecting the source of all goodness. It leaves the person with the complete deprivation of anything that can bring comfort and rest. On the spiritual level there is the pain of separation from ultimate goodness and resulting despair that Our Lord described as weeping and gnashing of teeth (Lk 13:28). On the physical level there is unbearable and unquenchable fire (Mt 18:8).
It is one thing to reflect abstractly about the reality of hell. It is another thing to consider it as a possible outcome for my life. Morbid, unhealthy preoccupation with the pains of the damned is not what we are after. Yet to pretend that hell could never be our future is a foolish denial of the nature of human freedom. It most assuredly can be our future if we do not embrace Jesus as our hope and our salvation by practicing His holy Gospel.
Jesus Himself, Who as God is the origin of human freedom, has been clear about the potential fate for all who depart from Him. He calls out to them not to go down that path; a call, in fact, that is the origin of our Catholic teaching on hell: If a man does not abide in Me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned. . .(Jn. 15:6).
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