The Punishments of Hell
First—The Loss of God
Although the generality of people imagine that the fire which torments the wicked is the greatest of the pains of hell, yet it is not so. By far the most excruciating torment of all, and by far the most intolerable, is the privation of the Beatific Vision, and the thought of being deprived of it for ever. Hence it is put first by Our Lord in the sentence to be pronounced at the Last Judgment: “Depart from Me.” In this life we cannot realise how the pain of loss constitutes the chief torment of hell, how, in fact, it makes hell to be hell. To understand it in some measure at least, we know that the soul was created for God, created to enjoy God, that God alone can fully satisfy its yearning for happiness. St. Augustine has said: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee, 0 God.” Though it does not seem correct to say that the condemned soul at judgment will see God for a moment, yet some flash of light must pierce the darkened mind, revealing to it the infinite Beauty and Goodness of God. Then will the soul rush forward with an irresistible and over- whelming impulse towards that God for Whom it was created. Astronomers tell us that a meteor, by virtue of the law of gravity, rushes towards the earth at the rate of over thirty miles a second. In like manner, will the soul feel itself drawn impetuously to God with all the vehemence and energy of its nature. But who can describe the wild and fierce anguish of the sinner as he feels himself inexorably held back by an Omnipotent hand, pitilessly held down by the guilt of his sins. How he will struggle in an agony of suffocation, when he realises that between himself and God there is fixed a chasm which he can never pass, when the terrible words, “Depart from Me,” will re-echo in his soul for all eternity. Hell, then, essentially means the loss of God. The loss of God, said St. Augustine, is as great as God Himself.
Second—The Fire of Hell
Although, as we have said, the loss of God is incomparably the greatest of the torments of hell, yet it was the pain of fire that Our Lord invariably stressed. Ardently desiring the salvation of all, He wished to inspire horror into the hearts of men, of the dreadful torments awaiting the wicked after death. He would, as St. Bernard says, save us from hell through hell itself. It was the love of the Sacred Heart that urged Him to this, so that a lively fear of the dread abyss of fire might be a powerful motive to avoid sin, to walk in the way of the Commandments, and so enter into the joys of heaven. This was the reason of the oft-repeated warning of the Gospel—of the unquenchable fire, the worm that dieth not, the outer darkness, the weeping and gnashing of teeth. How different the reaction of the modern world to the doctrine of the fire of hell! The following from a popular writer may be taken as the mentality of non-Catholics in this respect: “The whole conception is wicked, shocking and monstrous. Is it conceivable that Jesus could have taught such a doctrine?" It is evidently neither wicked nor shocking to contradict the plain and emphatic language of Our Saviour in the Gospels.
With regard to the nature of the fire of hell, it is certain that it is real, material, corporeal fire. This is the unanimous teaching of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. The language of the Scriptures leaves no room whatever for figure or metaphor here. It is sufficient to recall the words of the sentence to be pronounced on the wicked: “Depart from Me into everlasting fire, which was prepared for the devil and his angels.” Here is a fire specially created, specially prepared—an external agent, outside of, and different from, its victim, and the cause of his sufferings. We need only add here what is said in the Apocalypse: “Whosoever was not found written in the book of life, was cast into the pool of fire (the pool burning with fire and brimstone).” (Apoc. xx, 15.) If a Catholic refused to admit the reality of the fire of hell, holding that it was merely a metaphorical expression for some internal, mental anguish, he could not be accused of formal heresy, as the Church has not given any solemn definition on the question; but he would be certainly guilty of grave sin against the Faith. In April, 1890, the Sacred Penitentiary at Rome was asked whether a penitent who declared to his confessor, that, in his opinion, the term “hell fire” was only a metaphor to express the internal pains of the wicked, might be allowed to hold such an opinion, and be absolved. The answer was as follows: “Such penitents must be diligently instructed, and, if pertinacious, must not be absolved.”
Because the fire of hell is true material fire, we must not conclude that it is identical with the fire of this earth. Whatever points of resemblance there may be between them, there are certainly many differences. The one is prepared by God as the instrument of His Justice, the other comes from God as the Author of Nature. Unlike the fire of earth, the fire of hell burns but does not consume. The fire of this world acts on matter only, the fire of hell acts immediately on spirit—on the demons and on the souls of the reprobate now separated from their bodies.
We cannot understand how a material fire can act on, and cause suffering to, a purely spiritual being. We can only say with St. Augustine: “It will do so in strange but true ways—‟miris sed veris modis.‟ This corporeal fire shall tor- ment both men and demons for all that they are incorporeal. Christ hath spoken it—the fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels.” (“De Civitate Dei,” C.X.
Third—The Worm That Dieth Not
This expression, as is obvious, must be understood in a metaphorical sense. This is the worm of conscience, the deep, unavailing despair, the agonising remorse that tortures the wicked in hell. “Were you created for this?” it will say. “Did you repeat your innocent prayers at your mother‟s knee for this! You were a child of God, an heir of heaven, and yet you are in hell! (O fool that I have been—how easily I could have been saved! How easily I could have given up that sinful habit, that wretched companion! O, would that I could live my life over again! Would that an hour were given me in which to repent!” But, alas! Time is no more; out of hell there is no redemption. “If the tree fall to the south or to the north, in what place soever it shall fall, there shall it be.” (Eccles. xi, 3.) Then it is that the reprobate sinner, plunged into the depths of remorse and despair, will cry out to God to annihilate him; he will call upon death to come and put an end to his torments. All in vain; his cries of rage remain unanswered. There he must remain forever; no change, no respite, no relief, no death. “In those days, men shall seek death and shall not find it. And they shall desire to die, and death shall fly from them.” (Apoc. ix, 6.)
The weeping and gnashing of teeth of the lost in hell, especially because of their envy of the just in heaven, are described for us in the Book of Wisdom. “Saying within themselves, repenting and groaning for anguish of spirit: these are they whom we had sometime in derision and for a parable of reproach. We fools esteemed their life madness and their end without honour. Behold how they are numbered among the children of God, and their lot is among the saints. We wearied ourselves in the way of iniquity, but the way of the Lord we have not known. What hath pride profited us? Or what advantage hath the boasting of riches brought us? All these things are passed away like a shadow, but we are consumed in our wickedness. Such things as these the sinners said in hell.” (Ch. v, 3 seq.)
The Apostle St. Paul had before him the thought of hell—where their worm dieth not and the fire is not extinguished—when he wrote to the Hebrews: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (x, 31), and when he warned the Philippians: “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” (ii, 12.)
Fourth—The Eternity of Hell
The torments of hell are eternal. This truth of our Faith is set forth in the Athanasian Creed:
“They that have done good things shall go into life everlasting, and they that have done evil things into everlasting fire.” The words of Our Lord are unmistakable: “The chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.” “Depart from Me into everlasting fire.” Can we understand what is meant by the eternity of hell? No—it is entirely beyond our comprehension. Scientists have measured the extent of the earth, the depth of the sea, the dimensions and distances of the stars, but no measure can be found for eternity. No measure can reach the boundary of eternity, because no boundary exists. “0 Eternity,” exclaims St. Augustine, “what art thou?” “Say what you will of it and you have never said enough. Say that it includes as many millions of years as there are stars in the firmament, grains of sand on the sea-shore, leaves in the trees, drops of water in the ocean, you will never have said enough.” And why? Because no time, no matter how long, can have any proportion to eternity. Add millions of years to it and it will not become greater; take away millions of years from it, and it will not grow less. A sinner condemned to hell a thousand years ago can say: “I have now been buried in hell a thousand years”; but he cannot say: “Now I have one hour less to suffer.” Eternity remains just as long as it was when he first entered hell.
All that one can say to express the duration of eternity is summed up in the words: forever —never. When will the ecstatic delights of heaven come to an end? Never. When will the fire of hell cease to torment the reprobate? Never. For how long will the ineffable joys of heaven last? Forever. How long will the wicked have to remain in the terrible abyss of hell? Forever. If they had but the faintest glimmer of hope that even after countless ages an end would come to their torments, hell would be converted into Purgatory.