Hell and the love of God
Hell, one may think, is not a consoling or cheerful subject to talk or write about, though every good Catholic will acknowledge that it is most necessary at times to consider it, especially when temptation presses hard on him and no motive but a great fear of God’s punishments will deter him from mortal sin.
However, the purpose of this conference is not to dwell on the frightening aspect of hell and so to inspire fear, but rather to see how from the thought of that place of horrors we can arrive at a perfect love of God and to a state of the greatest consolation.
“Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire”
It is the considered opinion of the Fathers of the Church and of her great theologians that the damned suffer both the pain of sense and the pain of loss.
The pain of sense, by which the body and soul in some way unknown to us are subjected to a suffering with which not all the physical pains of this world can offer a true comparison, is a disturbing thought that no doubt has enabled many a soul to resist temptation to grievously sinful indulgence.
To be forever encompassed in that “inextinguishable fire”, to which there is no respite nor mitigation, may well strike terror in the hearts of all who have not lost their belief in Christ’s words that at the last day it will be said to the wicked: “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire.”
It matters little what the nature of that fire may be; nor does it help us to argue that the spiritual soul cannot be affected by material fire such as we understand the word “fire” in this world. The fact remains that fire of some sort will afflict both soul and body; and that, for eternity.
“For it is expedient for thee that one of thy members shall perish rather than thy whole body cast into hell” (Mt 5:29)
Our Blessed Lord, even if He were using the word in a metaphorical sense, most evidently wished us to regard it as the extreme of suffering and torture, which must be avoided even at the cost in this world of eye or hand or foot. His words are: “If thy right eye scandalise (i.e. be an occasion of sin) thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee. For it is expedient for thee that one of thy members should perish rather than that thy whole body be cast into hell” (Mt 5:29). Again, He said: “It is better for thee with one eye to enter the kingdom of God than having two eyes to be cast into the hell of fire, where their worm dieth not and the fire is not extinguished” (Mk 9:46,47). These words are surely sufficiently terrifying to give us a salutary fear of even the pain of sense which the damned souls suffer.
The permanent loss of God
But terrifying to us as such punishment may well be, Catholic theology teaches us that it is indefinitely less than the pain of loss, the loss of that one supreme and only absolute Good, the Infinite God, who alone can give us that all-satisfying happiness for which the soul of man was created and for which, consciously or unconsciously, it is for ever craving.
St John Chrysostom describes the pain of loss in contradistinction to the pain of sense as follows: “The fire of Hell is insupportable – who does not know it?- and its torments are awful. But if you were to heap a thousand hell-fires one on top of the other, it would be as nothing compared to the punishment (that consists in) being excluded from the beatific glory of Heaven.”
“The worm that dieth not”
The damned soul realises, as through its own fault and neglect of God and His commandments it has never realised before, that God is the one Being worth possessing, infinitely surpassing anything that can attract our love in this world: that in Him is the completest joy and happiness and compared with Him everything else is of no value or consideration in itself.
The realisation of all this and the certain knowledge that this Supreme Good is now lost to him for ever, brings to the unhappy soul a despair (the “worm that dieth not”) that nothing can ever remove and a torture and an agony that will never cease.
A better understanding of how infinitely desirable God is
Now if we ponder on these undoubted facts, confirmed as they are by the words of Our Blessed Lord Himself and by the teaching of His Church, we shall better understand how infinitely desirable and lovable God is.
And when our intelligence, enlightened by the Holy Spirit of God, the “Lumen cordium”, he has seen this the clearer by prayerfully meditating again and again on the marvellous attributes of God, His goodness, beauty, wisdom and all the rest, held in an infinite degree, then with the whole strength of our will, aided by His grace, we can embrace Him and make Him the supreme object of our love, loving no creatures, no one and no thing, on earth except in Him and for Him. And so we can come to a true and perfect love of God.
Loving no one and no thing on earth except in Him and for Him
There is no one of goodwill and endeavour who cannot elicit such an act, and he will be impelled the more to do so, when he considers the advantages of serving God in this spirit of love.
At once his every act, great or small, is invested with the highest merit, such as no lower motive could acquire. His sins, however many and grievous, are immediately forgiven and wiped out as if they had never been. The sinful allurements and attractions of this world lose their power to ensnare him: temptation, however urgent and pressing, cannot force him to yield. In love with God, in the truest sense and meaning of love, he has no desire but for God.
To him henceforth his life is wholly dedicated; and even in this world he dwells in spirit with God in heaven. Again and again he can repeat in all sincerity, “My God and my all”. Though tribulations and trials come to him, as come they must, he can offer them all in love to God, and know most surely that every earthly loss, as the world counts loss, is nothing but sheer gain.
Nothing but sheer gain
Living as we are doing to-day in a world that, as a consequence of devastating and terrible wars, has brought to many millions multiplied miseries of every kind, the soul that has learned to love God with all his intelligence and with all the energy of his will, no longer will brood over his misfortunes but will even gladly and cheerfully accept them, uniting them to the sufferings and death of his Redeemer; and realising, though perhaps it be only at long last, the truth of St Paul’s words:
“I reckon that the sufferings of this time are not worthy to be compared with the glory to come that shall be revealed in us” (Rm 8:18).
We may then thank God with ever grateful hearts that we have not died in the state of mortal sin and are not now sharing in the punishment of the damned, whose greatest pain is the eternal loss of the infinite, all-lovable God.
Not a depressing subject
The thought of hell, therefore, instead of being a depressing subject for our contemplation, can be used as a most powerful incentive to a true and perfect love of God, and can serve to keep us in that cheerful spirit of service which is the note of all true spiritual life.
– From: Lift Up Your Hearts, Christopher J. Wilmot S.J., The Catholic Book Club, London 1949