Please excuse the tortured meandering of my mind here as I mull over a truth of faith that is tough to speak about: hell.
Tough for me, at least.
Though I do not agree with all of the interpolations of ‘hell on earth’ found in this article, Rachel Hackenberg raises an important conversation that, especially since the Enlightenment, has fallen into perilous disfavor – the question of the existence and meaning of hell, that eternal alienation of human and angelic persons from God; persons who have set their wills definitively against the divine will.
The Catechism (1035) has this to say about hell:
The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire.” The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.
Hell is the state of absolute and final justice, where all of the evils, and evildoers, of history are brought under the solemn and ‘dread’ judgment of Christ. Hell highlights the immense gravity of human choice, the mortal weight of sin, as well as the urgency of the offer of divine mercy in the Crucified-Risen Jesus. It also places into stark relief the character of God’s justice vis-a-vis sin, a justice so thunderously evident in the Hebrew Prophets, and the tragic consequences of refusing God’s mercy.
On Earth as it is in Hell
Rachel argues that hell, like heaven, begins already now — a ‘realized eschatology’ — in the earthly infernos unleashed by the whole array of human injustice and wrongdoing. Agostino Paravicini Bagliani, a Church historian, once made this point well: ’The problem is not only that our sense of sin has declined, but also that the world wars and totalitarianisms of the 20th century created a Hell on Earth as bad as anything we can imagine in the afterlife.’ When one forgets sin and deadens conscience, one is free to create a hell on earth with (seeming) impunity.
Or I think of Archbishop Chaput’s comments this past week that made headlines: ‘Jesus tells us very clearly that if we don’t help the poor, we’re going to go to hell.’ The implication is that, just as in the Rich Man and Lazarus parable, the unjust hoarders of wealth who create a living hell for the poor now will, in the next life, taste the ‘great reversal’ of the Kingdom that pronounces a definitive, unbridgeable judgment on the purveyors of the earthly hell, harrowing this hell in the Resurrection of the Just to everlasting life and of the Unjust to everlasting death.
Revealed, not Deduced
Here it’s important to remember that hell is not a rationally deduced, logical conclusion, but rather is a revealed truth of faith — i.e. we know it exists not because it simply ‘makes sense,’ but because God has made it known to us in Christ through the voice of the Church. It’s truly a mystery of faith which I myself assent to only with trembling, and a certain paralysis of mind.
In fact, hell is, in my mind, one of the ‘greatest mysteries’ of faith that resists full rational explanation. I cringe when I hear Christian apologists give neat and tidy explanations as to why hell ‘makes sense;’ or that only those who absolutely reject God in an act of total rejection risk hell (John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor #70 argued that mortal sin can result from gravely disordered individual acts and does not require such an absolute act of rejection of God). I also cringe when others’ simply dismiss hell as incompatible with divine mercy or human fragility. On a personal note: though I honestly can’t long contemplate hell directly without intellectually ‘shutting down,’ I also cannot embrace a divine justice beyond the grave that simply de facto resolves the tragic drama of the ‘butcher block of history’ by leading all eventually (coercively?) into a final happy place of eternal good-for-all. That said, I do believe with Hans Urs von Bathasar that it is compatible with faith to pray and dare hope that all (save the rebel angels) be saved, since the Church cannot dare I say ‘canonize’ any human as damned (see the famous debate on this in First Things).
Also, relevant here is the intriguing wording of #46 in Pope Benedict’s encyclical, Spe Salvi.
Heaven-Hell is the revealed resolution to the mystery of evil — but my own contemplation of that resolution remains forever, this side of Paradise, a dive into ineffable mystery as well as a free-falling plunge into saving hope.
The famously vivid vision of the Fatima visionaries, described here by Lúcia dos Santos, suffices to demonstrate the effect of direct contemplation of hell on the mind of any sane person:
[The Virgin Mary] opened her hands once more, as She had done the two previous months. The rays [of light] appeared to penetrate the earth, and we saw, as it were, a vast sea of fire. Plunged in this fire, we saw the demons and the souls [of the damned]. The latter were like transparent burning embers, all blackened or burnished bronze, having human forms. They were floating about in that conflagration, now raised into the air by the flames which issued from within themselves, together with great clouds of smoke. Now they fell back on every side like sparks in huge fires, without weight or equilibrium, amid shrieks and groans of pain and despair, which horrified us and made us tremble with fright (it must have been this sight which caused me to cry out, as people say they heard me). The demons were distinguished [from the souls of the damned] by their terrifying and repellent likeness to frightful and unknown animals, black and transparent like burning coals. That vision only lasted for a moment, thanks to our good Heavenly Mother, Who at the first apparition had promised to take us to Heaven. Without that, I think that we would have died of terror and fear.
Proclaiming Eternal Consequence
The Church must proclaim this infernal truth of the Gospel just as she proclaims the Gospel of saving divine mercy, since the two are intimately linked in Jesus’ teaching. In his 1994 book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Pope John Paul II wrote that too often ‘preachers, catechists, teachers . . . no longer have the courage to preach the threat of hell.’
We must have that courage, but courage suffused with reverence and prudence and judgment
The (il)logic of hell is the (il)logic of sin, just as the logic of heaven is the logic of love for God-neighbor. Hell is illogical because hell is loveless. Our existence was willed by God from all eternity, and our destiny is to be in God for all eternity. Our existence bears within it the greatest gravitas, the ‘weight of glory,’ and the Church must proclaim to all peoples the greatness of our calling, of our destiny, and make plain what’s at stake should we fail to embrace and live the truth of who we are and why we were created. Such a loss would be a supreme tragedy, when God’s Christ has re-written history to be a divine comedy…