A reader writes:
Hail oh magnificently bearded one,
Wondering if you could help with an issue that's been bothering me. I've been noodling the question of Hell for a little while - while I've never had any problems with the doctrine that those who die in mortal sin separate themselves from God forever, I do have problems with the formulation of Hell as a place of punishment for sin.
For example, I listened to a Benedictine monk give a lecture on Hell, in which he taught that the damned are in constant burning fire, and that God makes sure they can feel it by giving them physical bodies which never decay. He made clear that the worst part of Hell was the separation from God, but also that this was a part of it. This kind of thing is a big feature of catechesis pre-Vatican II - the teaching that the most awful thing about Hell is the eternal separation from God, but there's also this torture, for lack of a better word, inflicted on the damned by the will of God.
For me the problem is that these punishments seem utterly gratuitous, to the point of cruelty. If losing God is the worst thing that can happen to a sinner, why bother inflicting more pain on them? The worst thing that can be done to them has happened - anything more than that just comes across as petty.
And I think that the response to these complaints are quite telling. From the resources I was looking at, the basic rejoinder to any objection was the Calvinist-tinged "Well who are you to question God? He is ultimate Justice, and can do whatever he likes" or "You may not like it but God said it, so there" (I can't rationally justify this but I can't get rid of it, in other words).
Do you think that the teaching of the Church has developed somewhat? When I was coming into the Church I didn't come across this stuff - even in the Catechism I think the 'fires of hell' are in quote marks, suggesting that the interpretation of a literal fire of Hell has been quietly dropped. What do you reckon?
One of the points of Catholic teaching that goes with the fact that the Church teaches the resurrection of the dead is that the pains of hell will include bodily pain (since it is the whole person that suffers hell just as it is the whole person that enjoys heaven). Jesus, after all, says, “the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:28-29). The Church’s teaching is not that the pain of sense is an extra bit of vindictiveness tacked on by God just to make hell extra-horrible, but simply a corollary of what those who have chosen hell will experience as a result of their choice. Humans are intended for bodily existence and so the Resurrection will therefore encompass all humans, good and bad. Those who have chosen evil will experience the consequence of that in their risen bodies just as those who have chosen salvation will experience the consquences of that choice.
And, indeed, we can already see foreshadows of that process at work in the body even in this life. Hitler chooses and indeed demands to have dentistry without novocaine because he is a control freak. The debauched person experiences the bodily dissolution of the flesh. Hypertension, sleeplessness, addictions and so forth often accompany evil lifestyles. The warning of hell is that a deliberate willed rejection of God will radiate out to every part of the person with no hope of salvation if the only means of salvation is deliberately and definitively rejected. It’s not a gratuitous cruelty but simply one more aspect of what “The gates of hell are barred from within” means. If we accept the idea of the resurrection of the body (and Christianity is pretty much pointless without it), I don’t see how to escape the idea that part of the pain of hell is the “pain of sense”. I’m not fussy about literal fire in hell (and the Church has historically permitted both the notion that the "fires of hell" may be material or may be metaphorical), but at the same time, if we accept the idea of the resurrection then, again, bodies have to be somewhere. So I also don’t rule out the possibility that some torment like flame (or worse than flame) awaits the body of the impenitent sinner (and I can think of any number of conditions even in this life that do not require applications of literal flames in order for the sufferer to feel anguish indistinguishable from fire). So it may well be that the impenitent damned carry their sufferings with them wherever they go, something like Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol. Then again, it may be that St. Thomas is right when he speculates that the damned in the New Heaven and New Earth (another consequence of the resurrection of the body) may literally dwell in fires beneath the earth. The Church has never made a definitive ruling on this and, in its recent teaching, has mainly emphasized the principal pain of Hell, the loss of God.
1035 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.
The real question being asked by my reader, I think, is “Is God vindictive or is God simply issuing a very clear warning to us of what will inevitably befall the whole human organism if that organism will not grab the life preserver of salvation and allow itself to be pulled out of the ocean of slow-acting acid into which it has fallen?” I think the situation is clearly the latter. God is not vindictive. The Cross is the answer to that lie. But the fact that that sacrifice was necessary to save us shows how desperate our plight as a species is. If we won’t accept even that, then we choose the acid bath and the eventual complete torment to body, soul, and spirit it will entail. There’s no getting around the basic fact that hell is horrific. And yet horrific as that is, what is even more frightening is that the Tradition clearly warns that the pains of sense are not the main horror of hell: the loss of God is.
This, by the way, is one of the reasons we should pray fervently for a real appreciation of hell: because the point of the warning in this life is primarily to spur us to loving action and prayer, not to spur us to speculate on Who's Gonna Get It. It is a common trope among many believers to talk about how those darn atheists don't take hell seriously. It is much less common for us believers to reflect on how we don't take hell seriously. I don't mean we should sit around sweating about hell. I mean that when we casually declare that the bulk of our neighbors, family and friends and assuredly going to hell and that causes us zero anguish and instead fills us with the serene satisfaction of having won a combox argument, we are as effectively disbelieving in the meaning of hell as any atheist. Hell is a cosmic "Bridge Out" sign. The New Testament warnings of it are not there to stampede us in servile fear into loving God (a psychological impossibility in any case), but to warn us that we live in a real cosmos with real consquences for real choices. We ought to dread hell primarily because it means the loss of God forever, not because of "What's in it for me?" But we also ought to dread it for our neighbor. I have known alleged Christians who pray fervently for the eternal damnation of people they don't like. I have even gotten email from people who pray for my eternal damnation. I can think of no more spiritually dangerous prayer one could possibly offer. It is, if unrepented, perhaps the most sure-fire way of assuring one's own eternal damnation (and so, of course, people who offer such prayers are themselves to be prayed for with things like the Fatima Prayer: "O my Jesus, save us from the fires of hell. Lead all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of Thy mercy.")