Hell Is Real, as the Saints Tell Us
BOOK PICK: Saints Who Saw Hell
SAINTS WHO SAW HELL AND OTHER CATHOLIC WITNESSES TO THE FATE OF THE DAMNED
By Paul Thigpen
TAN Books, 2019
188 pages, $27.95
To order: tanbooks.com or (800) 437-5876
“There is a hell. Not a very original statement, you think. I will repeat it, then: There is a hell! Echo it for me, at the right moment, in the ear of one friend, and of another, and another.”
So wrote St. Josemaría Escrivá in his spiritual classic The Way. Terse and succinct, it’s a truth that bears echoing, in season and out.
In times past, heretics dismissed the reality or eternity of hell: Universalism was their creed.
In our day, some Catholics have tried what I call a “backdoor” approach to universalism: They admit there is a hell, but they question whether anybody is actually there. “Therapeutic Catholicism” seems to flip “dare we hope all men can be saved?” into an implicit presumption that they are.
The Catholic spiritual tradition is not so optimistic.
Convert Paul Thigpen has gathered private revelations from the writings of eight individuals honored by the Church who experienced visions of hell. They are: Sts. John Bosco, Teresa of Avila, Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Siena and Faustina Kowalska, the witnesses of Fatima, Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich and Venerable Maria of Agreda. He also includes individuals (St. Gregory the Great, Venerable Bede and Blessed Richard of St. Ann) who reported others’ visions of hell, visions which Thigpen deems these individuals regarded as credible.
Thigpen rounds out the book with other sources, ranging from an overview of hell in Scripture to descriptions of hell in two apocryphal texts, from hell as reported by two visionaries (Thurkill, Tundale) in early English ecclesiastical chronicles to hell in legend and literature (The Voyage of St. Brendan, The Vision of Merlino, and part of a canto from Dante’s Inferno).
Many of these works, including writings from the saints, are hard to access and/or long out-of-print works. Some, like St. Faustina’s, might surprise people: The “Secretary of Divine Mercy” also reckoned with divine justice and was unafraid to remind people that hell is real: “I am writing this at the command of God, so that no soul may find an excuse by saying there is no hell, or that nobody has ever been there, and so no one can say what it is like. I, Sister Faustina, by the order of God, have visited the abysses of hell so that I might tell souls about it and testify to its existence. What I have written is but a pale shadow of the things I saw. But I noticed one thing: that most of the souls there are those who disbelieved that there is a hell.”
St. Teresa of Avila also captures a great truth about hell: It is self-made, self-stoked and self-perpetuating. Hell is not so much a place as a state, a way of being: “These sufferings were nothing in comparison with the anguish of my soul. … It is the soul itself that is tearing itself in pieces. I cannot describe that inward fire or that despair, surpassing all torments and all pain. I did not see who it was that tormented me, but I felt myself on fire, and torn to pieces, as it seemed to me; and, I repeat it, this inward fire and despair are the greatest torments of all.”
My reservations about the book: I wish Thigpen had stuck just to the writings of the saints. While I know that some in the ancient Church read some of the apocryphal writers as spiritual guides, including what was ultimately deemed non-canonical literature, these writings detract from the book. So, too, does including the products of literary imaginations alongside private revelations. There are people who think it’s all fiction.
That said, the writings from the saints themselves make this book a worthwhile and valuable text for meditation or in conjunction with an examination of conscience. Thigpen took Escrivá’s advice: He’s whispering truth into a lot of friends’ ears.
John M. Grondelski, Ph.D., writes from Falls Church, Virginia.
All views are exclusively his.