In the Church’s Liturgy of the Hours (in the Office of Readings) we are getting close to the great culmination of the Book of Revelation, when the victorious Christ is united with his bride forevermore. Just prior to this great victory is the casting down of Satan into fiery hell and the sealing over of the great abyss.
Central to the imagery of Hell is fire, along with some other unpleasant things such as worms that never die, etc. We do well to ponder these images, but also to be careful about them. For while many take them literally, they are probably meant to be understood more richly. To be sure, most of the Fathers and tradition understand the fire of Hell to be an actual, physical fire, but it remains a question as to what effect physical fire would have on fallen angels who have no physical bodies. And while fallen human souls will eventually have their bodies, it seems hard to imagine how physical fire can affect their souls prior to the resurrection of the bodies of the dead. Hence fire and other physical descriptions most likely speak also to deeper spiritual realities.
Let’s take a look at an excerpt from the Book of Revelation, and also consider some other descriptions of our Lord regarding Hell. Perhaps we can ponder what the images are trying to teach us of the nature and reality of Hell for those who choose to live there by rejecting the Kingdom of God and its values.
Next I saw a large white throne and the One who sat on it. The earth and the sky fled from his presence until they could no longer be seen. I saw the dead, the great and the lowly, standing before the throne. Lastly, among the scrolls, the book of the living was opened. The dead were judged according to their conduct as recorded on the scrolls. The sea gave up its dead; then death and the nether world gave up their dead. Each person was judged according to his conduct. Then death and the nether world were hurled into the pool of fire, which is the second death; anyone whose name was not found inscribed in the book of the living was hurled into this pool of fire (Rev 20:11-15).
A pool of fire is a dramatic metaphor. It is so dramatic in fact that it causes many moderns to reject the teaching of Jesus on Hell outright. Even many who are otherwise believers in Jesus reject His consistent teaching on Judgment and Hell by either conveniently forgetting it, or by espousing some artful theories that deny He said it or that suggest that He was just trying to scare people who lived in “less mature” times. Some who do not believe in God say this teaching is one of the reasons they do not believe. I have addressed many of these objections elsewhere. But for our purposes here, let’s keep the focus on what the metaphor is likely trying to teach us.
First, to be clear, the metaphors of fire and worms are very consistent features of Jesus’ descriptions of Hell. For example,
- If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame, than, having your two feet, to be cast into hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched (Mark 9:45-46).
- Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. (Matt 5:22).
- So [the rich man] called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire‘ (Luke 16:24).
- Then the Son of Man will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat … (Matt 25:41).
Allow these to suffice. Jesus in His description draws rather heavily from Isaiah wherein God says of those who are unrepentant, “And they [the faithful] will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind” (Isaiah 66:24).
But though tradition does largely see the fire as indeed a physical fire, we must still ponder the deeper reality of this fire. For fallen angels without bodies (and for whom the fire was prepared) do experience its pain. But how? And for fallen human souls (at least before the resurrection of the body), how is the fire experienced and to what does it point?
Perhaps a remark by Origen can assist:
Wonder not when you hear that there is a fire which though unseen has power to torture, when you see that there is an internal fever which comes upon men, and pains them grievously Origen (quoted in the Catena Aurea at Mat 25:41).
And thus we gain some insight into the “inner” fire that rages in the fallen angels and in the souls of the damned. For even now, we often speak metaphorically of how our own passions can burn like fire. We speak of burning with lust, or of seething with anger, or being furious (fury being related to the word for fire). We speak of the heat of passion, of boiling over with anger, or of seething with envy. Even good emotions like love can burn like fire if they are not satisfied. How our thirsts and passions can rage like fire in us if they are not slaked and satisfied by the only One who can truly satisfy us!
And as for worms—worms that die not according to Jesus—we often speak of being devoured by our passions or consumed by them. There is less consensus on the worms being physical, but surely here too, physical or not, they speak to a deeper spiritual reality as well.
And thus the fire of Hell, though physical, speaks also to deeper spiritual struggles. We were made for God, and God alone can satisfy us. To choose anything less than God is to remain gravely unfulfilled and to be burning with a longing that has refused to seek its proper goal. Thus one burns (whether fallen angel or fallen soul) with desire but has rejected the “one thing necessary” to satisfy that desire. The fire seethes and the fury grows.
Bishop Sheen once told a parable showing how frustrating Hell must be since the “one thing necessary” is lacking:
There is not a golfer in America who has not heard the story, which is theologically sound, about the golfer who went to hell and asked to play golf. The Devil showed him a 36-hole course with a beautiful clubhouse, long fairways, perfectly placed hazards, rolling hills, and velvety greens. Next the Devil gave him a set of clubs so well balanced that the golfer felt he had been swinging them all his life. Out to the first tee they stepped, ready for a game. The golfer said: “What a course! Give me the ball.” The Devil answered: “Sorry….we have no golf balls. That’s the hell of it!” (Three to Get Married, Kindle Edition, Loc. 851-57).
Yes, that’s the hell of it: to lack the one thing necessary. And oh the fiery fury and the seething indignation it must bring to have definitively rejected the only One who could ever satisfy the fire of our desire!
Finally St. Thomas, or the Thomistic tradition, adds the insight of the fire as “burning” in the sense that it limits the fallen angels and fallen souls:
But the corporeal fire is enabled as the instrument of the vengeance of Divine justice thus to detain a spirit; and thus it has a penal effect on it, by hindering it from fulfilling its own will, that is by hindering it from acting where it will and as it will….that as the instrument of Divine justice [fire] is enabled to detain [a spirit] enchained as it were, and in this respect this fire is really hurtful to the spirit, and thus the soul seeing the fire as something hurtful to it is tormented by the fire (S.T. Supplement, Q 70, art 3, respondeo).
In other words, there is a seething indignation that must come from a fallen spirit who is hindered and can no longer live the lie of following its own will in order to find satisfaction. Such apparent satisfaction is a lie, for it is rooted in the willful rejection of God and the values of God’s Kingdom. The fire is a limiting fire that attests to the fact that nothing outside God will satisfy, and that roaming about seeking satisfaction in anything other than God must now end. The fire burns and is unquenchable, for only God can quench it. But the fallen souls and fallen angels have forever refused Him.
And thus the fire of passion forever burns, unsatisfied, and like worms their desires devour and consume them. In a word, Hell is to be forever “unfulfilled,” as one burns with desire but has rejected the only One who can satisfy that desire.
This song says “God and God Alone … He will be our one desire, our hearts will never tire of God and God alone.”