In the Office of Readings last week we read a letter from St. Paul of the Cross. In it he presents a brief image of Hell, comparing it to the prison life he is enduring. It is a description that helps us to understand that Hell and its sufferings may be about more than just a fire that is never extinguished, worms that die not, and wailing and grinding of teeth. More of his description in a moment.
To be sure, eternal fire, undying worms, and wailing and grinding of teeth are descriptions of Hell from Christ Himself. Rather than lingering on extensive descriptions, Jesus goes to the deepest aspects of the sufferings of Hell. The fire In Hell is more than a merely physical one; it is a fire of rage and disgust that consumes as it causes pain, rather than purifying as does the refining fire of God’s love.
The worms, real and allegorical, gnaw and devour what little energy the rage has not already burned away. Their gnawing brings weariness and weakness, lethargy and listlessness. Indeed, when Dante got to the pit of Hell he saw Satan, strangely bored and up to his waist in ice! In fact he was so bored that he barely noticed the presence of Dante and Virgil. Satan’s anger had sapped him and worms consumed what little remained of his energy. A sad, consumed and pathetic creature: How you have fallen O Lucifer, O Daystar … Cast down to Sheol, into the pit! (Isaiah 14:12, 15)
And as for the wailing and grinding of teeth, the double image makes it clear that the wailing has nothing to do with repentance. Rather it is about anger at having been conquered, having been bested, having lost.
Yes, the Lord gives powerful images! But we do well to understand also the subtleties of Hell. Perhaps Hell is to be missing the one thing necessary. Perhaps it is like owning a mansion without a key to get in, or having a fortune in a bank account without the PIN to access it. It would be better not to have them at all than to have them but lack the one thing necessary to access them! Bishop Sheen told the following “joke” about Hell:
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 in Hell. That’s the hell of it!” (Three to Get Married, Kindle Edition, Loc. 851-57)
This is a more subtle, but piercing, description of Hell. Perhaps Hell has its “pleasures” but there is no way to enjoy them!
This brings us back to the images of Hell that St. Paul of the Cross supplied. He wrote to his brethren as follows:
The prison here is a true image of everlasting hell: to cruel tortures of every kind—shackles, iron chains, manacles—are added hatred, vengeance, calumnies, obscene speech, quarrels, evil acts, swearing, curses, as well as anguish and grief … How am I to bear with the spectacle, as each day I see … their retinue blaspheming your holy name, O Lord, who are enthroned above the Cherubim and Seraphim? Behold, the pagans have trodden your cross underfoot! Where is your glory? As I see all this, I would, in the ardent love I have for you, prefer to be torn limb from limb and to die as a witness to your love (From a letter of Saint Paul Le-Bao-Tinh sent to students of the Seminary of Ke-Vinh in 1843 – [Paris Foreign Mission Society, Paris, 1925], pp. 80-83).
In this passage, Hell is described as a place of violence, hatred, vengeance, and calumny. It is a kind of death by a thousand cuts. There is no need to imagine such terrible things; they are the daily fare of this world. But in Hell they will never end. From Hell there is no hope of escape through the emergency exits of forgiveness, mutual mercy, or reconciliation. That day is gone. Those in Hell have opted permanently for hate, revenge, envy, wrath, bitterness. They have chosen endlessly hideous practices that don’t even provide the passing “pleasure” they sometimes gave on earth. St. Augustine called envy “the diabolical sin,” since it seeks to destroy that which is good or excellent in others. Others have added that envy is perhaps the truest precursor of Hell, since it is the one sin that provides no perceivable pleasure at all.
Hell may well have its subtleties. The grim descriptions of Jesus remain dogma. The subtleties are perhaps a bit more speculative. But do your best to stay out of Hell! Whatever brief promises of pleasure Satan and sin might give you now, the visions of Hell are awful indeed.
Only grace and mercy can rescue us from the lies of Satan and sin. Run to Jesus, repenting of your sins. Ask for the grace to recognize the awful reality of Hell, with its sledgehammer force and its somber subtleties. Ask for the grace to see through the lies to the lasting truth of the glory of Heaven.