Images of Hell

This is the twelfth in a series of articles on the Four Last Things: death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell.

Hell, Fra Angelico, Museo di San Marco, Florence

Part of what makes Jesus’ teaching on Hell difficult is the severe imagery He uses. In pointing to Hell, he seems to point to its deepest pits. He warns of eternal fire, undying worms, and wailing and grinding of teeth. Rather than lingering on philosophical descriptions or on the more subtle aspects of suffering, Jesus goes to the deepest aspects of the sufferings of Hell.

The undying fire in Hell is not a mere physical one; it is a fire of rage and disgust that consumes as it causes pain. In contrast, the refining fire of God’s love purifies. The souls of the dammed in Hell are seething inside and enduring the heat of the indignation of others.

The worms, real and allegorical, gnaw at and devour what little energy the rage has not already burned away. Unjust anger is ultimately exhausting; it saps life the way worms do. Their gnawing brings weariness and weakness, lethargy and listlessness. Depression is anger turned inward. Indeed, when Dante gets to the pit of Hell he sees Satan, strangely bored and up to his waist in ice! In fact, Satan is so bored that he barely notices the presence of Dante and Virgil. Satan’s anger saps him the way intestinal worms do in the physical body. His wrath consumes what little remains of his energy. For now, he rages, for he knows his time is short. Soon enough he will collapse, dissipated and consumed, a sad and pathetic creature: How you have fallen O Lucifer, O Daystar … Cast down to Sheol, into the pit! (Isaiah 14:12, 15)

As for the wailing and grinding of teeth, this double image makes it clear that it has nothing to do with sorrowful repentance. The wailing is linked to anger, expressed in the grinding of teeth. This is an angry sorrow at having been conquered, having been bested, having lost. The defiant refusal to repent from serious sins and the anger at “being told what to do” are the source of this anger. No, the sorrow is not a contrition leading to repentance, but a kind of anger that grinds away in the gnashing of teeth.

The Lord certainly gives powerful images! But we do well to understand the subtleties of Hell as well. Perhaps being in 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! Along these lines Archbishop 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 subtle but piercing description of Hell. Perhaps Hell has its “goods” but there is no way to enjoy them! Many are surprised to think that there could be anything “good” in Hell at all. But, since evil is the privation of the good, if demons, the damned, and Hell itself had nothing good, they would not exist at all! There is no such thing as pure evil, for it would be pure nothing. So, there are good things in Hell, but the key to enjoying them is missing. God, of course, is the key to unlocking every other good. Having rejected the vision of God for their life, the damned lack the “one thing necessary” to unlock every other blessing. The frustration of this is but a more intense version of what many now experience as they try to satisfy their infinite longing with finite things. It doesn’t work. We have a God-size hole in our heart and only God can fill it. Until we learn this lesson and set our sights on Him, we will be frustrated and unfulfilled. If we die refusing to learn this lesson, refuse to admit our need for Him and what He is offering, we are doomed to the eternal frustration of lacking the one blessing necessary to unlock every other blessing.

Another description of Hell comes from St. Paul of the Cross. Imprisoned for his faith, he wrote the following passage, in which he presents an image of how the very denizens of Hell become one another’s chief source of suffering. It is the antithesis of the Communion of the Saints, a kind of “chaos of the condemned.”

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 St. 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 the above passage, Hell is described as a place of violence, hatred, vengeance, and calumny. People in Hell experience a kind of death by a thousand cuts. It is not hard to imagine such terrible things because to some degree they are the daily fare of this world, but in Hell they triumph and will never end. From Hell there is no hope of escape through the emergency exits of forgiveness, mutual mercy, reconciliation, or growth in virtue. That day is gone, replaced only by selfishness, greed, hate, revenge, envy, wrath, and bitterness. It is the bad fruit of every sinful tendency amplified by the free and unfettered manipulation of demons. The inmates run the asylum, and to the cruelest and crudest go the spoils. It is a pretty awful picture to be sure.

The grim descriptions of Jesus remain dogma; our own descriptions are a bit more speculative. 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. Choose Heaven by choosing God and rejecting selfish and defiant attitudes.

3 Replies to “Images of Hell”

  1. Sounds like a terrible place! But Bishop Barron assures us that Christ went to the trouble of warning us of the terrors of Hell knowing full well that sound theology is on the side of it being – hopefully – empty of human beings. A sure way to get to Hell: listen to false prophets!

    1. OK, but to be fair Barron’s position is a bit more nuanced than that. I don’t agree with his view but he’s not saying its empty.

  2. I have heard two pastors of my own parish echo this notion from the pulpit that Hell may well be empty.

    I believe this to be a dangerous gambit, as we are all sinners and slackers. We will easily slouch toward the assuring words of such homilies, forgetting to pray, to practice virtue, to seek forgiveness.

    One must disbelieve the testimony of the saints, our Lady, and Jesus himself in order to entertain visions of a Hell empty of unrepentent sinners.

    Let us treat this hazardous teaching with caution, lest it steer ourselves and our children downward.

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