The Bridegroom is Near

Christ and the Ten Virgins, Peter von Cornelius

Christ came at Christmas as an infant and thus we don’t usually think of wedding imagery. Because the first coming has already been fulfilled, however, we can focus more on His second coming, of which the first is a sacramental reminder.

Thus, during Advent, our longing and excitement are also directed to His glorious second coming. In the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, this is the excited cry:

At midnight the cry rang out: Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him! Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps (Matt 25:6-7).

Here is a picture of Mother Church, the New Jerusalem, our Mother, looking eagerly for her groom Jesus to come again all His glory:

I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. … I heard what sounded like the roar of a great multitude in heaven shouting, “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean was given her to wear” (Rev 21:2-3; 19:7-8).

This longing remains until Mother Church, Christ’s beautiful bride, hears these words from Him: Surge amica mea, speciosa mea et veni! (Arise my beloved, my beautiful one and come!) (Songs 2:10). Her longing cannot be quenched until He comes again in all His radiant beauty and majesty. Until then she longs, looks, and waits.

Although some of her children have attained to this glory, she waits and longs until the number of her elect children are complete and she, in her fullness, will go to be with her spouse forever in beatific glory.

One of the great Advent hymns of the Protestant tradition, “Wake, O Wake,” picks up this bridal theme and “weds” it with Advent longing. This particular translation (from the German) is a masterpiece; it is both biblical and artistic:

Wake, O wake with tidings thrilling;
The Watchmen all the air are filling;
Arise, Jerusalem, Arise!
Midnight strikes, no more delaying;
“The hour has come,” we hear them saying;
Where are ye all ye virgins wise?

The bridegroom comes in sight
Raise high, your torches bright!
Alleluia!
The wedding song swells loud and strong;
Go forth and join the festal throng.

Zion hears the watchman shouting;
Her heart leaps up with joy undoubting;
She stands and waits with eager eyes!
She her love from heaven descending;
Adorned with truth and grace unending;
Her light burns clear her star doth rise!

Now come our precious crown;
Lord Jesus, God’s own Son;
Hosanna!
Let us prepare to follow there
Where in thy supper we may share
.

Yes, there is a great wedding feast in every liturgy and its culmination looks to the glorious second coming of Jesus. This Christmas, look to your wedding garment, which the Lord gave you at baptism to bring unstained to the great judgment seat of Christ. The Bridegroom comes! Let us go out to meet Christ the Lord (cf Matt 25:6).

Here is a performance of “Wake, O Wake,” by the choir of Trinity College in Cambridge.

The Second Coming and Its Stages

During Advent, as we continue to meditate on the Parousia (the Second Coming), we do well to allow our imaginations to be engaged in contemplating the glory that awaits those who are faithful, to meditate on the joy and ecstasy of the culmination of all things!

We must soberly admit our need to be ready by God’s grace, but if we are, what glories await us! The “great and terrible day of the Lord” will indeed be great for those who have allowed the Lord to prepare them.

I was stirred some years ago in reading a magnificent book by Jean Cardinal Danielou on angelology (an-GELL-o-gee), which is the study of angels. The book, The Angels and Their Mission: According to the Fathers of the Church, is must reading (and a mere 114 pages long). It is packed with stirring and edifying accounts of the wonderful works of the angels, according to Scripture and the Fathers of the Church.

The final chapters, on the eschaton (the last things) and the Parousia (the Second Coming), are particularly magnificent. I would like to distill them here, adding some material and reworking it just a bit. However, the assembling of the material is fundamentally that of Cardinal Danielou. I hope you will be stirred with as much joy and zeal in reading this as I was in preparing it.

1. Sending forth the multitude of angels:

Scripture is replete with descriptions of the role of angels in the great Second Coming of the Lord. In the Gospel of Matthew there is a text that may refer to 70 A.D., but surely also describes the end of time:

Then will appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory; and he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other (Matt 24:30-31).

The first epistle to the Thessalonians says,

For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise … (1 Thess 4:16).

St Cyril describes the extraordinary magnificence given to the final judgment by the presence of the multitude of angels. He considers how the great depth and breadth of the spiritual world has been invisible until now, except to the eyes of faith. Suddenly, it is made manifest! He asks us to imagine the multitude of angels by considering the vast numbers of human beings who have ever existed, from the time of Adam to the present day, standing before the Lord Jesus. Then he asks us to consider that the angels are vastly more numerous than that, for they are the 99 sheep whereas humanity is but the one! As Daniel poetically says,

Thrones were set up and the Ancient of Days took his throne. His clothing was white as snow, the hair on his head like pure wool; His throne was flames of fire, with wheels of burning fire. A river of fire surged forth, flowing from where he sat; Thousands upon thousands were ministering to him, and myriads upon myriads stood before him (Dan 7:9-10).

Such a vision and such multitudes can scarcely be imagined.

2. Waking the dead (the angels are surely part of this):

The Second Sibylline Book, a Christian work, describes the archangels shattering the gates of death and raising up even the bodies of those who had been drowned in the sea or whom savage beasts had devoured (Sib, 2:214–235).

St. Ephrem speaks of the angels as waking the dead, saying,

Then the Lord will appear in the heavens like lightning with an unspeakable glory. The Angels and the Archangels will go on before his glory like flames of fire, like a mighty torrent. The Cherubim will turn their faces and the Seraphim will fly ahead crying out in fear: “Arise, you who sleep. Behold the bridegroom is coming!” Then the tombs will be opened and in the flash of an eye all the people will rise and behold the beauty of the Bridegroom.

St. Paul says that our bodies will rise, our bodies, but gloriously transformed:

He will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body by the power that enables him also to bring all things into subjection to himself (Phil 3:21).

So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power (1 Cor 15:42).

3. The Judgment by Christ and its execution by the angels:

Matthew 13 describes the angels as separating the wicked from the just:

The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father (Mat 14:41-43).

Matthew 25 describes the angels as being with Christ when He takes His judgment seat:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats (Matt 25:31-32).

St. Cyril of Jerusalem speaks of the angels leading the sinners away, body and soul, “in the full sight of the armies of heaven and they will be unable to escape.” But the angels are also uniting the just.

Matthew 13 describes the angels leading evildoers away:

The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all who caused others to sin and all evildoers. They will throw them into the fiery furnace (Mat 13:41-42).

St. Ephrem describes the angels leading the elect to paradise:

Then the angels will come together from all sides and take up the holy and faithful people into the glory of the clouds above, to their meeting place with Christ.

Origen speaks of the angels escorting the blessed to paradise:

When … we have begun to enter the holy place and pass on to the promised land, those who are really holy and whose place is the Holy of Holies will make their way, supported by the angels and unto the tabernacle of God … They will be carried on [the angels’] shoulders and raised up by their hands.

St. Paul seems to speak to the same glory when he writes to the Thessalonians:

The dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Thus we shall always be with the Lord (1 Thess 4:17).

4. The final ordering of the Kingdom:

Of this final ordering, Scripture says,

The last enemy to be destroyed is death. “For God has put all things in subjection under [Jesus’] feet.” But when it says, “All things are put in subjection under him,” it is plain that he [the Father] is excepted who put all things under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be everything to every one (1 Cor 15:26-28).

5. After executing judgment, Jesus returns to His Father’s right, in the Holy of Holies:

He ascends there, now with all the members of His body (body and soul) joined to Him. He ascends to the throne as Unus Christus, amans seipsum (one Christ, loving Himself). Though co-equal to His Father in glory and majesty, He is delighted to hand over the Kingdom of His Body, the Church, to His Father, who is (as Father) the Principium Deitatis.

At this ascension, the Fathers ponder that the angels will make the same declaration, the heavens echoing with their cry:

 Lift up your heads, O gates; and be lifted up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in. Who is the King of glory? The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in battle. Lift up your heads, O gates; and be lifted up, O ancient doors; that the King of glory may come in. Who is this King of glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory (Psalm 24: 7-10).

6. The transformation of all creation:

The longing of creation for its share in the glorious freedom of the Children of God is prophesied through St. Paul:

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it [because of our sins]. But the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies (Rom 8:19-23).

And now it comes! Heaven and earth are united and creation receives its original glory and more, for the heavenly realities are now joined to the earth, beautifully restored and raised. Scripture says,

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” And he who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev 21:1-5).

7. The Joy and rest of the angels:

Cardinal Danielou beautifully concludes,

On that day, the joy of the friends of the Bridegroom, [the angels] will be complete. They have led to paradise the souls of the just who are entrusted to them. They have kept watch over their mortal remains. But [for now] they still await the day in which the Bridegroom will come to look for his Bride, when her beauty is finally perfect, in order to lead her into the House of his Father for the eternal wedding feast (p. 114).

Of this magnificent beauty, St. Methodius says,

Oh dearly beloved, [the angels] burn to see the day of your marriage, all the angels Christ has called from heaven. They will come, O Lord, O Word, and they will carry with them mighty gifts, in their spotless robes.

Thus we shall always be with the Lord (1 Thess 4:17).

The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” … He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen! Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints (Rev 22:17; 20-21).

Only What You Do for Christ Will Last – A Meditation on the Rise and Fall of Civilizations

In the readings for Tuesday of the 34th Week of the Year, both Daniel and Jesus speak of the destruction that is upon nations and empires of this world. Daniel spoke to the people of his time and indicated that the Jewish people would suffer from four oppressive kingdoms, which though unnamed we now know as Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome. Each of these kingdoms would eventually fall. The only sure kingdom is one that Daniel describes:

the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed or delivered up to another people; rather, it shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and put an end to them, and it shall stand forever (Daniel 2:44).

Jesus takes up the theme in His Mount Olivet discourse, warning that the Temple so admired by the Apostles so admired was going to be destroyed and that the hopes of the restoration of a Jewish nation and political power were mistaken.

All that you see here—the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down (Luke 21:6).

The Temple and the Jewish nation were not so much being destroyed as being replaced. Jesus Himself is the Temple of the New Covenant and the nation is His Body the Church.

The message of these readings is clear enough: earthly nations and powers come and go, but the Kingdom of God is forever. Though the gates (i.e., powers) of this world and Hell itself would seek to destroy Christ and His Church, they will never prevail. Put not your trust in princes, in mortal men in whom there is no salvation (Psalm 146:3).

Yes, nations, cultures, and civilizations go through cycles. Over time, many civilizations and cultures have risen and then fallen. We who live in painful times like these do well to recall this. Cultures and civilizations come and go; only the Church (although often in need of reform) and true biblical culture remain. An old song says, “Only what you do for Christ will last.” Yes, all else passes; the Church is like an ark in the passing waters of this world and in the floodwaters of times such as these.

For those of us who love our country and our culture, the pain is real. By God’s grace, many fair flowers have come from Western culture as it has grown over the past thousand or so years. Whatever its imperfections (and there were many), great beauty, civilization, and progress emerged at the crossroads of faith and human giftedness. It appears that today we are at the end of an era. We are in a tailspin from which we can’t seem to extricate ourselves. Greed, aversion to sacrifice, secularism, divorce, promiscuity, and the destruction of the most basic unit of civilization (the family), do not make for a healthy culture. There seems to be no basis for true reform and the deepening darkness suggests that we are moving into the last stages of a disease. This is painful but not unprecedented.

 Sociologists and anthropologists have described the stages of the rise and fall of the world’s great civilizations. Scottish philosopher Alexander Tyler of the University of Edinburg noted eight stages that articulate well what history has demonstrated. I first encountered these stages in Ted Flynn’s book The Great Transformation.

Let’s look at each of the eight stages. The names of the stages are taken directly from Tyler’s book and are presented in bold red text. My brief reflections follow in plain text.

  1. From bondage to spiritual growth – Great civilizations are formed in the crucible. The Ancient Jews were in bondage for 400 years in Egypt. The Christian faith and the Church came out of 300 years of persecution. Western Christendom emerged from the chaotic conflicts during the decline of the Roman Empire and the movements of often fierce “barbarian” tribes. American culture was formed by the injustices that grew in colonial times. Sufferings and injustices cause—even force—spiritual growth. Suffering brings wisdom and demands a spiritual discipline that seeks justice and solutions.
  2. From spiritual growth to great courage – Having been steeled in the crucible of suffering, courage and the ability to endure great sacrifice come forth. Anointed leaders emerge and people are summoned to courage and sacrifice (including loss of life) in order to create a better, more just world for succeeding generations. People who have little or nothing, also have little or nothing to lose and are often more willing to live for something more important than themselves and their own pleasure. A battle is begun; a battle requiring courage, discipline, and other virtues.
  3. From courage to liberty – As a result of the courageous fight, the foe is vanquished and liberty and greater justice emerge. At this point, a civilization comes forth, rooted in its greatest ideals. Many who led the battle are still alive and the legacy of those who are not is still fresh. Heroism and the virtues that brought about liberty are still esteemed. The ideals that were struggled for during the years in the crucible are still largely agreed upon.
  4. From liberty to abundance – Liberty ushers in greater prosperity because a civilization is still functioning with the virtues of sacrifice and hard work. But then comes the first danger: abundance. Things that are in too easily available tend to weigh us down and take on a life of their own. At the same time, the struggles that engender wisdom and steel the soul to proper discipline and priorities move to the background. Jesus said that man’s life does not consist in his possessions. But just try to tell that to people in a culture that starts to experience abundance! Such a culture is living on the fumes of earlier sacrifices; its people become less and less willing to make such sacrifices themselves. Ideals diminish in importance and abundance weighs down the souls of the citizens. The sacrifices, discipline, and virtues responsible for the thriving of the civilization are increasingly remote from the collective conscience; the enjoyment of their fruits becomes the focus.
  5. From abundance to complacency – To be complacent means to be self-satisfied and increasingly unaware of serious trends that undermine health and the ability to thrive. Everything looks fine, so it must be Yet foundations, resources, infrastructures, and necessary virtues are all crumbling. As virtues, disciplines, and ideals become ever more remote, those who raise alarms are labeled by the complacent as “killjoys” and often considered extreme, harsh, or judgmental.
  6. From complacency to apathy – The word apathy comes from the Greek and refers to a lack of interest in or passion for the things that once animated and inspired. Due to the complacency of the previous stage, the growing lack of attention to disturbing trends advances to outright dismissal. Many seldom think or care about the sacrifices of previous generations and lose a sense that they must work for and contribute to the common good. “Civilization” suffers the serious blow of being replaced by personalization and privatization in growing degrees. Working and sacrificing for others becomes more uncommon. Growing numbers becoming increasingly willing to feed on the carcass of previous sacrifices. They park on someone else’s dime but will not fill the parking meter themselves. Hard work and self-discipline continue to erode.
  7. From apathy to dependence – Increasing numbers of people lack the virtues and zeal necessary to work and contribute. The suffering and the sacrifices that built the culture are now a distant memory. As discipline and work increasingly seem “too hard,” dependence grows. The collective culture now tips in the direction of dependence. Suffering of any sort seems intolerable; virtue is not seen as the solution. Having lived on the sacrifices of others for years, the civilization now insists that “others” must solve their woes. This ushers in growing demands for governmental, collective solutions. This in turns deepens dependence, as solutions move from personal virtue and local, family-based sacrifices to centralized ones.
  8. From dependence back to bondage – As dependence increases, so does centralized power. Dependent people tend to become increasingly dysfunctional and desperate. Seeking a savior, they look to strong central leadership. But centralized power corrupts, and tends to usher in increasing intrusion by that centralized power. Injustice and intrusion multiplies, but those in bondage know of no other solutions. Family and personal virtue (essential ingredients for any civilization) are now effectively replaced by an increasingly dark and despotic centralized control, hungry for more and more power. In this way, the civilization is gradually ended, because people in bondage no longer have the virtues necessary to fight. In this atmosphere, another more powerful nation or group is able to enter, by invasion or replacement, and destroy the final vestiges of the decadent civilization and replace it with their own culture.

These are the stages of civilizations. Sic transit gloria mundi. The Church has witnessed a lot of this in just the brief two millennia of her time. In addition to civilizations, nations have come and gone quite frequently over the years.

 The only true ark of safety is the Church, who received her promise of indefectibility from the Lord (Matt 16:18). The Church is always in need of reform and will have much to suffer, but she alone will survive this changing world, because she is the Bride of Christ and also His Body.

These are hard days, but perspective can help. It is hard to deny that we are living at the end of an era. It is painful because something we love is dying, but from death comes forth new life. Only the Lord knows the next stage and long this interregnum will be. Look to Him. Go ahead and vote, but put not your trust in princes (Ps 146:3). God will preserve His people, as He did in the Old Covenant. He will preserve those of us who are now joined to Him in the New Covenant. Find your place in the ark, ever ancient and yet new.

This song says, “Only what you do for Christ will last.”

Why Damnation Is Eternal and Other Teachings on Hell

This is the thirteenth and final installment in a series on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell.

The teachings of the Lord on Hell are difficult, especially in today’s climate. The most difficult questions that arise relate to its eternal nature and how to square its existence with a God who is loving and rich in mercy. As a closing reflection on Hell and on the Four Last Things, let us ponder a series of questions.

1. Does God love the souls in Hell? Yes.

How could they continue to exist if He did not love them, sustain them, and continue to provide for them? God loves because He is love. Although we may fail to be able to experience or accept His love, God loves every being He has made, human or angelic.

The souls in Hell may have refused to empty their arms to receive His embrace, but God has not withdrawn His love for them. He permits those who have rejected Him to live apart from him. God honors their freedom to say no, even respecting it when it becomes permanent, as it has for fallen angels and the souls in Hell.

God is not tormenting the damned. The fire and other miseries are largely expressions of the sad condition of those who have rejected the one thing for which they were made: to be caught up into the love and perfection of God and the joy of all the saints.

2. Is there any good at all in Hell? Yes. Are all the damned punished equally? No.

While Heaven is perfection and pure goodness, Hell is not pure evil. The reason for this is that evil is the privation or absence of something good that should be there. If goodness were completely absent, there would be nothing there. Therefore, there must be some goodness in Hell or there would be nothing at all. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches,

It is impossible for evil to be pure and without the admixture of good …. [So]those who will be thrust into hell will not be free from all good … those who are in hell can receive the reward of their goods, in so far as their past goods avail for the mitigation of their punishment (Summa Theologica, Supplement 69.7, reply ad 9).

This can assist us in understanding that God’s punishments are just and that the damned are neither devoid of all good nor lacking in any experience of good. Even though a soul does not wish to dwell in God’s Kingdom (evidenced by rejection of God or the values of His Kingdom), the nature of suffering in Hell is commensurate with the sin(s) that caused exclusion from Heaven.

This would seem to be true even of demons. In the Rite of Exorcism, the exorcist warns the possessing demons, “The longer you delay your departure, the worse your punishment shall be.” This suggest levels of punishment in Hell based on the degree of unrepented wickedness.

In his Inferno, Dante described levels within Hell and wrote that not all the damned experience identical sufferings. Thus, an unrepentant adulterer might not experience the same suffering in kind or degree as would a genocidal, atheistic head of state responsible for the death of millions. Both have rejected key values of the Kingdom: one rejected chastity, the other rejected the worship due to God and the sacredness of human life. The magnitude of those sins is very different and so would be the consequences.

Heaven is a place of absolute perfection, a work accomplished by God for those who say yes. Hell, though a place of great evil, is not one of absolute evil. It cannot be, because God continues to sustain human and angelic beings in existence there and existence itself is good. God also judges them according to their deeds (Rom 2:6). Their good deeds may ameliorate their sufferings. This, too, is good and allows for good in varying degrees there. Hell is not in any way pleasant, but it is not equally bad for all. Thus God’s justice, which is good, reaches even Hell.

3. Do the souls in Hell repent of what they have done? No, not directly.

After death, repentance in the formal sense is not possible. However, St. Thomas makes an important distinction. He says,

A person may repent of sin in two ways: in one way directly, in another way indirectly. He repents of a sin directly who hates sin as such: and he repents indirectly who hates it on account of something connected with it, for instance punishment or something of that kind. Accordingly, the wicked will not repent of their sins directly, because consent in the malice of sin will remain in them; but they will repent indirectly, inasmuch as they will suffer from the punishment inflicted on them for sin (Summa Theologica, Supplement, q 98, art 2).

This explains the “wailing and grinding of teeth” in so far as it points to the lament of the damned. They do not lament their choice to sin without repenting, but for the consequences. In the Parable of Lazarus, the rich man in Hell laments his suffering but expresses no regret over the way he treated the beggar Lazarus. Indeed, he still sees Lazarus as a kind of errand-boy, who should fetch him water and warn his brothers. In a certain sense the rich man cannot repent; his character is now quickened and his choices forever fixed.

4. Is eternal punishment just? Yes.

Many who might otherwise accept God’s punishment of sinners are still dismayed that Hell is eternal. Why should one be punished eternally for sins committed over a brief time span, perhaps in just a moment? The punishment does not seem to fit the crime.

This logic presumes that the eternal nature of Hell is intrinsic to the punishment, but it is not. Rather, Hell is eternal because repentance is no longer available after death. Our decision for or against God and the values of His Kingdom values becomes forever fixed. Because at this point the will is fixed and obstinate, the repentance that unlocks mercy will never be forthcoming.

St. Thomas teaches,

[A]s Damascene says (De Fide Orth. ii) “death is to men what their fall was to the angels.” Now after their fall the angels could not be restored [Cf. I:64:2]. Therefore, neither can man after death: and thus the punishment of the damned will have no end. … [So] just as the demons are obstinate in wickedness and therefore have to be punished for ever, so too are the souls of men who die without charity, since “death is to men what their fall was to the angels,” as Damascene says (Summa Theologica, Supplement, q 99, art 3).

5. Do the souls in Hell hate God? No, not directly.

St. Thomas teaches,

The appetite is moved by good or evil apprehended. Now God is apprehended in two ways, namely in Himself, as by the blessed, who see Him in His essence; and in His effects, as by us and by the damned. Since, then, He is goodness by His essence, He cannot in Himself be displeasing to any will; wherefore whoever sees Him in His essence cannot hate Him.

On the other hand, some of His effects are displeasing to the will in so far as they are opposed to any one: and accordingly a person may hate God not in Himself, but by reason of His effects. Therefore, the damned, perceiving God in His punishment, which is the effect of His justice, hate Him, even as they hate the punishment inflicted on them (Summa Theologica, Supplement, q 98, art 5).

6. Do the souls in hell wish they were dead? No.

It is impossible to detest what is fundamentally good, and to exist is fundamentally good. Those who say that they “wish they were dead” do not really wish nonexistence upon themselves. Rather, they wish an end to their suffering. So it is with the souls in Hell. St. Thomas teaches,

Not to be may be considered in two ways. First, in itself, and thus it can nowise be desirable, since it has no aspect of good, but is pure privation of good. Secondly, it may be considered as a relief from a painful life or from some unhappiness: and thus “not to be” takes on the aspect of good, since “to lack an evil is a kind of good” as the Philosopher says (Ethic. v, 1). In this way it is better for the damned not to be than to be unhappy. Hence it is said (Matthew 26:24): “It were better for him, if that man had not been born,” and (Jeremiah 20:14): “Cursed be the day wherein I was born,” where a gloss of Jerome observes: “It is better not to be than to be evilly.” In this sense the damned can prefer “not to be” according to their deliberate reason (Summa Theologica, Supplement, q 98, art 3).

7. Do the souls in Hell see the blessed in Heaven?

Some biblical texts say that the damned see the saints in glory. For example, the rich man in the parable can see Lazarus in the Bosom of Abraham (Lk 16:3). Further, Jesus says, There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves are thrown out (Lk 13:28). However, St Thomas makes a distinction:

The damned, before the judgment day, will see the blessed in glory, in such a way as to know, not what that glory is like, but only that they are in a state of glory that surpasses all thought. This will trouble them, both because they will, through envy, grieve for their happiness, and because they have forfeited that glory. Hence it is written (Wisdom 5:2) concerning the wicked: “Seeing it” they “shall be troubled with terrible fear.”

After the judgment day, however, they will be altogether deprived of seeing the blessed: nor will this lessen their punishment, but will increase it; because they will bear in remembrance the glory of the blessed which they saw at or before the judgment: and this will torment them. Moreover, they will be tormented by finding themselves deemed unworthy even to see the glory which the saints merit to have (Summa Theologica, Supplement, q 98, art 9).

St Thomas does not cite a Scripture for this conclusion. However, certain texts about the Last Judgment emphasize a kind of definitive separation. For example, in Matthew 25 we read this: All the nations will be gathered before [the Son of Man], and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. … Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life (Mat 25:32, 46).

Clearly, Hell is a tragic and eternal separation from God. Repentance, which unlocks mercy, is available to us; but after death, like clay pottery placed in the kiln, our decision is forever fixed.

Choose the Lord today! Judgment day looms. Now is the time to admit our sins humbly and to seek the Lord’s mercy. There is simply nothing more foolish than defiance and an obstinate refusal to repent. At some point, our hardened hearts will reach a state in which there is no turning back. To die in such a condition is to close the door of our heart on God forever.

Somebody’s knocking at your door.
Oh sinner, why don’t you answer?
Somebody’s knocking at your door!

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.

Hell Has to Be

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

Today we come to the final of the Four Last Things: Hell. I have written extensively on this topic over the years, largely in response to the widespread dismissal of the revealed doctrine of Hell. In contradiction to Scripture, many presume that Hell is an unlikely destination for most. Never mind that Jesus taught just the opposite (e.g., Matt 7:13-14). In my own small way, I have tried to keep people more rooted in the sobriety of the Gospel than in the wishful thinking of the modern age. No one warned of Hell more than did Jesus. Arguably, 21 of the 38 parables amount to warnings about Hell and the need to be ready for judgment day. (I have written more on that here: Jesus Who Loves You Warned Frequently of Hell.)

In this post, however, I would like to consider why Hell has to be. Frequently, those who doubt Jesus’ biblical teaching ask this: If God is love, then why is there Hell and why is it eternal?

In short, there is Hell because of God’s respect for our freedom. God has made us free and our freedom is absolutely necessary if we are to love. Suppose that a young man wanted a young lady to love him. Suppose again that he found a magic potion with which to lace her drink. After drinking it, Presto, she “loves” him! Is it real love? No it’s the effect of chemicals. Love must be freely given. The yes of love is only meaningful if we are free to say no. God invites us to love him. There must be a Hell because there has to be a real alternative to Heaven. God will not force us to love Him or to come to Heaven with Him.

But wait a minute; doesn’t everyone want to go to Heaven? Yes, but it is often a “heaven” as they define it, not the real Heaven. Many people understand Heaven egocentrically: It’s a place where they will be happy on their own terms, where what pleases them will be available in abundance. The real Heaven is the Kingdom of God in all its fullness. So while everyone wants to go to a “heaven” as they define it, not everyone wants to live in the Kingdom of God in all its fullness. Consider the following examples:

  1. The Kingdom of God is about mercy and forgiveness. Not everyone wants to show mercy or forgive. Some prefer revenge. Others favor severe justice. Some prefer to cling to their anger and nurse resentments or bigotry. Further, not everyone wants to receive mercy and forgiveness. Some cannot possibly fathom why anyone would need to forgive them since they are right! Recall the second son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Instead of entering the feast at the pleading of his father, he refuses to enter because that wretched brother of his is in there. He will not forgive or love his brother as the father does. In so doing, he excludes himself from the feast. Despite his father’s pleading, he will not enter through forgiveness and mercy. The feast is not a feast at all for him. Similarly, Heaven will not be “heaven” for those who refuse the grace to forgive and love their enemies and those who have harmed them.
  2. The Kingdom of God is about chastity. God is very clear with us that His Kingdom values chastity. For the unmarried, this means no genital sexual contact. For the married, this means complete fidelity to each other. Further, things such as pornography, lewd conduct, and immodesty are excluded from the Kingdom. Many people today do not prefer chastity. They would rather be unchaste and immodest. Many celebrate fornication and homosexual acts as a kind of liberation from “repressive” norms. Many people like to consume pornography and do not want to limit their sexual conduct. It is one thing to fail in some of these matters through weakness, but it is quite another to insist that there is nothing wrong with such behavior.
  3. The Kingdom of God is about Liturgy. All of the descriptions of Heaven emphasize liturgy. There are hymns being sung. There is the praise of God. There is standing, sitting, and prostrating at certain times. There are candles, incense, and long robes. There is a scroll or book that is opened, read, and appreciated. There is the Lamb on a throne-like altar. It’s all very much like the Mass—but many are not interested in things like the They stay away because the say it’s “boring.” Perhaps they don’t like the hymns and all the praise. Perhaps the scroll (the Lectionary) and its contents do not interest them or agree with their moral preferences. Having God at the center rather than themselves is unappealing.

The point is this: If Heaven isn’t just of our own design; if Heaven—the real Kingdom of God—is about these things, then doesn’t it seem clear that there actually are many who don’t want to go to Heaven? You see, everyone wants to go to a “heaven” of their own design, but not everyone wants to live in the real Kingdom of Heaven. God will not force any one to live in Heaven if he doesn’t want to live there. He will not force anyone to love Him or what He loves or whom He loves. We are free to choose His Kingdom or not.

Perhaps a brief story will illustrate my point:

I once knew a woman in one of my parishes who in many ways was very devout. She went to daily Mass and prayed the rosary on most days. There was one thing about her, however, that was very troubling: she couldn’t stand African-Americans.

She would often comment to me, “I can’t stand Black people! They’re moving into this neighborhood and ruining everything! I wish they’d go away.” I remember scolding her a number of times for this sort of talk, but it seemed to have seeming effect.

One day I decided to try to make it more clear: “You know you don’t really want to go to Heaven,” I challenged.

“Of course I do, Father,” she replied. “God and the Blessed Mother are there; I want to go.”

“No, you won’t be happy there,” I responded.

“Why?” she asked, “What are you talking about, Father?”

“Well you see there are Black people in Heaven and you’ve said that you can’t stand to be around them, so I’m afraid you wouldn’t be happy there. God won’t force you to live in Heaven if you won’t be happy there. That’s why I think that you don’t really want to go to Heaven.”

I think she got the message because I noticed that her attitude started to improve.

That’s just it, isn’t it? God will not force us to live in the Kingdom if we really don’t want it or like what that Kingdom is. We can’t just invent our own “heaven.” Heaven is a real place. It has contours and realities of its own that we can’t just brush aside. Either we accept Heaven as it is or we ipso facto choose to live apart from it and God. So, Hell has to be. It is not a pleasant place, but I suppose the saddest thing about the souls in Hell is that they wouldn’t be happy in Heaven anyway. It’s a tragic plight, not to be happy anywhere.

Understand this, too: God has not utterly rejected even the souls in Hell. Somehow, He still provides for their basic needs. They continue to exist and thus God continues to sustain them with whatever is required for that existence. He does not annihilate them or snuff them out.

God respects their wish to live apart from the Kingdom and its values. He loves them but respects their choice.

Why is Hell eternal? Here I think we encounter a mystery about ourselves. God seems to be teaching us that there comes a day when our decisions are fixed forever. In this world we always have the possibility of changing our mind so the idea of a permanent decision seems strange to us. Those of us who are older can testify that as we age we get more and more set in our ways; it’s harder and harder to change. Perhaps this is a little foretaste of a time when our decisions will be forever fixed and we will never change. The Fathers of the Church used an image of pottery to teach on this. Think of wet clay on a potter’s wheel. As long as the clay is moist and still on the wheel it can be shaped and reshaped, but once it is put in the kiln, in the fire, its shape is fixed forever. So it is with us that when we appear before God, who is a Holy Fire, our fundamental shape will be forever fixed, our decisions will be final. This is mysterious to us and we only sense it vaguely, but because Heaven and Hell are eternal, it seems that this forever-fixed state is in our future.

This is the best I can do on a difficult topic: Hell has to be. It’s about God’s respect for us. It’s about our freedom and summons to love. It’s about the real Heaven. It’s about what we really want in the end. We know what God wants: to save us. The real judgment in question is what we want.

What Do We Mean by the Communion of Saints?

This is the tenth in a series of articles on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.

Continuing our series on the Four Last Things, in today’s post we consider an aspect of Heaven called the Communion of Saints. I have discovered that it is frequently misunderstood. Many of you know that I write the weekly “Question and Answer” column for the Our Sunday Visitor newspaper. Every once in a while, someone poses a unique question, one that I had never thought of before. such is the case with the question below. It led me to reflect on the deeper experience of what we call the Communion of Saints in Heaven.

My answers are required to be no more than 600 words, so this response is relatively brief.

(There is an online catalogue of my “Question and Answer” columns available here: Msgr. Pope’s OSV Columns.)

Q: The descriptions in the Bible seem to describe a vast amount of people, and the paintings I have seen from the Renaissance make it look rather crowded and busy. Frankly, I hate big cities and crowds. Are these descriptions accurate or am I missing something? Doris Leben, Wichita, Kansas

A: The danger to avoid when meditating on Heaven is taking earthly realities and merely transferring them to Heaven. Even if there are similarities to things on earth, things in Heaven will be experienced in a perfected way, with unspeakable joy.

The more biblical and theological way to understand the multitudes in Heaven is not as a physical crowding but as a deep communion. In other words, the Communion of Saints is not just a lot of people walking about or standing around talking.

St. Paul teaches, So we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members, one of another (Rom 12:5). Although we experience this imperfectly here on earth, we will experience it perfectly in Heaven. As members of one another we will have deep communion; we will know and be known in a deep and rich way. Your memories, gifts, and insights will be mine, and mine will be yours. There will be profound understanding and appreciation, a rich love and a sense of how we all complete one another and really are all one in Christ.

Imagine the glory of billions of new thoughts, stories, and insights that will come from being perfectly members of Christ and of one another. Imagine the peace that will come from finally understanding and being understood. This is deep, satisfying, and wonderful communion—not crowds of strangers.

Therefore, the biblical descriptions of Heaven as multitudes should not be understood as mere numbers, but as the richness and glory of communion. The paintings showing “crowds” should be understood as an allegory of deep communion, of being close in a way we can only imagine.

St. Augustine had in mind the wonderful satisfaction of this deep communion with God and with one another in Christ when he described Heaven as Unus Christus amans seipsum (One Christ loving Himself). This is not some selfish Christ turned in on Himself. This is Christ, the Head, in deep communion with all the members of His Body, and all the members in Christ experiencing deep mystical communion with Him and with one another—together swept up into the life of the Trinity. As St. Paul says, you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s (1 Cor 3:23).

What Is Eternal Life?

This is the ninth in a series of articles on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.

I often think that we haven’t done a very good job of setting forth the doctrine of eternal life. For most people, the concept seems a rather shallow one: that we will live forever. Frankly, many may not consider it all that appealing if the place where we live forever is Heaven. Too often, Heaven is reduced to merely this: a place where I’ll be happy. I’ll have a mansion, I’ll see my mother again, and I won’t ever have to suffer. The description never gets around to mentioning God. If He is mentioned at all, He’s way down on the list somewhere rather than at the top where He belongs. This is sad, for the heart of Heaven is to be with God!

Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical “Spe Salvi,” pondered the problem of the generally poor understanding of eternal life:

Perhaps many people reject the faith today simply because they do not find the prospect of eternal life attractive. What they desire is not eternal life at all, but this present life, for which faith in eternal life seems something of an impediment. To continue living for ever—endlessly—appears more like a curse than a gift. Death, admittedly, one would wish to postpone for as long as possible. But to live always, without end—this, all things considered, can only be monotonous and ultimately unbearable. … The term “eternal life” is intended to give a name to this known “unknown.” Inevitably it is an inadequate term that creates confusion. “Eternal,” in fact, suggests to us the idea of something interminable, and this frightens us; “life” makes us think of the life that we know and love and do not want to lose, even though very often it brings more toil than satisfaction, so that while on the one hand we desire it, on the other hand we do not want it (Spe Salvi, 10, 12).

My own pondering and experience has led me to conclude that ultimately eternal life is not about the length of life, but its fullness. To enter eternal life means to become fully alive. Here on this earth we are not fully alive. We experience much of death in these lowly bodies of ours. However, most of us do get glimpses of eternal life and can experience some aspects of it. For example, have you ever had a day when you felt you had all the energy in the world? Not only did you feel energetic but your mind was sharp and you were efficient and effective. Everything seemed to click; there was joy and contentment. Days like that and feelings like that don’t last, but they provide a glimpse of what eternal life might be like—except that eternal life will be immeasurably better!

Another experience I have of eternal life is one that I hope you share. At the age of 56, my body is no longer in prime condition. It is aging and death will one day come to it, but my soul is more alive than ever. I am more joyful, serene, confident, prayerful, and content than ever. Many sins that used to plague me are gone or at least greatly diminished. In effect, I am more alive now than I was when I was in my twenties. Just wait until you see me at 75 or 90! As I get older I become more alive. What I am saying is that eternal life doesn’t just begin after we die. It begins now and should grow in us more and more. Its fulfillment will only be in Heaven but I am a witness (and I hope that you are too) that eternal life has already set deep roots in me.

This experience of being fully alive is to be contrasted with one of the descriptions of Hell in the Scriptures which refers to it as the “second death” (e.g., Rev 21:8). This means that the dammed, having died in the corporal sense, now descend to what is not really life. Yes, they have existence and experience, but their lives are dead because they are not living for what God made them for: His very self. Theirs is a “life” of frustration and emptiness because the whole key to happiness is missing. Having rejected God, His Kingdom, and His values, they have nothing left with which to fill the God-sized hole in their hearts. It is a life so far from eternal life that it is barely a life at all; thus Scripture calls it the “second death.”

Again, the main point is that “eternal” in “eternal life” refers not so much to the length of life as to its fullness. To enter eternal life is to become fully alive with God forever; to experience untold joy, serenity, and peace in an eternal embrace with Him forever. Having our communion with God perfected, we will also have our communion with one another perfected. We will be caught up in the great movement of love that is the life of the Trinity. Who really needs a mansion when you can live in the heart of God? That is our true dwelling place that the Father is preparing. It’s not about houses and seats of honor; it’s about a place in the heart of the God who made us and loves us. It is to become fully alive and perfect as the Father is perfect.

Pope Benedict presents this beautiful image of eternal life:

To imagine ourselves outside the temporality that imprisons us and in some way to sense that eternity is not an unending succession of days in the calendar, but something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality—this we can only attempt. It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time—the before and after—no longer exists. We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy. This is how Jesus expresses it in Saint John’s Gospel: “I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (16:22) (Spe Salvi, 12).

In the following video from a few years back, Bishop Robert Barron makes an interesting point, one that I have made in other posts as well: when the Church fails to teach her doctrine well or casts aside her traditions, the world often picks them up but distorts them. In this video, Bishop Barron discusses the current obsession with vampires. He notes that as we have struggled to present well the concept of eternal life, the world has taken up the notion of those “who can never die” in the vampire craze. The fact that they live forever is a horrible curse to them and any biblical notion of eternal life is absent; they are merely the “un-dead.” Yes, when the Church drops the ball, the world picks it up—but flattens and distorts it.