Why the Road to Hell Is Wide and Many Walk on It

In the gospels there is a warning from Jesus that too many people just brush aside:

Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few (Matt 6:12-13).

I have commented at some length in the past on the serious problem of universalism (the notion that nearly everyone goes to Heaven). I will not create another post on that topic just now, but you can read one of those older posts here: Hell is for real and not rare.

To summarize, most people today have the teaching backwards. Whereas Jesus said that many are on the road to destruction and only a few travel the narrow road (of the cross) to salvation, most claim that many go to Heaven and only a few (if any) go to Hell. Don’t make that mistake. Jesus is not playing games with us. No one loves us more than Jesus does, and no one warned us more of judgment and Hell than He did. Even though He didn’t provide exact percentages for each category, do not try to make many mean few and few mean many.

An obvious question to ask is why so many walk the wide road to destruction and Hell. Is it because God is stingy or despotic? No. God wants to save us all (Ez 18:23; 1 Tim 2:4). The real answer is that we are hard to save, and we must become more sober about that. We have hard hearts, thick skulls, and innumerable other traits that make us a difficult case.

If a third of the angels fell, that ought to make us very aware of our own similar tendency to do so. This should make us humbler about our own situation. The fallen angels had intellects vastly superior to ours, and their angelic souls were not weighed down with the many bodily passions that beset us—but still, they fell!

Adam and Eve, possessing preternatural gifts and existing before all the weaknesses we inherited from sin, also fell. Are we, in our present unseemly state and vastly less gifted than the angels, really going to claim that we are not in any real danger or that we are easy to save?

We need to sober up and run to God with greater humility, admitting that we are a hard case and in desperate need of the medicines and graces that God offers. He offers us His Word, the sacraments, holy fellowship, and lots of prayer! We need not panic, but we do need to be far more urgent than most people are about themselves and those they love.

Consider some of the following things that make us difficult to save:

We have hard hearts and stubborn wills. While some of what this includes is specified in more detail below, this is a good place to begin. God, speaking to us through Isaiah the Prophet, said, I know that you are obstinate, and your neck is an iron sinew and your forehead is bronze(Is 48:4). He is talking about us!

We are obtuse in our desires. If something is forbidden, we seem to want it all the more. St. Paul laconically observed, When the commandment came, sin sprang to life (Rom 7:9). If something is harmful, we want it in abundance, but if it is helpful, we are often averse to it. We like our sweets and our salty snacks, but vegetables rot in the refrigerator. In the desert the people of Israel longed for melons, leeks, onions, and the fleshpots they enjoyed in Egypt. Never mind that they were slaves. When it came to the Bread from Heaven, the Holy Manna, they said, We are disgusted with this wretched manna (Num 21:5). We are obtuse; that is, we are turned outward toward sin instead of inward toward God in a Holy embrace. Jesus sadly remarked that judgment would go poorly for many because The light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed (Jn 3:19).

We don’t like to be told what to do. Even if we know we ought to do something or to stop doing something, the mere fact that someone is telling us often makes us either dig in our heels and refuse, or else comply resentfully rather than wholeheartedly.

We are not docile. When we were very young, we were fascinated with the world around us and kept asking, “Why, Mommy?” or “Why, Daddy?” As we got older, our skull thickened; we stopped asking why. We figured we knew better than anyone around us. The problem just worsens with age, unless grace intervenes. St Paul lamented, For the time will come when people will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths (2 Tim 4:3-5).

We love distraction and don’t listen. Even when saving knowledge is offered to us, we are too often tuned out, distracted, and resistant. ADHD is nothing new in the human family. God said through Jeremiah, To whom shall I speak and give warning, that they may hear? Behold, their ears are uncircumcised, they cannot listen; behold, the word of the LORD is to them an object of scorn; they take no pleasure in it (Jeremiah 6:10). Jesus invoked Isaiah to explain why He spoke to the crowds only in parables: For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed (Is 6:10).

We are opinionated. We tend to think that something is true or right merely because we think it or agree with it. There is nothing wrong with having opinions, even strong ones, about what is right and true, but if God’s Word or the Church’s formal teaching challenges your opinion, you’d better consider changing it or at least making distinctions. The last time I checked, God is just a little smarter than we are. His official teaching in the Scripture and the Doctrine of the Church is inspired; we are not. Scripture says, All we, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way (Is 55:8). Can the pot say to the potter, “You know nothing”? (Is 29:16) Woe to those who quarrel with their Maker, those who are nothing but potsherds among the potsherds on the ground. Does the clay say to the potter, “What are you making?” (Is 45:9) Despite this, many go on with their own opinions and will not abide even the clear correction of God.

We have darkened intellects due to unruly and dominating passions. Our strong and unruly passions cloud our mind and seek to compel our will. Too easily, without training and practice in virtue, our baser faculties come to dominate our higher faculties, making unreasonable demands for satisfaction. We love to tell ourselves lots of lies. We suppress the truth and our senseless minds become darkened (Romans 1:21). The Catechism says, The human mind … is hampered in the attaining of … truths, not only by the impact of the senses and the imagination, but also by disordered appetites which are the consequences of original sin. So it happens that men in such matters easily persuade themselves that what they would not like to be true is false or at least doubtful (CCC #37). The Second Vatican Council, in Lumen Gentium 16, says, But very often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasoning and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator.

We are lemmings. We are too easily swayed by what is popular. We prefer modern notions to ancient and tested wisdom. Tattoos, tongue bolts, and piercings are in? Quick, run out and get one! Whatever the fad or fashion, no matter how foolish, harmful, or immodest, many clamor for it. Hollywood stars get divorces and soon enough everyone is casting aside biblical teaching against it. The same goes for many other moral issues. What was once thought disgraceful is now paraded on Main Street and celebrated. Like lemmings, we run along with the crowd to celebrate what was once called sin (and is still sinful). Instead of following God, we follow human beings. We follow them and the “culture” they create, often mindlessly.

We live in a fallen world, governed by a fallen angel, and we have fallen natures. Many seem to abide all of this quite well and make a nice little home here in this world.

If all this isn’t enough, consider a “few” others: We are so easily, in a moment, obnoxious, dishonest, egotistical, undisciplined, weak, impure, arrogant, self-centered, pompous, insincere, unchaste, grasping, harsh, impatient, shallow, inconsistent, unfaithful, immoral, ungrateful, disobedient, selfish, lukewarm, slothful, unloving, uncommitted, untrusting, indifferent, hateful, lazy, cowardly, angry, greedy, jealous, vengeful, prideful, envious, contemptuous, stingy, petty, spiteful, indulgent, careless, neglectful, prejudiced, and just plain mean.

So, if the road to destruction is wide (and Jesus says it is), don’t blame God. The road is wide for reasons like these. We are a hard case; we are hard to save. It is not that God lacks power; it is that we refuse to address many of these shortcomings. God, who made us free, will not force us to change.

We ought not to kid ourselves into thinking that we can go on living resistant and opposed to the Kingdom of God and its values, yet magically at death we will suddenly want to enter His Kingdom, which we have resisted our whole life. Jesus said that many prefer the darkness. Is it really likely that their preference will suddenly shift? Will not the glorious light of Heaven seem harsh, blinding, and even repulsive to them? In such a case is not God’s “Depart from me” both a just and merciful response? Why force a person who hates the light to live in it? I suppose it grieves God to have to abide such a departure, but to force a person to endure Him must be even more difficult. I am sure it is with great sadness that God accepts a person’s final no.

Yes, the road is wide that leads to destruction. It is wide because of us. The narrow road is the way of the cross, which is a stumbling block and an absurdity to many (1 Cor 1:23), who simply will not abide its message.

So, we ought to be sober about the Lord’s lament. We ought also to be more urgent in our attempts to secure our own unruly soul and the souls of those we love for the Kingdom. The blasé attitude of most moderns is rooted in the extremely flawed notion that judgment and Hell are not real issues. That is a lie, for it contracts Jesus’ clear word.

Why is the road to destruction wide? Because we are hard cases; we are difficult to save. We ought not to be unduly fearful, but we ought to run to Jesus in humility and beg Him to save us from our worst enemy—our very self. If you don’t think you’re a hard case, read the list above and think again.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Why the Road to Hell Is Wide and Many Walk on It

Do Not Be Deceived: Hell Is Real

Last Judgment – Michelangelo Buonarroti (1541)

There is a verse from the Letter to the Hebrews that deserves attention because it is a more common problem than many imagine:

See to it, brothers, that none of you has an unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.  But exhort one another daily, as long as it is called today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness (Heb 3:12-13).

When most of us read a text like this, we think only of obvious and dark cases. For example, someone’s tendency to lash out at others leads him to increasing violence and cruelty, or someone’s desire for possessions leads him to increasing stinginess and unkindness, or someone’s lust leads him to sexually promiscuity that is more and more debased and perverse. However, there are less egregious versions of what this text describes that can lead even religiously observant Catholics to become hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.

An example of this is the outright, almost categorical denial of the doctrine of Hell by a large number of Catholics, even ones who attend Mass faithfully each week. Although Jesus taught it consistently, many today firmly resist the biblical teaching that many people are in significant danger of going to Hell.

It can be argued that 21 of the 38 parables have as their theme the warning of impending judgment in which some are judged unable or unwilling to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. For example, there are sheep and goats; wheat and tares; those on the right and those on the left; wise virgins and foolish ones; those who accept the invitation to the wedding and those who refuse; those properly dressed and those who are not; those who are told, “Come, blessed of my Father” and those who are told, “Depart from me.” This is not the place for me to give a full teaching on these doctrines. (I have posted in more depth on these topics previously: here and here and here.)

Many today, even among the religiously observant, do not take these consistent teachings seriously. “God wouldn’t do that because He is love and compassion,” they say. “There aren’t many people in Hell, except maybe Hitler.” Most people are quite “hardened” in this “deceitful” view, to use the language from Hebrews. Even when presented with verse after verse from Scripture—most directly from Jesus’ mouth—many still stubbornly persist in rejecting what is clearly taught, saying: “Yeah, I know, but He didn’t really mean it. He won’t really do that.”

To illustrate, some years ago a woman confronted me after Mass objecting to my sermon, which included a warning about Hell for those who refuse to repent. (The Gospel for that Sunday included Jesus’ sad warning that the road to Hell was wide with many on it, while the road to salvation was narrow and only a few were walking its way and would find salvation). She said to me, “I didn’t hear the Jesus I know in your sermon about Hell today.” I replied, “But ma’am, I was quoting Jesus!” She did not miss a beat, saying, “Oh, please! We know He never really said that.” This reply indicates a hardening by the deceit of sin on several levels: she rejects the revealed Word of God in favor of her own views, she rejects the doctrine and warnings of Hell itself, and she remakes the Lord so that He conforms to her notions and can be worthy of her credence and worship. (We used to call this last thing “idolatry.”)

Listen again to the words from Hebrews: See to it, brothers, that none of you has an unbelieving heart … so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. This refers to more than just wicked behaviors. Sometimes the hardness is a refusal to believe revealed doctrines or to accept the Lord’s serious warnings. A world hardened by the deceit of sin will not accept that there are lasting consequences for the refusal to repent. Many have allowed themselves to be influenced by it, setting aside God’s Word in favor of human ideas and preferences.

Beware of this tendency, which is so common today. Study the doctrines. Read the warnings of the Lord in Scripture. Ask questions about things that puzzle or trouble you; pray for insight—but do not be misled into sinfully and stubbornly rejecting what is revealed.

The reading for Wednesday’s Mass contains a salutary warning:

Rely not on your strength in following the desires of your heart. Say not, “Who can prevail against me?” for the LORD will exact the punishment. Say not, “I have sinned, yet what has befallen me?” for the LORD bides his time. Of forgiveness be not overconfident, adding sin upon sin. Say not, “Great is his mercy; my many sins he will forgive.” For mercy and anger alike are with him; upon the wicked alights his wrath. Delay not your conversion to the LORD, put it not off from day to day; For suddenly his wrath flames forth; at the time of vengeance, you will be destroyed. Rely not upon deceitful wealth, for it will be no help on the day of wrath (Sirach 5:1-10).

The Lord says these things because He loves us. He does not want us to be lost. In the end, though, God respects our freedom to say no to what He is offering. He knows how we are made and how stubborn we can be. He knows that the values of Heaven (particularly love of our enemies, forgiveness of those who have wronged us, and chastity) are not pleasing to many people. The Lord will not force us to live values like these, but they are what Heaven is about. Thus, He warns us to let Him instill a desire in us for what He offers so that we will desire the Heaven He describes. Listen to Him; He warns us in love so that He can take our heart of stone and give us a true heart to desire the Heaven He is offering.

Do not be hardened by deceitful teachings rooted in this world of sin!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Do Not Be Deceived or Hardened in the Error of Those Who Say Hell is Unlikely or Unreal

The Road to Hell Is Paved with Indifference

The Gospel for Tuesday of the 31st Week features the Lucan version of the parable about a man who gave a banquet. (In the Matthew version, Jesus refers to him as a king and I will refer to him that way in this post.) When all was ready, the servants were sent out to fetch the invited guests, many of whom made excuses:

The first said to him, ‘I have purchased a field and must go to examine it; I ask you, consider me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have purchased five yoke of oxen and am on my way to evaluate them; I ask you, consider me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have just married a woman and therefore I cannot come’ (Luke 14:18-20, see also Matthew 22:2).

None of the excuses is wrong or evil in itself. The guests weren’t excusing themselves to be able to consort with a prostitute, oppress the poor, or wage war. Each goes off to do something good. However, as the saying goes, “The good is the enemy of the best.” Oddly, the invited guests reject the rare opportunity to attend a banquet in favor of some good but lesser activity.

Their excuses illustrate well the disposition of many today who prefer the passing things of this world to the greater and lasting gifts of God and the things awaiting them in Heaven. While indifference and misplaced priorities have always been human problems, we in the modern age seem to exhibit them in greater abundance. This is likely an effect of having so many options and creature comforts available to us.

Indifference is a huge problem today. Though there are some people who resist, disbelieve, or even hate God, and others actively engaged in serious sins, there are even more who have simply fallen into indifference and drifted away from God and the things of Heaven. They veer off to the modern equivalent of examining their farms, evaluating their livestock, or spending time with their spouse: one goes off to detail his car, another goes shopping, yet another is off to a family function or even to work. If they think of God at all or of the invitation to attend Mass, they casually dismiss it because they have so many other things to do.

What makes this sort of rejection of God’s invitation so pernicious is that, as in the parable, most of these people don’t go off to do sinful things. Many today who live very secular lives, giving little or no thought to God, are very “nice” people. Many of them pay their taxes, love their families, and dedicate their time to any number of good causes. It is easy to look at their decision to skip Mass and conclude that it’s “no big deal.” Though they seem to have little time for God or for the things of God they are still “nice” people. Everything is fine because they don’t really mean to reject God or His invitation to holy things. Surely, they will be saved in the end. Or so we think.

The parable does not make this conclusion. Our thinking that everything is probably fine is at odds with the very words of Jesus. The parable teaches that their rejection has catastrophic consequences: they will not have no part in the banquet! For, I tell you, not one of those men who were invited will taste my dinner (Lk 14:24).

Their indifference to, and rejection of, the invitation has a lasting effect. At the end of the day you’re either at the banquet or you’re not. Being “nice” or going off to do good (but lesser) things doesn’t get you into the banquet. Accepting the invitation and entering by obedience to the summons of faith gets you in. Once in, there will be plenty of “nice” and good things to do, but you must obey the summons and enter by faith. That many today regard the summons lightly, preferring worldly things to the things of God is, as the parable teaches, very dangerous.

Let us study carefully the king’s reaction to the rejections by the invited guests, noting three things about the response. The text says,

Then the master of the house in a rage commanded his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in here the poor and the crippled, the blind and the lame.’ The servant reported, ‘Sir, your orders have been carried out and still there is room.’ The master then ordered the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedgerows and make people come in that my home may be filled. For, I tell you, none of those men who were invited will taste my dinner’ (Luke 14:21-24)

1. Rage

The translation is vivid: the king is described as being in a “rage.” Scripture says, And without faith it is impossible to please God (Heb 11:6). Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him (Jn 3:36).

We must be careful here to understand the implications of the Greek word that underlies this. The Greek word is ὀργίζω (orgizo), and while it can be properly translated as anger or rage, more deeply it expresses a “settled opposition” to injustice. The word does not describe God as being in an egocentric rage, as if he were some sort of a jilted lover. Rather, the anger comes from a settled, serene stance in which God does not (and cannot) adjust Himself to the vicissitudes of sinners or change Himself to placate them. God’s stance remains unchanged. It is our stance that changes and makes us come to experience His love as wrath.

The form of the verb used in the text underscores this reality. The verb form is an aorist, passive participle (ὀργισθεὶς (orgistheis)) best translated as “having been angered.” Thus, God does not change His principled stance of offered love; it is those who reject Him who change and experience His love as wrath. It is the result of human rejection that brings forth this experience. God’s settled, steadfast opposition to the human refusal of His love does not and cannot change. It is our rejection of His offer that puts us in opposition to Him, not an egotistical rage on His part. God unchanging desire is for His banquet hall to be filled.

2. Resolve

Having been rebuffed by some, the king merely intensifies his resolve to extend the invitation further until the hall is filled! He sends his servants out again and again; he will not stop calling until the full number of guests has been reached. Scripture says, Then [the martyrs] were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete (Rev 6:11). For the whole creation hopes for and expects the full revelation of the sons of God (Rom 8:19). There is an old spiritual that says, “Oh, preacher, fold your Bible. For the last soul’s converted!”

God, who does not relent in His resolve or change His settled stance, continues to call until enough sinful, stubborn human beings repent and accept His invitation to the banquet.

3. Respect

The final line of the passage is telling. Although it sounds like a denunciation, it should be understood more deeply as a sign of respect. The king says, For, I tell you, none of those men who were invited will taste my dinner. At the end of the day, God will respect (though not approve of) the rejection of His invitation. God has made us free. He respects our freedom even if, in His settled opposition to sinful and harmful choices, He regrets our decisions. Scripture says, If we endure, we will also reign with Him; If we deny Him, He also will deny us (2 Tim 2:12). Yes, God will at some point either accept and ratify our denial of His offer or He will rejoice in our enduring yes. The decision is ours and it is one that will determine our destiny.

We in the Church must become more sober in our appreciation of what a parable like this teaches. We cannot allow ourselves to be carried away by the unbiblical notion that most people will be saved and that they can do so merely by being “nice.” There are lots of nice people in the world (however vaguely “nice” is defined). The more critical question is this: Do you want what God offers or do you prefer the world, with its offers rooted in the flesh or even in the devil?

There is a strange obtuseness to the human heart, which desires lesser things to greater ones, which is easily carried away by passing pleasures, which hates the discipline of the cross. We must recover an urgency in our evangelization that does not presume that most will “make it in” by some natural “goodness” or “niceness.” We need to draw everyone to the definitive yes that a parable like this teaches is necessary. Vague notions of universalism and of being pleasant, nice people cannot replace the biblical teaching of obedience to the summons to say yes to God’s Kingdom. Naïve and myopic notions cannot save God’s people or motivate vigorous and urgent evangelization. Only an obedience to God’s Word can do that. Presumption is a terrible thing and it stabs evangelization in the heart.

The teaching here is clear: we need a sober, consistent, urgent outreach to the many souls who prefer the secular to the sacred, the passing to the eternal, what is here to what is heavenly. Wishful thinking will not win any souls, only a sober seriousness rooted in God’s Word will do so.

The music in this video I prepared is by Fiocco and the text is this: Homo quidam fecit coenam magnam, et misit servum suum hora coenae dicere invitatis ut venirent: Quia parata sunt omnia. (A certain man made a great banquet and sent his servants at the hour of the feast to say to the invited that they should come: because everything is prepared.)

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.

Why and How Does Satan Roam the Earth?

One of the more puzzling aspects of demonology is the freedom that Satan and demons appear to have in roaming the earth, causing trouble. If the condemned are consigned to Hell for all eternity, why is Satan allowed to wander about outside of Hell? Isn’t he supposed to be suffering in Hell along with his minions and the other condemned? Further, it doesn’t seem that he is suffering one bit, but rather having a grand time wreaking havoc on the earth. How do we answer such questions?

Some texts in Scripture do speak of Satan and the fallen angels as being cast into Hell:

  • God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them in chains of darkness to be held for judgment (2 Peter 2:4).
  • And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their proper dwelling—these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day (Jude 1:6).
  • Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, [likely a reference to the age of the Church and the going forth of the Gospel to all the nations] and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. (Rev 20:1-3).

Yet other texts speak of the fallen angels (demons) as being cast down to the earth:

  • But the dragon was not strong enough, and no longer was any place found in heaven for him and his angels. And the great dragon was hurled down—the ancient serpent called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him (Rev 12:8-9).
  • The LORD said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the LORD, “From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it” (Job 1:7).

Thus, though consigned to Hell, it would seem that some or all of the demons have the ability to roam the earth as well. Demons, however, do not have bodies and thus do not “roam the earth” the way we do. Their “roaming” is more an indication of their capacity to influence than their ability to move from one place to another. Further, Satan and demons are described as being “chained,” “in prison,” or “in darkness.” This is likely a way of indicating that their power to influence or “roam” is limited in some way. This does not say that they do not wield considerable power, just that it is not unbounded. If you think it is bad now, just imagine what it will be like when their power is unchained!

Near the end of the world, Scripture says that Satan will be wholly loosed and will come forth to deceive the nations for a while; after this brief period, he and the other fallen angels will be definitively cast into the lake of fire and their influence forever ended.

And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth, … their number is like the sand of the sea. And they marched up over the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, but fire came down from heaven and consumed them, and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever (Rev 20:7-10).

So for now, demons do have influence, but it is limited. At the end, their full fury will be unleashed, but this is only to bring about their final, complete defeat, after which they will be forever sequestered in the lake of fire.

Why God permits some demons the freedom to wander about the earth is mysterious. We know that God permits evil as a “necessary” condition of freedom for the rational creatures He has created. Angels and humans have free, rational souls; if our freedom is to mean anything, God must allow that some abuse it, even becoming sources of evil and temptation to others.

For us, this life amounts to a kind of test: God permits some degree of evil to flourish yet at the same time offers us the grace to overcome it. Further, there is the tradition implied in Scripture that for every angel that fell there were two who did not (Rev 12:4). Thus, we live not merely under the influence of demons, but also under the influence and care of angels.

On account of temptations and trials, our “yes” to God has greater dignity and merit than it would if we lived in a sin-free paradise.

As to Satan having “a good time” wreaking havoc, it would be too strong say that demons and Satan do not suffer at all. Demons, like human beings, suffer both victories and defeats; there are outcomes that delight them and those that disappoint and anger them.

Anyone who has ever attended an exorcism can attest that demons do suffer great deal, especially when the faithful pray and make pious use of sacraments and sacramentals (e.g., holy water, relics, blessed medals, rosaries). Faith and love are deeply disturbing to demons.

We all do well in the current dispensation to remember St. John Vianney’s teaching that Satan is like a chained dog: He may bark loudly and froth menacingly, but he can only bite us if we get too close. Keep your distance!

While these videos are light-hearted, their message is serious:

Of Sledgehammers and Subtleties – Images of Hell

blog-11-29In 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.