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Chapter 18: The Way of Sin to Death

Question H: In what does hell consist?

1. Central to the misery of hell is loss of one’s share in heavenly fellowship, which is the natural consequence of refusing to remain and grow in friendship with God (see S.t., 1–2, q. 87, aa. 3–4; sup., q. 98, a. 2; S.c.g., 4, 93). In contrast to the life communicated to those who accept Jesus as Lord, hell is eternal death (see Jn 5.29; 8.24). Hell is exclusion from the heavenly banquet (see Mt 22.11–14) and from the heavenly kingdom (see Rom 6.23; 1 Cor 6.9–10; Gal 5.19–21; 2 Thes 1.7–10; Heb 10.26–31).

2. Because it is a free choice by which one determines oneself, mortal sin tends to last. But the essence of mortal sin is separation from God. Thus the central misery of hell, separation from God and exclusion from communion in heavenly fulfillment, is nothing else than the reality of mortal sin—that is, the lasting guilt which the sinner assumes by sinning and refusing to repent (see DS 443/228a, 1002/531, 1306/693). Eternal death is a self-made judgment (see Jn 3.18–19; 12.47). It is sin’s inherent outcome (see Rom 6.21).

Love of God must be accepted by a creature with freedom, and this freedom must for this very reason be faithful to the goods proper to the creature. If an angelic or human person constitutes a self which is radically closed against his or her own true good, then that self is not compatible with love of God.

The more we love God, the more clearly we realize that he makes no arbitrary rules to trip us up and imposes no arbitrary punishments to make us suffer. Our evildoing diminishes his glory in ourselves. His concern about the sin of creatures is with the harm they do themselves and the misery they inflict on one another. The latter must be permitted for the time being; those who suffer unjustly will receive their compensation. Meanwhile, as God’s children love him more purely, as they rid themselves of remnants of adolescent rebellion, they realize how ideal a Father he is. And so perfect love engenders confidence and excludes anxiety (see 1 Jn 3.18–22; 4.17–18).

3. Besides loss of fellowship in the heavenly kingdom, those in hell are said also to suffer from “fire.” Beyond the fact that “fire” connotes painful experience, the Church’s teaching leaves open the precise nature of this suffering.27 There is no need to think of this painful experience as being especially created for sinners and imposed on them.28 Given the unity of the human person, it is only reasonable to suppose that the essential misery of permanent unfulfillment will have natural consequences at the level of experience.

4. One is free to imagine that for the damned the fire of hell will consist partly in their unwanted perception of the new heavens and new earth, where everything will bespeak the triumph of God’s love in Jesus. One may also imagine that it will consist partly in the unsatisfying existence of persons who have sinfully chosen very limited goods rather than the integral fulfillment they should have preferred. Sinful experiences—which even in this life are inherently unsatisfying despite their appeal—would comprise a wretched existence for one condemned to go on reliving the same experiences forever, especially in a society composed exclusively of obdurate sinners.

Might not the fire of hell be understood as the way in which heavenly fellowship and the new heavens and new earth, suited to the blessed who share in divine life, will be perceived by those alienated from this life? If one refused to go to a party, somehow found oneself on the edge of it, yet still maintained one’s stubborn refusal to share in the celebration, then the party itself and everything which pleased the participants would be an irritant. The situation of those in hell, perhaps, will be somewhat like this. Everything will be suited to the joy of the blessed; everything will bespeak the triumph of Jesus. Those who are pilgrims now, often in a painful and hostile world, will be at home. But those perfectly comfortable with the world as it now is will find the home of the blessed in no way satisfactory and to their taste.

27. Gregory IX, for example, simply says (DS 780/410) that actual sin is punished with the torture of perpetual gehenna, which leaves the nature of this fire as open as the New Testament does. To say the Church’s teaching leaves open the nature of the fire of hell is not to say there is no such thing. Scripture, the Fathers, and the Church’s teaching through the centuries are too uniform in using the language of “fire” to allow us to dispense with it when we do not know what the experience of hell is. For all we know, ordinary burning might be mild by comparison, since pain is no mere sensation, but a complex psychological experience. See Roger Trigg, Pain and Emotion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970).

28. See Charles Journet, The Meaning of Evil (New York: P. J. Kenedy and Sons, 1963), 186 and 200; Fortman, op. cit., 172–74. The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Letter on Certain Questions concerning Eschatology,” 71 AAS (1979) 942; L’Osservatore Romano, Eng. ed., 23 July 1979, 7, restates the traditional doctrine in a way which devalues any “picture” or “imaginative representation” yet maintains the truth of faith: The Church “believes that there will be eternal punishment for the sinner, who will be deprived of the sight of God, and that this punishment will have a repercussion on the whole being of the sinner.” Thus one need not think in terms of imposed pain of any sort; the positive suffering is a repercussion consequent upon self-determined separation from (instead of communion with) God.