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Advent Reflections on the Four Last Things: Hell

Hell Is Proof of Man’s Exalted Dignity

The Offertory prayers speak of how God “wondrously endowed dignity to human nature.”[1] The eternity of Hell manifests the proof of this exalted dignity in two ways. The first is that man’s soul is immortal. The only time that God still creates out of nothing is the creation of our immortal soul in the womb of our mother.  By its very nature, God has made our souls eternal. The soul will exist beyond the grave. Consider this deep truth. Your very being, your very soul is truly immortal and will exist forever in eternity. But you must choose which eternity this will be: an eternity of happiness in the vision of God, or eternal torments deprived of God.

Thus, we see a second part of man’s exalted dignity: his free will. The eternal destiny of your immortal soul rests on your choice before you die. This choice will determine your fate. God will not force you. “The quality of mercy is not strained.”[2] God refuses to do damage to man’s dignity by sending him to Heaven by force. This would destroy the essential nature of charity, which is a free act of love.

Therefore, the eternity of Hell is proof that man’s immortal soul is free. In the depths of torments that await the damned, their fate still proclaims the glory of God. Meanwhile, in a society proclaiming its devotion to man’s liberty and “the rights of man,” eternal punishment has been removed, thus his freedom and immortality. Never before has man’s dignity been so degraded in the name of that very dignity as has the empty and nefarious rhetoric of the modern epoch.

Even so, God offers pardon freely, yet the damned refuse it. In this we see their malice, as St. Alphonsus says, “The damned are so obstinate in their sins, that even if God offered pardon, their hatred for him would make them refuse it.”[3]

Against Psychologizing Hell: God Indeed Punishes Sinners

The truth that man’s immortal soul freely and obstinately chooses Hell must not obscure the action of God in their regard: God punishes the damned. There are some who wish to obfuscate God’s action in eternal punishment as if man is the sole arbiter of his eternal fate. Indeed, the damned do desire heaven — but they do not desire God. They desire to go on sinning and reap the fruit of their wickedness. To justify their iniquity, they rashly hope all men will be saved. The Blessed Apostle censures this folly:

Be not deceived, God is not mocked. For what things a man shall sow, those also shall he reap. For he that soweth in his flesh, of the flesh also shall reap corruption. But he that soweth in the spirit, of the spirit shall reap life everlasting (Gal. vi. 7–8).

Some Catholics wish to forget that God said: I will render vengeance to my enemies, and repay them that hate me (Dt. xxxii. 41). Man is not the judge. Rather, Jesus Christ says, I have the keys of death and of hell (Apoc. i. 18). Against the sentimentalizing of judgment, hear the words of the Son of God:

Be not afraid of them who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will shew you whom you shall fear: fear ye him, who after he hath killed, hath power to cast into hell. Yea, I say to you, fear him (Lk. xii. 4–5).

It is God Who holds the power of your eternal fate. Therefore, do not follow the way of the sinner who is deceived that he can continue the mockery of God and win for himself rewards in the world to come. St. Paul thunders against the presumption of these sinners:

For if we sin wilfully after having the knowledge of the truth, there is now left no sacrifice for sins, But a certain dreadful expectation of judgment, and the rage of a fire which shall consume the adversaries. A man making void the law of Moses, dieth without any mercy under two or three witnesses: How much more, do you think he deserveth worse punishments, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath esteemed the blood of the testament unclean, by which he was sanctified, and hath offered an affront to the Spirit of grace? For we know him that hath said: Vengeance belongeth to me, and I will repay. And again: The Lord shall judge his people. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb. x. 26–31).

The Eternity of Hell Is Certain

More and more, heretics and sinners seek to complicate the simplicity of Hell with more speculation, theologies, historical studies, resourcing, rethinking. Yet they do not seek the only true answer to Hell: repent! As St. Alphonsus says, “[t]hese are not opinions controverted among theologians; they are dogmas of faith clearly revealed in the sacred Scriptures.”[4] As it is written, Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire (Mt. xxv. 41) and again the smoke of their torments shall ascend up for ever and ever (Apoc. xvi. 11) and again they shall suffer eternal punishment in destruction (II Thess. i. 9).

If Hell were not eternal, it would not deter us from sin. It would not frighten us to repentance. The extent to which sin will blind us to its consequences cannot be overstated. In the moment of temptation, sin tells us, No, you shall not die the death (Gen. iii. 4), and we believe it! Indeed, the blindness of sin would cause a man to accept a punishment in order to sin if that punishment was temporary. To what lengths will sinners go to fulfill their lusts? Did not the sin of David lead him to deceit and murder? Even so, the rationalizations and justifications of sin are endless. The reasons given in time of temptation cannot be numbered.

But they fall silent in the face of the eternity of Hell. Be silent before the face of the Lord God: for the day of the Lord is near. That day is a day of wrath (Soph. i. 7, 15). In Hell, there is no turning back. There is no escape. And they shall go out, and see the carcasses of the men that have transgressed against me: their worm shall not die, and their fire shall not be quenched (Is. lxvi. 24). Jesus Christ cries out to the wicked: You serpents, generation of vipers, how will you flee from the judgment of hell? (Mt. xxiii. 33).

Seek Pardon Before Judgement

Yet our God does not frighten us with the fires of Hell in order that we may be damned. As He says by the Prophet:

Be converted, and do penance for all your iniquities: and iniquity shall not be your ruin. Cast away from you all your transgressions, by which you have transgressed, and make to yourselves a new heart, and a new spirit: and why will you die, O house of Israel? For I desire not the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord God, return ye and live (Ez. 18:30–32).

The fires of Hell are shown to us so that we may escape them in the world to come. In the hardness of our hearts, the eternal flames of Hell are a mercy for sinners, to give them the necessary conversion for eternal life. Do not neglect mercy for your own soul, but meditate upon the fires of Hell. St. Thomas More prayed to “foresee and consider the everlasting fires of Hell.” St. Alphonsus says:

He who fixes his thoughts on eternity, is not elated by prosperity nor dejected by adversity; because, having nothing to desire in this world, he has nothing to fear: he desires only a happy eternity, and fears only a miserable eternity.[5]

St. Augustine observes that he who thinks on eternity and is not converted either has lost all faith or has lost all reason.[6] The day of the Lord is near at hand. Who knows how long your life will last? Be converted to the Lord, for He is merciful to forgive penitent sinners. Consider eternal life or eternal death, and do not be deceived by the momentary pleasures of this life.

When Thomas More was condemned to death by Henry the Eighth, his wife Louisa went to him for the purpose of tempting him to obey the royal command. Tell me, Lousia, replied the holy man, how many years can I, who am now so old, expect to live? You might, said she, live for twenty years. O foolish woman! he exclaimed, do you want me to condemn my soul to an eternity of torments for twenty years of life?[7]

[1] Humánæ substántiæ dignitátem mirabíliter condidísti.

[2] Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene I.

[3] St. Alphonsus, Sermon on the Eternity of Hell, 21st Sunday after Pentecost.

[4] Ibid.

[5] St. Alphonsus, op. cit.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

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