Reflections on Hell
Everyone knows the rich man: his name is on his door, his fine residence is conspicuous, not hidden away in an alley. He lives a life of indulgence, wrapt up in self. Lazarus lying on his door step, makes no impression on him. He has no thought and no care for any life but the present: his fine clothes, his splendid feasts, his riches and the magnificence which surrounds him: these things are his delight; they fill his life. His achievements and opinions turn up often in the news of the day. Yet this man is of no account in the Kingdom of God. "The proud man of this life," says St. Augustine, "is the beggar of the nether world." With Christ the last shall be first, and the first, last. "So is he," quotes St. Luke in the story of the rich fool, "who layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich towards God.'' Nescio vos--"I know you not."
"... And Lazarus." A passerby may toss a coin to a beggar of the street, but he does not seek his name. Only Our Lord knows all about this poor fellow: his name, his sores, his rags, his hunger and his rebuff. "Hath not God chosen the poor of this world, rich in faith, and heirs of the Kingdom?" (James 2:5)
Both of these men died. Lazarus, of course, first. He drew no consultation of expert physicians, received no scientific nursing. He died where he lay. Still, both rich and poor are equal in death. I pass over the grand funeral of the one corpse--the lost vanity of the great. "Of what account is it," asks St.Augustine, "to be praised where you are not, if you be burned where you are?" At any rate both men ceased to breathe, both were boxed up, carried out, and lowered into the ragged opening in the graveyard.
So, at last, the rich man also died, "and he," that is, the conscious, thinking, feeling self, was not handled by the undertaker, was buried, not six feet under ground in the garden cemetery, but in hell.'' In hell,'' our Lord says.
"We must face realities. Things are what they are, and their consequences will be what they will be. Why should we refuse to confront them? We do not annihilate realities by holding our hand to our eyes, or averting our gaze. We are on probation and we must face the ultimate issues of it: God and free will, Christ and redemption, saved or lost. We ought to look to the future before it comes, and have faith now in what we must realize hereafter. Now it is Our Lord who is speaking to us. The look on the divine countenance of Christ and the tones of the voice which was imperious with the storms of the sea, put compulsion on the human heart, and rang out with authority in the very tomb of death--these things of sense were special, external graces, accorded to groups of one passing generation of a chosen race in a holy laud. Their eyes and ears were for that reason declared "blessed." But the truth of Christ is for me as much as for them. Veritas Domini manet in aeternum. St. John tells us that many words of Our Lord were not preserved. They were spoken, as in a lower tone for the benefit of the actual auditors, but this parable was spoken for all. It is Christ, Who is now teaching me. Our Lord is now lifting up His voice to catch my attention.
We believe in hell, not from a human sense of moral justice to even up the palpable wrongs of this life. Our convictions rest not on our reasoning. We believe because Christ has revealed it. The truth of it comes back to Him. His word rests upon His Person. He is no mere man who is speaking to us. Taking His word we have something altogether different from the conclusion of a philosopher or the mysterious vision of a prophet. He is the authorized revealer of the realities of the external world. "They have Moses and the prophets," but we have Christ; "You call Me Master, and you say well, for so I am" (John 13:13). He is the "faithful and true witness." He was born to witness the truth. In hoc natus sum (John, 18:37). "He was teaching as one having authority" (Matt. 7:29). He spoke of His own experience. "We speak what we know and we testify what we have seen.'' These ultimate realities are within His knowledge; His eyes are on them. He speaks of the highest mysteries of predestination and salvation, as of things plain to His sight. Our Lord was not anxious to disabuse men of their fears of sin and its consequences. He intensified them. He speaks five words of the consequences of sin to the one word of the reward of virtue. It is thus that He saves men. He has revealed something of hell to keep me from ruining myself. This, then is a word of eternal life.
We wonder that men professing to be Christians, can discard belief in hell, when the doctrine is so manifest in the New Testament. Christ Himself mentions it fifteen times. Every few pages we read of the "outer darkness," the "unbreakable chains," the despairful "gnashing of teeth," the "undying worm " at the heart's core, the "pool of fire"; of the sterile branch lopped off and cast into the fire, of the cockle burnt in bundles, of the "foolish virgins" shut out of the wedding, of the guest found at the banquet with the soiled clothes of the street; the account of the "unmerciful servant" given over to the torturers, of the dread enemy "who destroys both soul and body in hell," and most impressive of all of the Judge of the living and the dead who is to come with power to sentence the wicked to the "everlasting fire, which was prepared for the devil and his angels."
Plain as this is, unbelief is widespread. The parable refers to the strength of it. "If they hear not Moses and the Prophets, neither will they believe if one rise again from the dead." The fact of the matter is that there are multitudes who do not wish to believe in an eternal hell, and who banish it from their minds as a pure man banishes a bad thought. They like not to take the thought into their minds as a principle of action which would hinder them from the full enjoyment of the world that now is.
There are two worlds, after all. The proud rich man is now the crying beggar in awful torments, calling for relief from Lazarus, happy and powerful. "Lifting up his eyes"--for the first time they are open to the real world and raised aloft. It is too late for faith: This is experience. You have received good things. You were on probation. You had your choice between this world and the next. You chose this world, temporal and passing, for your all. You have had your lot; now there is nothing beyond. This world leaves you at death. You have nothing to expect in the eternal world. You had free will, and there was God before you as your destiny--God to be accepted or rejected: Christ and redemption--to be saved or lost. Quid prodest homini, si mundum universum lucretur, animae vero suae detrimentum patiatur (Matt 16:26).
The thought of a bitter pain, prolonged forever, makes the head reel and the heart sink. How time drags in pain, "What time is it?" asks a feverish man in pneumonia. "Twelve o'clock, midnight." He moans and cries: "Will it ever be morning?" The way to realize distance is to walk it. Eternity does not seem so long till we apply a rule of measure we know. I remember from childhood the illustration of the missioner; it is not easily forgotten. Imagine the world one vast rock, and imagine that every one hundred years a bird comes and lightly brushes its wing against the earth. The earth would sustain some loss in bulk, we suppose, though we might not be able to see or estimate it, so infinitesimal would it be. Well, some time the earth would be worn away by this abrasion, and eternity would be but begun. If an angel should go to that region with authentic tidings that at the end of things hell itself would be abolished, what a change would come about. Pain and anguish would continue, of course, but despair would cease; there would be a foothold for patience, and hell would be turned into purgatory.
We know what time is--the succession of the moment, of the "now." We measure it by tick of watch or clock, by bell on tower, by the roll of the world in its vast revolution about the sun. Eternity is not indefinite succession, though that is the only way to imagine it. At death we leave the order of creatures and are taken into God. No tick of clock then, no strike of bell, no change of season or waste of years or decay of force, no death in God, taken up into His eternity. Man's life is finite; God's is infinite; man's measure is time, God's eternity. The angel puts one foot on the land and the other on the sea, and swears that time is no more.
Then there is everlasting fire. The Christians under Nero were soaked in pitch and chained to stakes: living, breathing lamp posts illuminating the circus when the sun sank in the Mediterranean. There was a puff of white and yellow smoke, then the explosive, enveloping flame in flesh and blood and marrow, but it was all over for each in a single night.
Suppose the body preserved in fire like new lamp mantels: living, breathing flames through the downfall of Rome--more than three centuries later through the crusades, the rise of universities and of modern states, of old culture revived after fifteen centuries and the revolt of Luther and on through the French Revolution. Ages pass: a bit of eternity in the abiding now. New worlds rise and fall, and yet these tortured beings still breathe and live in flame.
We are living in a sensual age. The senses are steeped each in its own pleasure. Men fly from pain, as a saint would fly from sin. Medicine attacks it as if it were the only evil of the world. What with drugs, anodynes, anesthetics, even death itself has no longer any sting. But the holy doctrine of hell--fire will correct and purify, and following the common teaching of the Catholic Church, I believe in the real fire of hell. Our Lord said "fire" over and over again. He knew the meaning of the words and the full implications of the judicial sentence: "Depart into fire." I believe He meant what He said. He knew the laws of language, and spoke to this refined age which is in revolt against physical pain. Our Lord's mission was not to be a great poet like Dante. The people of Verona, when they saw the Florentine poet in their streets, used to say, "See, there is the man who was in hell." But Christ is the way, the truth and the life and I do not begin by setting bounds to omnipotence. I do not ask "How?" I do not pretend to know how fire affects spirit, but I do know that even here body is acting on soul and soul on body all the time.
Dives, the hard--hearted sensualist was "in torments"; "I am tortured in this flame." He is in fire as in his element; clothed in fire, breathing an atmosphere of fire, fire for food and drink. We may have known the anguish of parching thirst, but we have never been in the midst of flames. How men dread the touch of fire--throw themselves from hotel windows and are dashed to pieces rather than be swallowed up in fire. Dives begs only a drop of water from the tip of the finger, Crucior in hac flamma!
We are conscious persons with power of free choice. The difference of right and wrong is in the foundation of our conscience, and the structure of the moral world. A man's destiny depends upon his own choice. He, not death, makes or unmakes himself, and if he surrenders God Who is the fulfilment of his being, he destroys himself forever. In this world God has not given him up, but He ministers to him through creatures who aid and comfort him; but when God gives him up for good, all creation turns against him. He is under malediction. Then what happens; death? No. He persists; he is himself--no shadowy world of dreams, but of spiritual realization; illusions and phantoms are gone. He has the burden of his choice. His acts cling to him--his state. There is a fearful wrench of nature, of mind and heart and destiny: his mind to know what he has lost forever; his heart to feel a fiery, everlasting thirst and the sickening torment of hate; his memory to sink into stony despair: to realize that his lot is the outcome of his own folly--to curse himself as an eternal and unsalvageable freak.
Once there was no hell, because no sin. It is a creation, but in back of it is God and His unalterable nature and holy attributes. This is the reason for an endless hell, though we cannot understand the mystery. We do not understand the malice of sin because we have imperfect ideas of God and His attributes. The saints, who have a professional standard of holiness and insight into God, see into the mystery far deeper than we do. This I do, know, that if a man from self-satisfaction puts himself deliberately in the place of God, he must, from the nature of things, wreck himself; for God, not self, is his destiny. As there is a heaven, so there is a hell. As there is eternal life, so there is eternal death. God is holy by nature, just by nature, pure by nature, true by nature, and unchangeable by nature; then if a man, by his own choice, yet under probation for union with God, makes himself unholy, unjust, impure or false, and will not change by repentance, he establishes an opposition to God which can never be bridged. "And besides all this, between us and you, there is fixed a great chaos: so that they who would pass from hence to you, cannot, nor from thence come hither." Here's the pain of loss. '' A yawning chasm, too deep to be filled up, too wide to be bridged over." Mortal sin being given, hell is in the nature of things. As the result of some fearful convulsion, God and heaven and that soul are forever severed. The lost cannot pass over for comfort or peace; nor can the saints go to their relief. '' Out of hell there is no redemption."
After a thousand years spent in hell, what must a damned soul think of the night of beastly pleasure which he had on earth? What eating remorse he must have, what self-condemnation! He cannot shut his eyes in sleep, he cannot take a drug; he must think forever. There is no rest, no forgetfulness, no occupation to lift the realization of his loss of God. There is no consolation in the ulcered and dried hearts of the damned. They cannot love. "This is the place," said St. Teresa with a shudder, "where there is no love," no look of compassion, no word of encouragement for them from any companion, no hope. They retain their powers of mind, imagination, feeling, but no light in their outlook, concentrated in their present misery, with the gigantic shadow of eternity stretching before them. If there is a piercing voice that exhausts mortal fear and anguish, its cry must be "Eternity."
And could I be damned forever with Christ's seal of priesthood upon my soul, with Christ's truth in my mind, Christ's power in my hands, Christ's protection around me, a living ostensorium to my people! And all in vain, if I hear at last from Christ: "I never knew you." How many, many people in my parish with heavy drawbacks and few privileges will be saved by my common ministrations ; and I myself lost! What a fury of self-hatred to have for enemy "Him in whom I live and move, and have my being."
The loss of God! I cannot realize it. I know what the loss of a father, a mother, a friend means. I know what the loss of a brother means. These things I can feel. I am aware that the saints and holy persons know hell as the loss of God. So little do men think of it that a man will lie down with certain mortal sin on his soul, at the brink of hell, with only a heartbeat to keep him from it, and yet that man will not lose one minute's sleep on account of it.
All this is of intense interest to me if I have committed one mortal sin. If I have committed one mortal sin, I have deserved hell as much as the rich man in the parable. Now if I had gone after my first sin to hell; if I had lost my soul, and now, God in His infinite pity had opened the gate '' that never outward swings," and making just one only exception to His inexorable law of justice had drawn me out again; what gratitude would be too great! If He were to demand an atonement by confession, I should exclaim, "What, to one priest? I'll do what St.Augustine did--write my confession and publish it to the world. Restitution? I'll restore four--fold, like Zachaeus. Break with an occasion of sin? Penance? If He were to demand a year's penance, I would offer ten years, twenty years; a lifetime would be nothing.
Now, which is the greater mercy, to have gone through once, and to have been rescued, or to have been prevented by His mercy from that doom? I cannot doubt but that for His special mercy with all the waste that marks God's operations in grace as in nature, (for our redemption is copiosa) I should have been damned forever. I was no further from hell than from death. I have deserved to be there now, and if I am not there, I owe it to God, He has suspended His own law and the nature of the case, the consequences of my own choice, and brought me back from hell to life and the hope of Heaven. He has put out the flames of hell for me. I have been in the hell of mortal sin, and His hand and the Blessed Mother's have drawn me to the Calvary of Confession where the Precious Blood has poured its red torrent over my raging concupiscence and put out the mad fires of my passions.
This one thought should be enough for me. It is a small thing now to give up the "good things'' of this life, because if I cling to them, as the rich man did, I shall suffer "evil things" forever. Of two evils, one ought always to choose the less. So I must make every sacrifice to be saved; consent to lose something rather than everything. And this is the one conclusion to which Our Lord leads us in His own sermon on hell.
No one is a hero who sacrifices a hand or a foot or an eye to save himself. It is the sensible thing to do. It is rational, reasonable, self-love. "And if thy hand scandalize thee, cut it off; it is better for thee to enter life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into unquenchable fire, where the worm dieth not, and the fire is not extinguished. And if thy foot scandalize thee, cut it off. It is better for thee to enter lame into life everlasting, than having two feet, to be east into the hell of unquenchable fire, where the worm dieth not, and the fire is not extinguished. And if thy eye scandalize thee, pluck it out. It is better for thee with one eye to enter into the Kingdom of God, than having two eyes to be cast into the hell of fire, where the worm dieth not, and the fire is not extinguished."(Mark, 9:42--48) I must let all else go, that I myself be saved. "It is better" for me, Our Lord says.
Love is better than fear, but fear is better than sin. And I want to be safe in all my moods from hell. I do not want to go there. I will leap back instantly from sin, as from a furnace when the flames belch out. Moments come when temptation is strong: the object is so fascinating and urgent, the supernatural so dim, the will so weak. We then need the fear of hell in our very flesh or else the fire of passion will break out in veins and muscle and marrow.
The thought of hell is not sterile and crushing, but most salutary. Holy men have ever found it so. Let us cling to strong religion that saves. I must feel gratitude deep in my heart to God for saving me from myself. There ought to be a look of gratitude in my eyes. " Misericordiae Domini quia non sumus consumpti." (Lam. 3:22) I must make an iron resolve to keep from mortal sin. I have only that to fear in this life: a break with God: hunc timete. Apart from that, nothing can do me real harm, neither death nor demon. I will never trifle with mortal sin. That is a bomb with a blazing fuse--full of hell--fire. "Jam noli peccare, ne deterius aliquid tibi contingat." (John, 5:14) I must be humble and patient with the ills of life. And I must develop a noble resolve to save others as I have been saved from damnation, I cannot do anything nobler. If we save only one soul, what a gain! How grateful that soul should be; how grateful Our Lord should be! The souls I save will be the pledge of my own salvation. I should do anything I can, offer anything however precious, sacrifices, prayers, for poor sinners who are about to die. There ought to be a look in my face, an accent in my voice, an appeal in my feelings, that should put compulsion on sinners when I stand in the pulpit, or whisper in the confessional, or take charge of the dying. I ought to take my stand as a sentinel on the approach to hell, and push poor sinners from the path of damnation. Plorabunt sacerdotes.