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Catechesis And The Suffering of Souls In Hell

April 12, 2018 Frontpage No Comments

By ARTHUR HIPPLER

(Editor’s Note: Arthur Hippler is chairman of the religion department and teaches religion in the Upper School at Providence Academy, Plymouth, Minn.)

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Just before Easter, we were greeted with “Pope Francis Denies the Existence of Hell!” headlines, followed up by clarifications in much smaller font. Those with long memories will recall that years ago John Paul II captured headlines when, in a Wednesday audience, he said that Hell was a “state” rather than a “place,” that is the “state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy” (July 28, 1999).
For many, denying that Hell was a “place” amounted to denying its existence. How can something exist that’s in no place at all? While the doctrinal issue is worth examining, plainly it is also worth considering how one teaches that doctrine in the modern context.
In the traditional teaching, the suffering of Hell is twofold: the pain of loss, that is, the deprivation of the vision of God; and the pain of sense, the torment of “eternal fire.” The Catechism of the Council of Trent describes Hell as “that most loathsome and dark prison in which the souls of the damned are tormented with the unclean spirits in eternal and inextinguishable fire.” Here the pain of sense is foremost.
By contrast, the Catechism of the Catholic Church emphasizes the pain of loss: “To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him forever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called ‘hell’” (n. 1033). This emphasis tends to characterize our approach today. And the emphasis on “the pain of loss” goes together with putting physical sufferings in the background.
First, let’s clarify the doctrinal issue. Summarizing the traditional view, Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange notes that the pain of sense is “clearly affirmed in the Gospel: ‘Rather fear Him that can destroy both soul and body in hell’ (Matt. 5:29; 10:28; 18:19; Mark 9:42, 46; Luke 12:5).” It is the general opinion of the Patristic writers: “The Fathers generally, with the exception of Origen and his disciples, speak of a real fire, which they compare to terrestrial fire, or even to corporeal fire. Thus St. Basil, St. Chrysostom, St. Augustine, St. Gregory the Great,” says Garrigou-Lagrange
St. Thomas, building on this foundation (STh Ia IIae, q. 87, a. 4), reasons in the following way: “The existence of this pain follows from the truth that mortal sin not only turns man away from God, but turns him also to a created good preferred to God. Mortal sin, therefore, deserves a double suffering, first, the privation of God, secondly, the affliction which comes from creatures. The body, too, which has taken part in sin and has found in sin a forbidden joy, must share the suffering of the soul” (Life Everlasting, part 3 “Hell,” chapter 17).
Is one required to believe as a matter of dogma that the damned suffer from fire in Hell? Strictly speaking, no. As the Catholic Encyclopedia states: “According to the greater number of theologians the term fire denotes a material fire, and so a real fire. We hold to this teaching as absolutely true and correct.” At the same time, the opinion that the fire of Hell is somehow incorporeal and figurative has never been officially condemned. Indeed, a “few of the Fathers” interpret the fire of Hell as a “metaphorical explanation.”
Nevertheless, “Scripture and tradition speak again and again of the fire of hell, and there is no sufficient reason for taking the term as a mere metaphor.” While describing the physical torments of hell as figurative has some basis in tradition, it is slim. The best one can say for this opinion is that it has not yet been condemned.
Part of the reason we focus on the “pain of loss” rather than the “pain of sense” is a pastoral sensitivity to modern people. In the Wednesday audience on Hell, John Paul II counseled that “the thought of Hell — and even less the improper use of biblical images — must not create anxiety or despair, but is a necessary and healthy reminder of freedom within the proclamation that the risen Jesus has conquered Satan, giving us the Spirit of God who makes us cry ‘Abba, Father’!” (Romans 8:15; Gal. 4:6). (It is no doubt this sensitivity that led the translator of John Paul II’s text to render piu che as “rather than a place, hell is a state” when the more common meaning would be “more than a place” as EWTN.com notes in its version of the text.) John Paul II teaches that Hell is a place and a state, but emphasizes the state. He does not want to create unnecessary “anxiety and despair.”
I tend to follow this pattern myself. When we teach the “four last things” to our juniors, we use C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, which imaginatively depicts a busload of souls from Hell who are allowed to visit Heaven, and stay if they wish. (Plot spoiler — most don’t want to stay.) Lewis emphasizes the unhappiness of the self-centered soul collapsing in on itself, and leaves aside forms of “external” torment.
We read The Great Divorce because it helps the student to see how a soul would choose unhappiness over happiness, which is the most puzzling aspect of Hell. Wouldn’t an unbelieving or disobedient soul, once it was separated from its mortal life, recognize the folly of its choice? The various characters illustrate Lewis’ claim that “the choice of every lost soul can be expressed in the words ‘Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.’ There is always something they insist on keeping, even at the price of misery. There is always something they prefer to joy.”
While this conveys the responsibility of damnation on the part of the human soul, and helps students to see that souls are not “sent” to Hell, as it were, against their choice, it does not allow the student to see the full horror of Hell.
I have had students says that “a life without God just doesn’t sound that bad.” They accept the teaching on the “pain of loss” with equanimity, because they truly have no idea what it means to say that God is the source of all goodness. On the other hand, the words of the Lord “Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels” get the attention of the most jaded and cynical. “Pain of sense” gives them pause in a way that “pain of loss” does not.
Indeed, as one examines the formulations of Hell in the Gospels, one is hard pressed to find imagery that conveys “pain of loss.” It is largely pain of sense. Consider our Lord’s interpretation of the parable of the seed and the sower: “Even as cockle therefore is gathered up, and burnt with fire: so shall it be at the end of the world. The Son of man shall send his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all scandals, and them that work iniquity. And shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 13:40-42).
Do we doubt the catechetical soundness of our Lord’s own teaching method? It is important to recall that all the imagery we associate with Hell is from the Lord’s own mouth.
John Paul II and the new Catechism are right to remind us that the worst suffering of Hell is the loss of God. But for many of us and especially for the young, the loss of spiritual goods is not felt as loss. Like the thought of an imminent hanging, the physical torments that accompany the resurrection of a damned body can concentrate the mind on the greatness of one’s own wrongdoing. Pastorally, one never wants to lead souls to despair. But there is a healthy fear, “fear him that can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28), that is a necessary part of the Christian life.

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