Eternal Punishment by J. P. Arendzen - Chapter 2
As in many minds the word hell stands merely for some confused idea of endless horror and misery, without any precise conception of its nature and what the Catholic Church teaches concerning it, we must needs begin with a simple exposition of what the Church means by hell.
What, then, is hell?
It is primarily the permanent deprivation of the Beatific Vision, inflicted on those who die in mortal sin.
Unbaptised children and unbaptised adults who were so mentally defective as to be incapable of choosing between good and evil, will after life also lack the Beatific Vision. Such absence of Beatific Vision, when merely the consequence of original sin, is, however, seldom designated in English by the word "hell," though in Latin the technical term "infernum" is sometimes used for it. In this treatise we are not discussing the state of unbaptised infants (See Vol. X of this series, pp. 79-85.) or mentally defectives, we are dealing exclusively with the punishment of those who die guilty of personal mortal sin, a punishment which primarily consists in the penal deprivation of the Beatific Vision.
The Beatific Vision is the sight of God face to face. This supernatural state of final bliss is studied in the treatise The Church Triumphant, Vol. XXXV; the reading of which will contribute much to a fuller understanding of this treatise on hell.
Here we can consider the Beatific Vision only negatively, because its punitive absence constitutes the very essence of eternal damnation.
The natural end of man would have been to know God indirectly through his creatures, and to love him with a love corresponding to such knowledge. For such natural end man, as a matter of fact, was never destined. God gave him only a supernatural end, which is the direct sight of God without any intermediary, the vision which the Scriptures aptly describe as "face to face."
To have lost this end through one's own fault constitutes the very nature of hell. It is called damnation, from the Latin word damnum, which means simply "loss." It is the Great Loss. It is a loss which nothing can replace. The supernatural end of man having been lost by actual sin, no other end or purpose of a lower or natural kind can be attained. The sinner who loses the Beatific Vision loses his all, for his soul, though endowed with never-ending existence, will never attain the end or purpose to which none the less it must by the force of his nature eternally tend. It is the final and never-ceasing frustration of the craving of an immortal being.
In one sense one might speak of it as an infinite loss. For the object lost is God himself– God as the object of human knowledge and love. On the other hand, the loss is subjectively and strictly speaking not infinite. The pain of loss depends on the realisation of the value of the thing lost. Even on earth two people may lose an object of intrinsically the same value and feel the loss unequally. All the damned lose God, yet the punishment of all, however great, will not be equal, for the loss of God will mean more to one than to another.
It is sometimes said that the damned at the judgement will for a moment see God and then be deprived of his sight for ever. This is, however, an incorrect way of speaking. Once God is seen face to face, the soul will love him eternally; once the Beatific Vision is granted, it will never be withdrawn. Though this particular expression, therefore, is incorrect, still it is prompted by a true idea. Unless the soul were granted a deeper and greater realisation of what God is than it had possessed on earth, the loss of the immediate vision of God would mean but little to it. Some flash of light must pierce the darkened mind, revealing to it the awful greatness and beauty of God at least in some indirect way in order that it may realise what it has lost. For us on earth God always remains something unseen and, as it were, abstract. He is the Great Unknown, at the back of the Universe, he is its maker and its maintainer, therefore all creation proclaims him indeed, but at the same time hides him from our sight. His very existence is only an inference, a valid inference, a spontaneous inference of reason, but still only a conclusion. He is not in himself an object of mental sight. We understand that he must contain within himself all perfections of the Universe, but in a higher, more eminent way. We know God indeed also by revelation, he stands revealed in Jesus Christ, but even this revelation is not direct sight. The Apostles saw Christ's manhood, not his Godhead, and what they have told us reveals the divinity indirectly but not in itself. Moreover, on earth even this indirect knowledge remains only a dim realisation, because of the thousand attractions of sense, which interfere with our religious meditation. In consequence, to lose God does not in this life mean to us that unspeakable calamity which it in reality is.
The loss of the Beatific Vision is the great failure. On earth no failure is complete, because it is always retrievable, if not in itself, at least in some other way. Hell means total failure, failure of the whole of one's being, failure without any hope of retrieving what is lost.
The impulse to re-start after failure is almost instinctive during this life. There will be no re-starting life after this final disaster. All is over, the soul is forced to face utter ruin, beyond repair. All that is left is blank despair.
In the life beyond the grave where all illusions about earthly goods have completely gone, where the turmoil of this material world has ceased, where the soul has outgrown the limitations of this mortal life, and realises with a mental keenness unknown on earth the inner truth of things, the loss of God is a disaster exceeding in extent all that we can now conceive. We now know that we are made for God, and that the possession of God is our final end, but we realise it in a faint, obscure way only. Few people have felt an intense hunger for God. Some saints, indeed, have done so; they have at moments been driven almost beside themselves with a desire to see God, they have felt an agonising pain in the delay, and some have welcomed death, which would give them the object of their desire. Those instances, however, are rare.
The kaleidoscopic variation of earthly affairs distracts us, and the good things of the world satisfy us at least in part; bodily necessities interrupt our higher mental life continually. None of this happens in eternity. Man has come to his final state in which with all his mental power and the whole energy of his will he either possesses God or, losing him, is aware of the complete and everlasting failure of his existence. Every fibre of his being tends toward God by inward necessity; God draws him as a magnet draws iron, his innermost self thrills with longing for God, who is infinite goodness, beauty, and truth, yet he is intimately conscious that his nature is so warped, disfigured, and deformed that it can never be united to God. Between himself and God there is a gulf fixed which no bridge will ever span. Nor is God a distant object, which he might manage to forget. God is intimately present to him, but this presence is a torment, not a joy, for holiness is both an object of horror and of desire to those that are in sin. Every instant of his never-ending life he wants God and he knows that he wants him, yet every instant he feels an irresistible recoil, a disgust, a loathing and a hatred, which turns him from that which he wants.
To speak in a parable, he is like a shipwrecked mariner in a little craft on the open sea. He raves with maddening thirst, though surrounded by water. He lifts the sea water to his lips and then vomits it out, for it is salt. The salt is his sin. His sin has turned even the sweet waters of God's goodness brackish; it is a venom which he always tastes and makes him hate even God as poison, though at the same time he is mad with thirst for God."
If, perhaps, a reader in perusing the following pages feels inclined to think that this is all rhetoric, and not a sober and objective treatment of the problem, he must remember that hell is a matter of revelation, and that the source of our knowledge is what Christ and the Apostles have revealed. If they spoke in figures, our way to truth is by analysing and probing the full bearing of what they said.
Christ speaks of hell as the losing of one's soul: "What doth it profit a man if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his own soul? Or what exchange shall a man give for his soul?" (Matt, xvi 26.) This expression: "losing one's soul," does not mean cessation of existence, for we know that the soul is immortal; but it does mean the complete cessation of that supernatural life of grace, which God intended for it, and without which man has utterly failed of the purpose of his being. If a man–an adult, who has had the choice between good and evil and with complete deliberation has chosen evil and died persisting in his choice–fails to obtain the Beatific Vision, there is no substitute for it as the aim of his life. He has lost his soul in the fullest sense of the word. All that remains to him is eternal existence without purpose, or rather with a purpose that can never be achieved, never even be approached throughout eternity. It is the complete aimlessness of a never-ending life which is the appalling state of the lost soul. It is an asking never to receive, a seeking never to find, a knocking at a gate eternally closed, to hear for ever: "Amen, amen, I know you not."
In hell nothing of the supernatural remains except the marks of baptism, confirmation, and the priesthood, nothing except the bitter memory of graces once received, and these things remain to enhance eternal sorrow, the sense of the greatness of what is lost.
In contrast to "the saved," the damned are called "the lost." No word could express more precisely and almost technically their real state.
They are lost. By creating us, God sent us on a journey, a journey towards himself, a journey which was meant to end in a home-coming. The home intended is a nestling in the very bosom of God, the complete possession, the closest embrace by mind and will of God himself. For the damned the journey will never end, home and rest will never be; they are lost. For them is eternal restlessness without progression. They are wanderers, idly, foolishly, hopelessly wandering hither and thither, never making headway toward God. Although no belated traveller ever had a fiercer desire than they to be able to say: "Home at last," they will never say it; it is for ever dying on their lips.
St Jude in his epistle has an inspired description of the wicked which because of its very divine inspiration is of the greatest value in understanding the state of the damned. He calls them: "Clouds without water, carried about by the winds; trees of autumn, unfruitful, twice dead, plucked up by the roots; raging waves of the sea, foaming out their own confusion; wandering stars, to whom the storm of darkness is reserved for ever." (Verse 12)
A cloud pregnant with beneficent rain is a source of blessing, a steady cloud that is a shield to the glare of the sun is a cause of joy, but clouds without water, swept across the sky by a hurricane, are flimsy things of nothing, the symbol of the utterly useless, the utterly wasted, the thing that was and is gone, and has left no trace.
The wicked are like trees that had chance of bearing fruit, but have not done so. Their summer is over, and no second summer will be given them. They are dead in their innermost being, dug up by the roots, severed from all that lives by the Spirit of God, rotting alone in eternal corruption.
The wicked are as the raging waves of the sea, foaming out their own confusion. On the shores of eternity they are breaking the surging waves of their furious passions, but the roar of their turbulent yearnings will never cease and their utmost endeavour will for ever end in idle spray.
The wicked are wandering stars to whom the storm of darkness is reserved for ever. Some comets with a long trail of splendour approach the sun with incredible speed, but they swing round the centre light without touching it, and then start their path back into space and their parabola ends in infinity. Thus out of nothing did God create human souls, endowed them with a trail of glory, and sent them forward towards himself. But some abusing their free will, miss the divine Sun that is the centre and heart of all creation, then to start back into infinity, into a darkness whence they will never return. They are the "sidera errantia," the wandering stars driven into the empty void by the storm-blast of God's wrath.
Let no one set these things aside as mere metaphors, unfit for a scientific exposition; they are the word of God, and when God himself uses analogy and figure of speech, the study of God's metaphors is the most scientific treatment which the subject can bear.
Christ describes the state of the damned as one of outer darkness. Obviously physical darkness is not the only thing meant; it is also mental, spiritual darkness. As the eye is destined for the light, so is man's mind destined for the truth, but the truth is God. The inner desire to know is natural to every human being. Promise a man to tell him something new, and you will draw him from afar; he will submit to every hardship, if only he can come and listen. From the far-off days when Babylonian astronomers searched with naked eye the starry heavens till this day when a man bends over a microscope, the search for the truth is the dominant passion of humanity. Some degraded men may sink their being in sensual, sexual pleasures, but they are few, and even in them some desire for truth can never die. Satan well understood human nature when in Paradise he beguiled the first man with the lying promise: "If you eat from the fruit of the tree, ye shall know." God promised man as his supreme reward: "Ye shall know!" "This is everlasting life: that they may know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent." The reward is the clear unclouded sight of God in his own divine nature. This will completely satiate the human mind, which will rest in ecstasy on the object of its knowledge. The supreme Mystery will lie unveiled. But the damned are in darkness, and a cloud of ignorance clings to their intelligence. They know that they might have known, but they do not.
The raving madman is on earth an object of pity and horror to the sane-minded, but the damned are madmen of their own making; deliberately they have drugged their own minds With the poison of sin and their delirium is always upon them. Though God is so close to them and the natural forces of their intellect so keen in the world beyond, yet God is the maddening mystery to them, the tormenting problem which will never be solved. The man in a foul, dark fog which stings his eyes and blinds them, feels his gloom the more, if he recalls to himself that somewhere the sun shines and the sky is blue. So the damned grope and stumble along in a mental mist that will never be lifted, though they know that somewhere the majesty and clarity of truth sheds its splendour and entrances beholders with its divine beauty.
The mind is darkened and the will perverted. Those whose work brings them to study the psychology of sin come across many cases of such incipient perversion even on earth. Final perversion is only an intensification, a fixing of a state by no means unknown here. The drunkard drinks, and inwardly curses himself for drinking. The debauchee wallows in sin, and detests himself for his loathsome cravings. The angry man smites in the moment of his anger, yet his own nature cries out while he strikes his friend. His cravings, his passions, his furies are upon him, they cling to him. Their grasp is more than an outward grip, they hold his will by inward compulsion. Sometimes in impotent remorse he cries out: "My tastes are foul, my desires are loathsome; I am a cruel beast, I know it, but I cannot, I will not change; I am what I am." When a friend or a priest comes and puts the horror of his conduct before him, he fiercely faces them: "You can tell me nothing I do not know. Preach to me? Man, I preach to myself every hour of the day, and then laugh in despair at my own eloquence! Matters have gone too far, I am what I am, better leave me alone!"
For a long time some vague desire for good remains, a tear sometimes wells up for the virtue that is gone, the innocence that is lost. Then even that state passes away, at least in some rare cases. There is a delight in evil, a wish to spread evil, a hatred for what is good. The victim of lust hates all that is chaste and wants to destroy it. The victim of anger detests what is patient and meek and wants to crush it. The proud man repels the humble and wants to trample upon him. The sight of moral beauty rouses inner antagonism. He wants a recasting of all values. Good must be evil; evil must be good. Someone recently wrote his impressions of Bolshevik Russia. He was no minister of religion, he was no Catholic, I doubt even whether he was much of a believing Christian, but he wrote that what struck him most in his contact with Bolshevik circles was the existence of an almost demoniacal hate of chastity. An English novelist, who must be nameless, writes for the purpose of destroying the sacredness of marriage, to tear the heart out of the sanctities of wedded life. His purpose is avowed. He glories in it. A Nietzsche writes, or rather screams, that meekness, humility, purity are detestable evils, a morality only fit for slaves; that all vice is really virtue, all hitherto esteemed virtue is the true vice.
If such things are possible on earth, is it not possible that such things happen in the world beyond? Is it not possible that at last such state of mind is irremediable, that a man's heart becomes vitiated beyond all cure, that he abides by his choice and will never change?
The Catholic Church teaches that the human soul remains in that state in which death finds it; if averted from God it will remain so for ever. Two parallel lines do not meet, even in infinity. The lost soul has definitely chosen another end and purpose than God, an end which is incompatible with God. Because its self-chosen end lies outside God, it will not only never reach God, but run its life in everlasting opposition to him.
It is difficult for us to understand that anyone should hate God. The perversity seems too monstrous; no one can hate the Infinite Good. The answer to this difficulty, however, is not far to seek. If the Infinite Good were directly perceived by the damned soul, he could, of course, not hate it. The fact is that the mind of the damned is darkened; though they are in eternity, they do not see God as he is. However vivid their imagination, however keen the realisation of his presence, it is indirect. It is still by reason and not by an act of intuitive intelligence that they perceive him. As such he becomes an object of their hatred and detestation because he stands in the way of what they want, what they have chosen by a final act of personal choice. He is their supreme antagonist. Of a friend they have made a foe. Not that God has changed, but they have changed. They have perverted themselves.
Now it must not be thought that the drunkard for all eternity will want drink, or the sexual sinner debauch, or the angry man eternal strife. In the changed conditions of the Hereafter the precise objects of their choice will, indeed, differ. Alcohol has no attraction probably for a disembodied soul, nor women nor vulgar brawling. But what underlies these vices is the inordinate desire of self, self-gratification, self-exaltation, of whatever kind it may be. All sin is self-seeking as opposed to God-seeking. Any particular vice indulged in on earth is only a manifestation of the preference of self before God. This self-seeking remains in the damned, and it is the very core of their damnation. The true centre of all things is God, but they are self-centred. The supreme happiness we know is love, but love means to love someone else. To love God is the supreme act of altruism which is rewarded by true happiness, because the Divine Other-One is infinitely good, and to possess infinite good is infinite happiness. The damned can love no more and therefore they are damned. Hell is the home of incurables. The disease that is beyond cure is their egoism. It is incurable because they everlastingly reject the only remedy that could heal them: the love of Some One Else instead of themselves.
Although the punitive deprivation of the Beatific Vision constitutes the chief pain of hell, the Catholic Church teaches that, in addition to this negative punishment, there is also a positive pain afflicting the damned. This is commonly referred to as hell-fire. Strictly speaking, however, "hell-fire" is but an aspect of what is called the pain of sense as distinguished from the pain of loss.
For it must be well borne in mind that it does not suffice to say, that the pain of sense afflicts the body, whereas the pain of loss afflicts the soul. According to Scripture, hell-fire was prepared for the devil and his angels, but angels have no bodies and therefore cannot be afflicted in them. Nor have lost human souls a body till the last day, yet they will be tormented by fire forthwith after the Particular Judgement.
"When speaking, therefore, of hell-fire we must keep in mind that we are not necessarily referring to bodily pain in contrast to mental pain, but to a pain which primarily affects the spirit or the soul, though after the General Judgement it will also affect the body. The difference between the pain of loss and that of sense consists in the fact that the former is caused by the absence of something, the latter by the presence of something. The former is negative, the latter positive. This hell-fire is something real, and it is something external to the sufferer, who undergoes its tormenting energies. The malice of every sin has two aspects: it is a turning away from God, and it is a turning towards creatures instead of God. The everlasting loss of God is the natural punishment for the rejection of God. What is called the pain of sense is the natural punishment for the abuse of created things, involved in turning to them, embracing them, endeavoring to possess them rather than God. It is, as it were, poetic justice, if such a phrase may pass, that he who refuses God and embraces a created thing, should lose God and have a created thing to torment him for ever.
The reality of this "hell-fire," as the instrument of the pain of sense, has never been defined by a solemn decision of Pope or Council, making the denial of it formal heresy and punishing it by exclusion from the Church, but it is certainly contained in Holy Scripture, in the Fathers, and it is the practically unanimous teaching of theologians. It could no doubt be solemnly defined if occasion demanded, and had the Council of the Vatican not been interrupted, would probably have been defined. Meanwhile no Catholic can deny it without grievous sin against the faith, though this sin could not as yet be described as one of formal heresy, but only one of wilful error and temerity. In consequence the Sacred Penitentiary at Rome, being asked whether a penitent who declared to his confessor that in his opinion the term "hell-fire" is only a metaphor in order to express the intense pains of the demons, might be allowed to persist in this opinion and be absolved, answered as follows: "Such penitents must be diligently instructed and, if pertinacious, they must not be absolved" (April 30, 1890). This, of course, is a disciplinary, not a doctrinal decree, and obviously is not an infallible definition, but it makes it plain that no one can doubt the reality of "hell-fire" without grievous sin.
Hell-fire, therefore, is not a metaphor for the intensity of mere spiritual or mental sufferings; it is a reality, objectively present outside the sufferer, and the objective cause of his sufferings. We may further ask: Are we bound to believe that God created this instrument of torture, as a new thing, called out of nothing by his omnipotence in addition to the other things he made, so that even if no devil or damned soul ever entered this fire, still it would go on burning, as if it were feeding on itself, though empty of spirits to torture?
No, not necessarily. Fire, as we have it on earth, is produced by oxygen fed by carbon, and through the vibration of the atoms brings about disintegration of the body that burns. Such fire hell-fire cannot be, for the bodies of the damned do not disintegrate, and we are not bound to believe that there will be an everlasting supply of oxygen and carbon. Moreover, "hell-fire" affects even the demons, who are pure spirits, and the damned, who until the General Resurrection are without their terrestrial bodies. In consequence, though hell-fire is a reality causing the pain of sense as distinct from the loss of God, and is some external agent whose action the demons and the damned undergo, yet this fire is only analogous to the fire we experience on earth. The instrument of this suffering is referred to in the New Testament no less than thirty times by the word fire, which word must therefore be the nearest analogy in our earthly experience to that which torments the damned.
Many theologians hold that the fire which torments the damned, though of course not an earthly fire like the fire in our grates, is yet some special creation of God, some external agent, specially called into being by God as the instrument of his avenging justice. It is, indeed, prepared for the devil and his angels, something, in fact, which would not have been but for the fact of Satan's sin; something which not only has nothing subjective about it, but is plainly merely an objective reality with which the demons and the damned come in contact and through which they suffer; something which would remain in existence, even though no devil or damned soul came within its power. They urge in support of this view the language of Holy Scripture in which hell is described as a lake of fire into which the damned are cast, described as a definite locality somewhere in the Universe, a place which can be entered and left. They urge, moreover, with force that tradition has ever seen in hell, not only some external agent tormenting the damned, but something as it were designed by the justice and holiness of God for the specific purpose of inflicting punishment on those that deserve it. In consequence, it must be something altogether distinct from the rest of God's creation, an awful reality distinct from all the other works of God. It cannot be denied that the reasons brought forward are weighty and appear to many grave theologians conclusive. We must, indeed, always keep in view that the fire of hell is certainly not a mere metaphor for the pain of the loss of God, but some additional reality which will accompany it for all eternity. It is a pain inflicted from without, inflicted by some external material agent doing the behest of God.
Scripture, however, nowhere says that God "created" this fire, but only that he "prepared" it. It would, therefore, not be against Holy Writ to hold that without creating any new substances God so utilised existing creatures as to form them into a fire for the devils and the damned. The lost have turned to creatures instead of God; God in consequence makes creatures the instrument of their punishment. St Thomas in discussing this matter most aptly uses (Wisdom 5:21) the text: "The whole world will fight with God against the perverse," and he says: "Not the whole world would fight against the perverse if they were punished only with a spiritual punishment and not with a corporeal one. Therefore they will be punished with a corporeal fire." (Supplement, 97, 5) As St Thomas, following the imperfect physiology of his day, regarded fire as an element, his explanation, however, valuable, must be reinterpreted in the light of present-day knowledge, which does not accept fire as an all-pervading constituent element of all things in the Universe. The essence of St Thomas's teaching seems to lie in this: that God has armed the whole Universe to fight on his side against the devils and the damned. God may have made this visible Universe itself a fire tormenting the devils and the damned.
Moreover, there may be a bond of intrinsic necessity between the rejection of God by the damned and their being tormented by fire. Hell-fire is, perhaps, not a punishment separately invented by the ingenuity of divine vengeance, a fierce after-thought as it were of God's wrath, to render the loss of himself more horrible, but the necessary outcome of man's nature in a state of sin, the inevitable result of the opposition between a perverted created will and the will of God, expressed in material creation.
In any case God is not merely the passive spectator of hell by simply allowing nature to take its course. God is no more a passive spectator of hell than he is of heaven. Nature has no being apart from God. God is active in all nature. It must ever be remembered that God is not an impersonal force, but a personal intelligence, and that the demons and the damned are in opposition to a personal Being, and that from this personal antagonism all their evil flows. It is therefore quite correct to speak of God inflicting punishment on his foes, though it is wrong to think of this in human fashion as if God sought the satisfaction of a desire for vengeance.
Whether, then, the fuel of this fire be specially created for the purpose or whether it be the very matter of this universe, it is a fire which in its effects and mode of action differs greatly from earthly fire. Earthly fire can only burn bodies, hell-fire burns spirits. Earthly fire disintegrates and destroys what it burns, hell-fire does not dissolve what it burns, but is compatible with never-ending existence. Earthly fire needs a continual supply of new material fuel, hell-fire is everlastingly maintained by the will and the anger of God. Earthly fire is joined to some degree of light, hell-fire is compatible with outer darkness. Earthly fire is limited to some locality, hell-fire accompanies the damned wheresoever they are. Earthly fire burns equally all that is thrown into its furnace, hell-fire burns unequally the souls of the damned according to the greatness of their sin. When we thus multiply the points of difference between the action of earthly fire and the fire tormenting the damned, we realise that we are face to face with a mystery which is beyond all our experience in this world.
How a material fire can torment a purely spiritual being we cannot fully explain. St Thomas explains it by the spirit being hampered, hindered and tied to this fire, which thus limits its freedom of action. This very imprisonment and enchainment is suggested as the cause of the soul's torment. This explanation to some may appear inadequate. However, that may be, all that we can, all that we need say with regard to the action of hell-fire upon spirits, is that by God's omnipotence fire will directly act upon a pure intelligence so as to cause it to suffer a pain to which the only parallel we possess on earth is the sensation of burning.
Hell is doubtless a place as well as a state. Such, at least, is the most natural inference from the texts of Scripture and was always taken for granted within the Church, though one could not say that it was held as a part of divine revelation. "Where in the whole universe hell is, no one can say. Until the development of modern science, hell was spoken of as in the centre of the earth, and this mode of speech, referring to the realms below, or the lowest abyss, will no doubt remain for ever customary, but it does not mean that the speaker has any conviction of faith that hell is somewhere below the earth's surface. The place of hell is simply unknown to us, for it has not pleased God to reveal it.
From what has been said it will be clear that the pain of loss, the chief punishment of hell, is far more grievous than the pain of sense. Nevertheless, it is these latter torments of hell that have most forcibly struck the imagination of men, and our Lord, by speaking in the Gospels of "hell-fire," deliberately stressed this side of eternal punishment, for he knew human nature and knew that sensible imagination would be the strongest incentive to a horror of the dreadful fate awaiting the unrepentant sinner.
It is true that sometimes both in pictures or in carvings, in sermons or in books, the torments of hell have been described with a crude realism which revolts a decent mind. Adversaries of Christianity have of recent years collected together many medieval prints and sculptures relating to hell, they have collected a number of descriptions of infernal tortures from patristic, medieval, and even more recent writers, and thus pilloried the ghastly ingenuity with which fantastic scenes of agony and cruelty were invented.
But the Christian, who peruses these tendencious works, must always call to mind that it is easy to collect from a vast literature extending over two thousand years quotations which in their accumulation give the impression that Christianity was a religion of terror and despair. It is only a deeper student with a more balanced mind who realises that such fantastic literature forms only an infinitesimally small part of the output of Christian letters; that as a matter of fact the predominant character of Christianity is one of joy, confidence, and hope; that the bulk of Christian literature expresses loving amazement at the goodness of God. The devout Christian sometimes pictures hell to himself, but he also has the tender sweetness of the crib of Bethlehem, the bright joy of Easter day, and he pictures the adoration of the Lamb and the saints in glory. Medieval architecture sometimes contains a carving of a devil as a gargoyle tormenting a damned soul, but the whole creates the impression of majesty, might, and exaltation, not of dread and doom. No doubt in some very few instances the representations of hell may be excessively gruesome and in still fewer even betray an unhealthy spirit. For such morbidities one need offer no defence. Christian writers and artists may have been at fault, but in the main both their purpose and their execution have been wholesome and noble.
The pains of hell exceed in horror all that men can imagine; it is therefore right and just that even the imagination should be called in to warn men against the supreme and last danger that besets all men. Passion and temptation to sin can be so blinding that nothing but an almost physical recoil from the punishment threatened can succeed in drawing the mind and will away from the false enchantment of evil. One might grant that the psychology of the twentieth century is not quite the same as that of the tenth, that what would be an effective dissuasive from sin in the Middle Ages may not be so effective now, but the human soul remains throughout the centuries substantially the same. The motive of fear will always be potent for good as well as for evil, and with many the threat of bodily pain will be a stronger bridle on such bodily passions as anger and lust than anything else. If all that were ever written or painted or carved expressive of the tortures of hell could be brought before us at a glance, it would certainly fall immeasurably short of the truth. Though the precise agonies dreamt of by a vivid imagination may not be the exact counterpart of the sufferings of the lost, they symbolise a reality exceeding the power of pen, brush, or chisel; they exceed all earthly imagination.
As in heaven there are different degrees of happiness, so in hell there are different degrees of punishment. The least degree of punishment will exceed in horror all we can imagine on earth, but even in hell there are depths below depths. The soul is alienated from God in the very measure of its deformity. The deformity caused by one sin can be greater than that caused by another, and according to the number of sins the deformity increases. There are therefore degrees even in the loss of God; the deeper the deformity the farther from God. The greater self-abhorrence in the damned brings about the deeper aversion from God, whose infinite holiness holds up the mirror to the monstrosity of the damned soul. In the pain of sense likewise there must be degrees. The fiercer the sinful grip on creatures which the sinner had in this life, the more fiercely will the vengeful fire torment him in the house of his eternity.
Therefore Dante's play of imagination, when, in his Inferno he describes all kinds and degrees of punishment, is not idle and useless, if it keeps before our mind that for the lost in some unique way the punishment will always fit their crime.