Eternal Punishment by J. P. Arendzen - Chapter 5

Eternal Punishment and Reason

Could human reason, unaided by divine revelation, in all rigour of logic prove the existence of eternal punishment? Possibly not. In a discussion which involves the appreciation of moral values, it is always difficult to construct an argument so compelling as to leave no loophole for doubt in those who are strongly averse to a particular conclusion.

In the case of all revealed doctrines, human reason can at least always show that they contain nothing contrary to right reason. In the case of the doctrine of hell, human reason can undoubtedly go much further. The human mind distinctly suggests, if perhaps it does not irresistibly prove, the necessity of an eternal sanction for good and evil. All weight of argument is really on one side, and the objections raised against the eternity of hell can be shown not to be the dictates of reason, but rather a darkening of the reason by feeling and sentiment. Human imagination is indeed appalled by the thought of endless suffering, there is an instinctive recoil in the whole sensitive part of man from the picture of ceaseless sorrow, but these spontaneous emotions of our nature are a very unsatisfactory guide to follow in matters of reason.

Though both infinite mercy and infinite justice are found in God, it is beyond the power of our mind to see how they are reconciled. In the hearts of men, mercy and justice are accompanied by contrary affections, which seem to exclude one another. The former is apparently a softening, the latter a hardening of the fibre of our being. In human experience, therefore, mercy often expels justice and justice mercy. We are apt to transfer such emotions to God, and to imagine that infinite mercy cannot coexist with infinite justice. All this is a play of imagination, not of sound intelligence. We are influenced by it, because we realise that we stand in need of God's mercy for our eternal happiness and stand in dread of God's justice, since no man can think that he never did something amiss. It is therefore difficult in this matter to keep a clear head and let the intellect decide, and not the emotions.

Sometimes people express their difficulty in this way: How can we suppose that God will do what no earthly father would do? No earthly father would punish his son for ever. His anger would at least relent, however much that anger was provoked, and at last he would forgive.

A scoffer has said: Christ spoke the parable of the prodigal son, whom his father forgave, and for whom he slew the fatted calf, though that son had lived riotously and wasted his inheritance. Let God himself first forgive man, and then command us to follow his example.

There seems at first something plausible in this bitter remark, but on deeper reflection it is seen to be more sharp than true.

The father in the parable forgave his son, because he repented. God forgives all those that repent and forgives them with a loving kindness that far exceeds that of any earthly father. The parable does not say that the father threw open his house to his son as long as he lived with harlots and wasted his goods. Had he given his son entrance to his house while unrepentant, it would have been an outrage on justice and a criminal condoning of vice, instead of a manifestation of paternal love.

God forgives all those that repent. There is a hell because there are some who do not repent for all eternity.

It is wrong to seek the explanation of hell in the divine desire or thirst for vengeance on the sinner, who has outraged the divine Majesty. God desires nothing. God thirsts for nothing. He is in the calm and full possession of his divine happiness.

No doubt there is a sense in which one can speak of the wrath of God working vengeance on the sinner, and the Sacred Scriptures often thus express the punishment of evil-doers. When, however, we speak of God's actions in the language of men, we should never forget that God is not man, and that we can use human terms of him only analogously.

Let us suppose for a moment that there were no hell. What would this involve? It would involve that God is indifferent to sin. God is the author and creator of nature. If, then, our nature were such that whatsoever evil we did and for however long a time we did it, it could make no difference to our ultimate state, if for all eternity God would love us equally well whether we sinned or whether we did not, it would follow that God's nature is essentially indifferent to the morality of human actions. Let it not be said that God could punish the sinner for a time only, and so manifest his sanctity and abhorrence of sin. For there is no proportion between a limited space of time, however long, and eternity. No number of years, however extensive, can express a section or division, or part of an existence that never ends. Eternity cannot be divided by time. Hence a punishment which only lasts for a while is by intrinsic necessity no adequate consequence of a deed whereby the creature rejects his God.

If one being can transgress the will of another being to any degree of intensity and during an indefinite length of time without thereby altering the relation between both, there can be no ethical bond between them. No law can exist without sanction. If the creature knows that notwithstanding his refusal to obey God's law he will be in the loving embrace of God eternally, then he must conclude that God is essentially indifferent whether we conform to his law or not. If God himself is fundamentally indifferent, why should the creature care? How can an action be evil, if the Supreme Intelligence and the Supreme Good is indifferent whether the action is done.

If it be retorted that in any case God is unchangeable in himself and therefore cannot be distressed by our sins, we quite agree, in the sense that no sin can rob God of his infinite happiness. But God expresses his will by the very order of nature, and if no sin can leave a permanent result on the human soul, then God, as author of nature, would thereby imply that nothing could permanently alter the relation of an intelligent being to his creator; in other words, that human actions had for him no ethical value whatever.

Again, to suppose that there is no hell and could be no hell would mean a denial of God's omnipotence. It would mean that God could not create man and put him on trial for an eternal prize. In other words, man's nature would be the measure of God's omnipotence. Once created man could demand everlasting happiness, and that without being tested and tried, for trial without the possibility of failure is no trial at all.

But could not God have created a world without sin? Indeed he could, but he has not. Why he has not, is not ours to settle now. He has not, that is the truth that stares us in the face. Given then the fact that sin is, given the fact that men are on trial and some fail, it is a denial of divine omnipotence to assert the impossibility of an eternal sanction. It would make God the helpless tool of his own creation. The creature, once having been created, could make sport of his Creator, safe in the knowledge that whatever befell, the end was secure; even God could not change it.

It may be suggested that instead of eternal punishment, God might have decreed annihilation. But annihilation is in itself no sanction at all. It is mere cessation of being; the nonexistent cannot undergo any requital for past deeds. Such annihilation would presumably take place when the sinner was at the height of his sin, when he would suddenly pass away without any retribution whatever into nothingness. Perhaps the suggestion may be carried further that a period of punishment should precede the moment of annihilation. But this suggestion leaves the problem as it was before. Such period of punishment would either improve the sinner or make him worse, or leave him as it found him. If it had improved him, it is strange that it should be followed by annihilation; if it left him as it found him, or made him worse, annihilation is delayed without rhyme or reason, for his state immediately previous to annihilation would demand retribution as much or more than the state in which he was before the first retribution took place. Moreover, annihilation of a being by nature immortal means a reversal of God's own plan; it is a kind of stultification of his own work and a frustration of energy unworthy of the wisdom of God; it would be, as it were, a confession of impotence. The root of the difficulty against eternal punishment lies in this, that people picture it to themselves as a satiating of a lust of vengeance in God; they picture to themselves the damned begging eternally for mercy and God eternally refusing it in spite of their unceasing supplication.

Now this whole conception is faulty. The devils and the damned never ask for mercy. One moment's repentance would empty hell. But that moment never comes. The damned have made their choice and abide by it; that is why their abode is hell. Hell is an appalling mystery, but let us at least place the mystery where it really lies. It lies not in any supposed cruelty of God, it lies in the wickedness of man. It lies in the power of self-determination, which man can abuse finally and irrevocably. No one suggests that the damned want hell because they enjoy its torments; the damned want hell because they have once for all decided that they do not want God, and there is no heaven without God. They need God eternally, but eternally they do not want him.

But this is madness, may be retorted. Indeed it is, but all sin is madness, all sin is unreason, yet men commit it, and freely commit it. The mystery lies in the abuse of the power of self-determination, not in the necessary sanction subsequent to its abuse. If we fully understood what sin is, there would be no difficulty in understanding hell, for hell is only sin continued. A man can fix himself in evil as well as in good. Human nature gradually sets and, if the word be permitted, solidifies. A humble comparison with plaster or cement or molten metal that sets and hardens may not be out of place. In fact, hell is an application of the true law of evolution. Man is a being in progress. He is for a time in a state of transition, in process of development towards his final state, whatever it be. He passes through a period of possible change, but this period is not indefinite; there is a moment when he has reached the terminus of his possible evolution, and is in a final stationary condition.

In this matter man takes his place in the general evolution of all life. If man had no final state, he would be a contrast to the whole of nature. All life passes through the stages of birth, development, to its final state. Every flower is a germ, a bud, a complete flower. Every tree a seed, a young plant, a full tree. Every animal passes from the embryo stage, to youth, and ends in its final condition. Now injuries done to the plant in its stage of development have permanency of some kind. A tree injured or thwarted grows to final deformity, a deformity which is never reversed by nature till the tree ceases to be. A gnarled oak is what it is through a number of causes during its agelong existence, but its process of evolution is to our knowledge never reversed or altered. In the end it will die, because it is material, and no matter can resist decomposition, but its life cannot be undone and its development rolled backward. If an animal's eye or ear, or hand or leg be destroyed, this destruction is final; it will be for ever blind or deaf or maimed or lame, as long as it is. Nature does not reverse her process. She does not give it another eye or ear or hand or leg, she does not undo the loss. In every life there are occurrences which are irrevocable as long as that life lasts.

Now the soul-life of man is no exception. Man by his actions can permanently and definitely affect his own innermost being, he can make or mar himself for good, and since his soul has a never-ending existence, he can do what can never be undone, even for all eternity.

What human reason itself suggests is made certain for us by Revelation, which teaches that the relation in which man stands to God at the moment of death is final, definitive.

If man had no final state, he would be an anomaly in God's universe. No act of his could influence his ultimate state, or produce an absolute and permanent result. If his will-acts are indefinitely reversible, then he flounders through an endless existence in helpless impotence. There is no ideal in the ultimate attainment of which he may find repose, no perfect achievement which renders his manhood complete. Buddhists seem at first to accept this strange and sad illusion. Their highest deities can still leave their heaven and sink back to earth in a new reincarnation, after which they can rise again to some heaven and fall away again. But even Buddhists, though they delight in adding up innumerable kalpas of myriads of years each, still finally after billions and trillions of years let a man achieve arhatship and nirvana, that is, permanency of some kind.

Granted an immortal being with free will, surely heaven and hell, eternal conformity or opposition to God, eternal happiness or sorrow seem necessary deductions, unless free will be robbed of its only dignity, of that which alone constitutes its connatural purpose and value.

There may arise in the reader's mind the thought that one earthly life is not long enough to decide an eternal issue. It should be remembered, however, that eternity is not a multiple of time. A life of threescore years and ten stands to eternity in no more distant relation than an existence of a thousand years. The shortness of the time of trial may be regarded as a blessing as well as a hardship. Surely a saint on his deathbed would feel keen disappointment if told that one earthly life was not long enough to purchase a happy eternity. Even the sinner may gain by the fact that the trial is short; a lengthier trial might have ended in greater disaster.

Sometimes an all too imaginative preacher may picture how, after a long life of virtue, one mortal sin brings a man to hell. To such flights of rhetoric we may reply that there is no certainty that such a thing has ever happened. Of this we may be sure, that God takes no delight in taking the sinner unawares, that he may hurl him into hell after his only mortal sin. God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son unto death, yea, unto the death of the Cross. If we want to guess in any way who or how many go to hell, we must never forget that the lake of eternal fire is at the foot of the hill of Calvary, and that no one can go to hell without crossing the path that goes over that hill. As Catholics, we do indeed believe in an eternal hell, and our reason itself almost demands an eternal sanction for good and evil, but it is perversity of mind to forestall the judgements of God, as if we knew that the majority of men go to hell. Bethlehem and Nazareth, Gethsemane and Golgotha, do not tend to show that the bulk of mankind will be lost. To most men now it would seem a poor triumph for the Man of Galilee if at the consummation of the world Satan swept the majority of the children of men away with him into everlasting darkness.

On the other hand, it is equally foolish to indulge in the facile jest: "I believe in an eternal hell, eternally empty." Such words made a mockery of the Gospels, and especially of Christ's words to the wicked on the day of judgement: "Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, which is prepared for the devil and his angels from the beginning of the world." God has left us no revelation concerning the number of the lost, and no guess of ours can take its place. If a man dies in mortal sin, if a man dies without sanctifying grace, he is eternally lost, so much we know; but who dies in mortal sin we do not know. Mortal sin requires full knowledge and full deliberation. It is not like some ghastly blunder which a man might commit before quite knowing what he was about. No one goes to hell except he march into it with his eyes open. Not, of course, that he must beforehand realise the awfulness of its pains, but he must fully realise that he chose evil and not good, and he must have persevered in his choice until death.

We know little of the secrets of the individual amount of personal guilt, we know little of the possibilities of repentance. Catholics have always felt it to be a kind of sacrilegious usurpation of God's prerogative to say of any person: "He has gone to hell." Leaving these things alone, our only concern is so to live and so to warn others, that neither we nor they be amongst those who receive Christ's curse on the last day.