Eternal Punishment by J. P. Arendzen - Chapter 6

Special Questions Relating to Eternal Punishment

The Scriptural word "fire," as we have seen, may not be taken as a mere metaphor. It has been asked whether we are also to understand literally "the worm that dieth not"; what, in any case, the meaning of the expression may be.

The two expressions, "the unquenchable fire" and "the undying worm," are clearly not on the same level. The latteris used in the New Testament only on one occasion, when our Lord, according to St Mark, thrice makes the obvious reference to Isaias 66:24, whereas the fire is nearly always mentioned in conjunction with everlasting punishment. Christ, in using a well-known expression of the ancient prophet on this one occasion, does not indicate precisely what is metaphorical and what is not, but both he and the Apostles by their constant and almost exclusive use of "fire" for hell, give clearly to understand that this latter word indicates some physical reality. We are therefore free to interpret "the worm that dieth not" metaphorically. As a matter of fact, this is usually done. Some take it as a metaphor for the loathsome and foul state of the damned, which resembles the stench and corruption of the grave. Others have seen in it a symbol for the biting pain of everlasting remorse.

A question may be asked regarding the instrumentality of the devils in increasing the torments of the damned. From the earliest even to the most modern pictorial representations of hell it has been customary to portray the damned as undergoing the most excruciating tortures by demons. What have we to believe of all this? First of all let us remember that the devils are pure spirits, however evil they are. The use of chains, pitchforks, and pincers and of all material instruments of cruelty is obviously a mere play of the imagination. Moreover, it is rather a childish supposition that at the end of all things God should eternally maintain a store of such things for the purpose. Yet beyond doubt the power of the devils to be a source of affliction to the damned is real. This affliction will arise from the twofold source of their companionship and their dominion. Demons and damned are enclosed in the same hell, and the imagery of Holy Scripture leads us to believe that the perpetual and intolerable nearness of innumerable beings will be an added horror to the damned. Moreover, the devils, as angels, are mightier than the damned, who ever remain but men. These men, however, by sin have yielded to the temptation of evil spirits, and therefore chosen them as masters rather than God. They have surrendered to their dominion, and in consequence remain under their tyranny for evermore. How this tyranny is exercised we have no conception. Somehow, overwhelmed and mastered by giants in evil, the souls of the damned will be cowed and terrorised into everlasting submission.

A further question must refer to the existence of time in hell. Eloquent and ingenious preachers have thought of many similes in order to bring home the endless duration of hell, but it must be remembered that according to the Scriptures: time then shall be no more. Time is the measure of change. But both the blessed and the lost have come to their final state, and are no longer beings in a state of progress. They have entered a changeless world. They are not, indeed, in eternity as God is, who possesses the whole of his infinite being at once, but they have entered upon a state to which there is no parallel on earth. To count hours and days and years is possible only where things still change and move. What an immutable life implies we cannot imagine, and it is idle to conjecture. At the moment of the death of the damned the clock struck, and the hands will move no more.

The question has sometimes been raised whether everlasting punishment is a matter completely excluded from the mercy of God and abandoned only to the rigour of divine justice. Although we have not sufficient data in Revelation to answer this question satisfactorily, it has been almost universally assumed by theologians that the punishment of the damned is less than they deserve and less than in strict justice might have been inflicted, so that every sentence of the Great Judge is, in fact, a merciful one. It has further been asked whether some respite or some lessening of punishment could be admitted, at least sometimes, in nell, so that even after the sentence there still remained some play for God's mercy.

There have been some ancient writers who held that there would be some lessening of punishment, as, for instance, the hymn-writer Prudentius. This Spanish Christian poet, born in A.D. 348, imagined that perhaps on Easter night some relief was granted to the lost. St Augustine, in a rather ambiguous though disapproving sentence, seems to allow prayer for the lost previous to the last judgement, though he most strenuously combats those who think that the punishment of the damned is not eternal, or that their state can be in any way changed after the judgement. In a medieval manuscript there was found a prayer for one about whose soul one is in doubt. This prayer asks that the Mass may obtain for him, "if unworthy to rise again to glory, at least that his torments may be more bearable." These slight indications of a hope to lessen the pains of the lost show by their exceeding insignificance and rarity that the spirit of the Church and the common feeling of the faithful are strongly against the practice of praying for the lost. Hence we may well endorse the words of St Thomas Aquinas: "The above opinion is presumptuous; inasmuch as it is contrary to the statements of the saints, it is worthless and resting on no authority. It is not in accordance with reason, first because the damned in hell are outside the bond of charity, by which the works of the living extend to the dead; secondly, because the damned have utterly come to the terminus of their life, receiving the ultimate requital for what they deserve even as the saints, who are in their final home." (Summa, Supplement. Q. 71)

A further question has agitated the minds of theologians, viz., whether the life of the lost is one of undiluted sorrow and pain, or is still capable of some natural satisfaction, the joy of attaining some object of desire. The devils, so it is argued, must derive at least some malignant satisfaction in tempting men to sin and in succeeding in their endeavour. If, then, they are capable of such gratification, however wicked, it would seem that some joys are still left to them. It is difficult by merely philosophical arguments to disprove the suggestion; but on the other hand, the Scriptural description of hell in no way implies joy or satisfaction of any kind in the place of the damned. "I am tormented in this flame," cried Dives, and the petition that a finger dipped in water should be laid on his tongue was not granted.

So likewise it has been suggested that while the pain of loss is indeed never-ending, because it corresponds to that element in sin which gives it a certain infinity, namely, the soul's aversion from God, yet the pain of sense will sometime come to an end, because it corresponds to the turning of the sinner towards creatures, an abuse of creatures that can have only a finite malice and therefore a finite punishment. This suggestion cannot, perhaps, be proven a priori to be unfounded, but Scriptural language gives no countenance whatever to the idea. The word "everlasting" is most often attached precisely to the word "fire," and it seems altogether contrary to the tenor of Holy Scripture to maintain that the fire should end but the punishment continue. It is therefore an idle guess, which is difficult to reconcile with the inspired Word of God, a guess which is prompted only by the mistaken feeling that the positive pain of the fire is greater than the pain of loss. It is a guess which finds no support whatever in tradition, and which even on the grounds of reason is very difficult to defend. It must therefore be definitely rejected.

A few stories, of a legendary rather than of an historical character, have been current in bygone ages of people having died in mortal sin, who through the prayer of some saint have been raised to life and given another chance of earning heaven. This is not the place to discuss the foundation of fact which may possibly underlie some of these stories. Sober historians would say that it is very little. Be this as it way, were they even true, they cannot be alleged as exceptions to the eternity of hell; they would rather be instances of the suspension of the Particular Judgement normally succeeding death. The instances told in the Gospel of Christ raising the dead, the daughter of Jairus, the son of the widow of Naim, and Lazarus, are such exceptions. Moreover, some dead have been raised to life since Gospel days.

Whether all consciousness ceased between the moment of death and the moment of resurrection we cannot say. In all probability it did. In any case, by a special ordinance of God the divine judgement on these souls did not take place at the instant of their bodily death, as their allotted time of trial was not yet completed. We may rest quite certain that if any return of unrepentant sinners to earthly life has ever taken place, these sinners were not yet in hell. Both revelation and reason make this obvious.

The question may be asked what is the relation of the inmates, of hell to those who still dwell on earth? Of the devils we know that they roam through the world for the ruin of souls. Until the last day in the providence of God the demons are allowed to tempt and to harm men. The fall in Paradise was caused by a devil from hell ; no doubt many of the last sins committed before the final' doom will still be the outcome of temptations from hell. The abyss will be closed only at the end of time. Do the damned similarly roam through the world for the ruin of their fellow men?

No, the case of the devils is different from that of the damned. The devils, by virtue of their higher nature as pure spirits, can come into contact with us and with the material world, and they can use this power to tempt and harm us. Such power is indeed completely under the control of God's supernatural providence, but it is natural to an angelic being. It is not so with the discarnate souls of men. These souls are by nature the life-principle of a human body, and through this body they come in contact with the material world. In their discarnate state they are incomplete beings. It is not natural to them to act on matter in this incomplete state. They can be active within themselves by thought and will, as they can subsist in themselves even without the body, but there is no connatural means of communication between them and the outer world. Whatever they know of earthly happenings is conveyed to them by some special ordinance of God, whatever influence they possess on the material world is bestowed on them by some preternatural means. We do not know the details of God's dealings with them; we could only know them by revelation. Now revelation tends to show that no such communication, no such influence is normally granted to them. We pray, certainly, to be protected against the devils, we do not normally pray for protection against the damned. If some apparitions of the damned have taken place, they are so exceedingly rare that they must be classed as distinctly miraculous, and not the outcome of their normal powers. The power to manifest themselves and to influence the living is perhaps not infrequently granted to the blessed in heaven and also to the souls in purgatory, but it is apparently seldom, if ever, given to the damned. The few stories told about the damned appearing, speaking, or acting after death contain fearsome warnings to the living. Such apparitions seem to have been allowed by God as an act of mercy to those on earth rather than as a permission to those in hell to hurt the faithful. The claim, therefore, of spiritists that "beyond the veil," as they say, all the dead, whether good or bad, have on occasion the power to communicate with the living is not admitted in Catholic philosophy. Whatever power to manifest themselves to the living the departed may possess is a special gift of God, not a natural outcome of their state. If then at a spiritistic seance an evil spirit–an earth-bound spirit as they would call it–really manifests itself, the presumption is that this spirit is a devil, not a damned soul, though God in his omnipotence could grant such power to the damned. Of this Catholics are quite certain, that if such manifestations really take place–a supposition not readily to be admitted–they are not those of souls in heaven or in purgatory.

A final difficulty is sometimes urged against the doctrine of hell in this wise: surely God would not do what is eternally useless, surely God would not concur in the maintenance of an eternal evil, thereby admitting the eternal failure of his own plans for man!

Hell is not useless. The fear of hell as a motive of sorrow for sin has been, and is, instrumental in making saints. Many a soul has been helped to heaven by a salutary fear of hell. Hell is not useless. The blessed in heaven do not rejoice in the pains of the damned as such, yet they do eternally rejoice that they are saved from so great an evil, and the very greatness of the evil avoided adds to the enjoyment of the happiness secured.

Hell is not an eternal evil. That the damned should be in heaven, the blessed in hell, would indeed be evil, but that every one should receive according to his works is not evil, but good. That man should have free will and decide his own eternity is no evil. Hell is indeed evil to the damned, but not evil to God, not evil in itself. Infinite goodness still remains infinite goodness, though some freely reject it.

Hell is no divine failure. If God willed that all men, whether they freely chose him or not, should go to heaven, then God would indeed have failed if any went to hell. God wills men to go to heaven if they love him, and this divine will is eternally triumphant. If a soul which did not love God above all things were in heaven, this would not be triumph, but defeat. Moreover, God wanted multitudes in heaven, not to increase his own happiness, but to bestow his infinite bounty on them. He carried out his plan to the full; the damned have deprived themselves of happiness, not him. He communicated his divine life of glory to as many as he would. Those that refused the proffered gift still glorify his justice, which withdraws his bounty from all that refuse it. Their very existence is still in obedience to his power and wisdom; they obey him not with their free will, but as irrational and inanimate creation obeys him, by continuing to be in that state which he has adjudged to them.

No one would deny that the doctrine of hell baffles the human mind, but it is a lesser mystery than the mystery of Bethlehem or Calvary. The human mind can understand more easily that God should punish everlastingly those that die in sin, than that God himself should die upon the Cross to save them from everlasting punishment.