Why is Hell Eternal?

There is general agreement among Fathers, Doctors, and recent theologians that those punished in hell are incorrigible. In cases where some allowed or allow the possibility of a certain soul's or person's conversion (whether that conversion occur through the first time meeting with Christ in the case of pagans who did not know Christ on earth, through a medicinal, purifying penalty, or in some other  way), they do not consider such a person doomed to everlasting punishment in hell.

However, there is less agreement on why those in hell are incorrigible. The common patristic account, when an account is given by those fathers who uphold everlasting punishment in hell, is that God has established this lifetime for grace and repentance, withholds his grace after death from those who died without charity, and therefore no conversion to God is then possible. Thus a person need not have fundamentally perverted their natural desire for good, need not be thoroughly bad, in order to punished in hell forever; it is enough to be overall more bad than good; one grave sin is enough.

The departed have not in the grave confession and restoration; for God has confined life and action to this world, and to the future the scrutiny of what has been done.

8. What shall we do in the day of visitation… when He will reason with us, and oppose us, and set before us those bitter accusers, our sins, comparing our wrongdoings with our benefits, and striking thought with thought, and scrutinizing action with action, and calling us to account for the image which has been blurred and spoilt by wickedness, till at last He leads us away self-convicted and self-condemned, no longer able to say that we are being unjustly treated — a thought which is able even here sometimes to console in their condemnation those who are suffering….

9. … [His right judgment] places in the balance for us all, our entire life, action, word, and thought, and weighs against the evil that which is better, until that which preponderates wins the day, and the decision is given in favor of the main tendency; after which there is no appeal, no higher court, no defense on the ground of subsequent conduct, no oil obtained from the wise virgins, or from them that sell, for the lamps going out, no repentance of the rich man wasting away in the flame, and begging for repentance for his friends (St. Gregory Nazianzen, Oration 16).

Recent theologians (possibly including Joseph Ratzinger), reluctant to affirm that the incorrigibility of those in hell is due to God's hardening their hearts in sin through a withdrawal of their grace, commonly hold that only those are in hell who have so distorted and perverted their will through deliberate sin, that it is impossible for them to convert, or impossible without a strict miracle. Thus only persons who became thoroughly bad in this life are in hell.

A middle position might be that in the moment of death God's love is so encountered that persons, depending on their life up till then and their state at that moment, necessarily either accept God's love, or so forcefully reject it that they thereby become thoroughly bad, even if previously they were not so, but had just failed to subordinate some true good to God.

It seems necessary to take one of these positions. Man's first, original will has to be good, since it is a natural will, from God, the creator of nature. And all man's particular choices and voluntary acts derive from this first original will for goodness, which must, just considered in itself, remain, as long as man's nature remains. Hence, man must remain capable of conversion to the true good, if guided through the right influences. Thus incorrigibility must be due either to God's taking away the possibility of those influences (a hardening of man's heart), or man's being in himself so set in evil that he is utterly closed to those influences that could otherwise draw him to good through his first and natural desire for goodness.

Luisa Piccarreta and the Divine Will

Luisa Piccarretta, who supposedly lived for many years on only the Eucharist and the Divine Will, experienced ongoing visions in which Jesus gave her an understanding of holiness that had not previously been granted to any saint, an understanding of holiness as being not only acceptance or submission to the divine will, but "living in the divine will", an identification with the divine will. When she asked Jesus how it is that till her time no saint had ever fully lived in the divine will, had never reached this degree of charity, she was told that it was because they lacked this understanding, that they could not love more than they understood. She was told that with this message of the Divine Will Jesus made her "Herald of the New Era" and had a vision in which the Blessed Virgin Mary was on Jesus' right side in heaven, while she (Luisa) was at his left.

When read charitably, taking into account both the mystical language and the imprecisions that can rightly be expected to arise when someone with very little education writes down 36 volumes of such visions, the essential message of living in the divine will seems to be none other than that contained in, for instance, the writings of St. Francis de Sales and St. John of the Cross on the union of charity. (If read with indifference or with antecedent suspicion as to the truth of the message, however, it might be equally possible to read her writings as affirming an identification of the human being with God that goes beyond, or is rather antithetical to the christian doctrine of deification and friendship with God.)

Nonetheless, some grave problems seem to be present in her writings with regard to the claims surrounding this message of holiness: the claim that  (1) this way of holiness is radically new and better than anything before it, that (2) Luisa herself surpasses all the previous saints in holiness, with the exception of the Virgin Mary, and that (3) this way of holiness depends upon "understanding".

(1) "My beloved daughter, I want you to know the order of my Providence. In every 2000 year period I have renewed the world. In the first period I renewed it with the flood. In the second 2000 years I renewed it with my coming to the earth and manifesting my humanity from which, as so many channels of light, my divinity shone. And in this third period of 2000 years, those who are good and the saints themselves have lived the fruits of my humanity, but have enjoyed my divinity scarcely at all. Now we are at the end of the third period and there will be a third renovation. This is why there is general confusion. It is due to the preparation for the third renovation." (January, 1919)

(1) "These writings cost me more than creation and redemption. They have within them all the value of My Will." (Vol. 23, March 8, 1928)

(1 & 2) "When you call my Will into you, you also do a unique act. Out of respect for my Will which inhabits you, I must pour enough graces and Love into you to make you surpass all other creatures."

(1 & 2) "It is certain that I have called you first over other souls. Because to no other souls, however much I have loved them, have I shown how to live in My Will, the effects, the marvels, the riches that the creature receives who acts in My supreme Will. Search the lives of the saints as much as you wish or in books of doctrine and you will not find the wonders of My Will working in the creature and the creature acting in My Will. The most you will find will be resignation, abandonment, the union of wills, but the Divine Will working in the creature and the creature in My Will, you will not find this in anyone. This signifies that the time had not arrived in which My kindness would call the creature to live in such a sublime state. Moreover, even the way I ask you to pray is not found in any other . . . " (Book of Heaven, Vol. 12, p. xix)

(2) "Now daughter, you, . . are unique in my mind; and you will be unique in history. There will not be—either before or after you—any other creature for whom I will obligate through necessity the work of my ministers. ., . Since I wanted my Mother with me as the first intermediary of my mercy . . . I wanted her on my right. . . . I wanted you [Luisa] as the first intermediary of justice. . . . I wanted you on my left." (Book of Heaven, p. 12)

(3) "It is true that there have been saints who always did my Will, but they have taken of my Will only to the extent that they understood it. They knew that to do my Will was the greatest of acts, the one which gave Me the greatest honor and which brought them their sanctification. They acted with this intention and so this is all that they received."

In fact, precisely these claimed new aspects (a radically new and essentially better way of holiness, a holiness that depends upon understanding, etc.) are not new claims in the history of the Church. The early Church had to resist gnosticism, which in its own way made perfection dependent upon understanding, as Luisa seems to. Joachim of Fiore proposed a third era of the history of God with his people, as Luisa does. If these claims are taken as part of the message itself, they are signs that it is not from God. The rule of faith, the rule of the Church, since the beginning in fact sees this kind of radical novelty as a sign of heresy.

But while these problems could be taken as an indication that the visions were not from God, but from self-delusion or a demon, they do not necessarily imply that. It is also possible that she had a true experience in which God really revealed himself and a message of holiness to her, yet her perception of this was distorted by an ignorance of the writings of the saints and doctors, so that she pereceived it as radically new, and unconsciously imposed this perception on the vision itself, by a desire for an end to suffering, so that she imagined a "new era" on earth in which suffering would be no more, an so on.

Private revelation, precisely insofar as it is divine revelation, must be true. However, quite unlike the content of Sacred Scripture, the concrete communication of this revelation is not guaranteed free from error, even substantial error. This is sometimes overlooked in discussions of various private revelations, and the assumption is made that either the experiences are from God, and the writings in which these experiences are communicated are all true, or that the experience are not from God. The third logical possibility, however, that the experience are from God, but the communication of these experience is mingled with the recipient's own ideas and influenced by the recipient's own desires, may be a common, or even the usual case. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, indeed, implies that there is always some influence of the recipient's own background. Speaking about Fatima in particular, but also visions in general, it affirms: "Such visions therefore are never simple "photographs" of the other world, but are influenced by the potentialities and limitations of the perceiving subject. This can be demonstrated in all the great visions of the saints… the images are, in a manner of speaking, a synthesis of the impulse coming from on high and the capacity to receive this impulse in the visionaries." (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Message of Fatima, 2000)