Is God a torturer?
A difficulty some persons have with the doctrine of hell is the impression that hell implies vengeance and torture, which are incompatible with loving God. It is of course quite understandable that the more caution humans are in establishing punishments, the less they look at punishment as a deterrence and the more they look at it as a corrective for criminals, the harder it will be for them to understand an eternal punishment that is only employed in order to keep men from sin and evil through fear of this punishment.
The classical understanding of the punishment and pain of hell, since the middle ages and to some extent in the Father so of the Church (although the modern view of the pain of hell also finds a basis in some patristic thought) is more or less: God wills all human beings to come to him, to love him and their neighbor, and thereby to attain their own happiness. Now, in order to love, one must forego works that contradict this love; hence, to motivate men to withdraw from these evil deeds, God established the eternal separation from him and the pain of hell as punishment for works that fundamentally contradict love. The understanding of the fire of hell as a material, physical fire corresponds well to this understanding of hell, although this understanding of hell's punishment is not essentially connected with the notion of material fire.
Some modern theologians (e.g., Rahner, Greshake, Kehl, quite possibly Ratzinger) are of the opinion that this "classical" understanding of hell can no longer be maintained, that this understanding of hell is incompatible with a God who is merciful love. If God now does everything out of love, even in relation to sinners, we cannot say that suddenly after their death God no longer acts towards sinners out of love, but only or at any rate decisively out of justice. These theologians then understand the punishment of sin as an innate consequence of guilt, not as something more added by God as a disincentive to sin. That does not inflict pain on the sinner as a punishment. The punishment is the suffering inherent in sin, the ultimately unavoidable consequence of turning away from God, the source of goodness and of peace. Sin is a rejection of love. Hell is the fixation in this unloving state. But without love a person must finally be unhappy and suffer.
Several things speak in favor of this hypothesis, of this understanding of hell. In the Christian tradition we definitely do find the thought that sins brings its own punishment with it. We also very often find the thought the God, in his mercy, punishes sinners in hell less than they deserve. But if God in his mercy punishes sinners less than they deserve, it is plausible or even probable that he has not planned more punishment for hell than necessary or appropriate in order to discourage people from sinning. Hence, if the suffering inherent in sin can be appropriately described with the words that Scripture uses, such as fire, the worm, eternal destruction, and so on, than this punishment suffices as a deterring warning from sin, and it is probably that God brings about no further pain.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church also tends somewhat in this direction. It has nothing to say directly to what was traditionally called the poena sensus (the sensible or experienced pain/punishment of hell, in contrast to the punishment that consisted in a privation, in not enjoying God [poena damni]). It says "the chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs." (n. 1035) But other than by the use of the term "chief punishment" doesn't give even an hint that there is any other punishment. The phrasing does not seem to exclude the view that the principal punishment consists in separation from God, while other punishment consists in the experience of loss and loneliness subsequent upon this voluntary separation. It seems to leave open both the classical and the modern view.
Speaking about the eternal punishment of hell and the temporal punishment of purgatory, the Catechism says, "These two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin." (CCC 1472) Pope John Paul the second says something quite similar, but substitutes "punishment" (castigo) for "vengeance" (vendetta): "Man… can unfortunately choose to reject [God's] love and forgiveness once and for all, thus separating himself for ever from joyful communion with him. It is precisely this tragic situation that Christian doctrine explains when it speaks of eternal damnation or hell. It is not a punishment imposed externally by God but a development of premises already set by people in this life…. The images of hell that Sacred Scripture presents to us must be correctly interpreted. They show the complete frustration and emptiness of life without God." (General Audience, July 28, 1999).
On the other hand, whatever one thinks of this hypothesis of modern theologians, it would be a mistake to think that we can readily reject as impossible the classical understanding, held by many fathers and doctors of the Church. It is a mistake to suppose that God must act as we would act if we were entrusted with the rule of the universe and other human beings. It may be that the classic understanding of hell cannot be entirely understandable from a human perspective. This would not, however, immediately imply that this understanding is false. It could also be a sign of our very limited insight into the providence, love, and justice of God. As noted, the Catechism is rather careful on this question. It says "the chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs", (n. 1035) suggesting another punishment besides this punishment, but maintaining silence on the question of what exactly this is.