Why Did God Create The Punishment Of Hell To Be Eternal?

Msgr. Charles Pope
2021-11-09

Question: Many who might otherwise accept God’s punishment of sinners are still dismayed that hell is eternal. Why should one be punished eternally for sins committed over a brief time span, perhaps in just a moment? The punishment does not seem to fit the crime.

— Jackson Miller, Washington, D.C.

Answer: This view presumes that the eternal nature of hell is due to the punishment, but it is not. Rather, hell is eternal because repentance is no longer available after death. Our decision for or against God and the values of his kingdom becomes forever fixed. Because at this point the will is fixed and obstinate, the repentance that unlocks mercy will never be forthcoming.

St. Thomas Aquinas teaches: “[A]s Damascene says (De Fide Orth. ii) ‘death is to men what their fall was to the angels.’ Now after their fall the angels could not be restored [cf. Summa I:64:2]. Therefore, neither can man after death: and thus the punishment of the damned will have no end. … [So] just as the demons are obstinate in wickedness and therefore have to be punished for ever, so too are the souls of men who die without charity, since ‘death is to men what their fall was to the angels, as Damascene says” (Summa Theologica, Supplement, Question 99, Article 3).

Some argue that the souls in hell do regret their sin and that, in the parables, Jesus often depicts them as seeking entrance to heaven after the doors are closed. Still, it remains a teaching that, after death, repentance in the formal sense is not possible. Here, too, St. Thomas distinguishes formal repentance from incidental repentance and explains: “A person may repent of sin in two ways: in one way directly, in another way indirectly. He repents of a sin directly who hates sin as such: and he repents indirectly who hates it on account of something connected with it, for instance punishment or something of that kind. Accordingly, the wicked will not repent of their sins directly, because consent in the malice of sin will remain in them; but they will repent indirectly, inasmuch as they will suffer from the punishment inflicted on them for sin” (Summa Theologica, Supplement, Question 98, Article 2).

This explains the “wailing and grinding of teeth” in so far as it points to the lament of the damned. They do not lament their choice to sin without repenting, but for the consequences. In the parable of Lazarus, the rich man in hell laments his suffering but expresses no regret over the way he treated the beggar Lazarus. Indeed, he still sees Lazarus as a kind of errand-boy, who should fetch him water and warn his brothers. In a certain sense the rich man cannot repent; his character is now quickened and his choices forever fixed.

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