A Few Thoughts on the Existence and Nature of Hell

Doug McManaman
May, 2004
Reproduced with Permission

My friend, the late Monsignor Wells of the Archdiocese of Washington, would often read parts of James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to his students. In it we find a sermon describing the pains of hell that rivals St. John Bosco's dream on the same subject. Some students had actually remarked to my friend that hearing Father Arnall's sermon read to them was probably the most significant thing that had ever happened to them in all their years of Catholic education.

So I thought it would be a good idea to read it myself. After doing so, I decided never to read it to students. I eventually broke that promise and read it out loud on one occasion -- after my students pleaded for me to read it to them. I might have had a drug dealer or two in the classroom at the time, and since one cannot reason with a drug dealer, why not try to scare them out of their wits and possibly back to their senses?

The read is rather disturbing, so disturbing in fact that one tends to wonder about the divine love. But how is it possible to accurately describe the suffering of the damned without losing sight of God's boundless mercy?

There are many signs of the divine love for human persons, but few are wont to consider Hell one of them. Consider, though, that hell is in fact one of the greatest signs of God's love for us. If God is Love (1 Jn 4, 8), then it is impossible for hell not to exist. For love isn't love unless it is freely given. If God willed us into existence for the sake of an eternal union with Himself grounded in love, then it follows that we have the ability to reject and miss that destiny.

Imagine the very real possibility of falling in love with someone who, you eventually discover, simply couldn't care less about you, or whether you disappeared off the face of the earth. If you truly love that person, you will not force him to love you. It is not possible to be satisfied with a person who is forced to love you; for such a relationship is meaningless, because love isn't love unless it is freely given. Love demands that you allow the one who refuses your love to have his will. It is no different with God. He loves us so much that He will allow us to reject Him for all eternity.

And so Christ's teaching on hell is consistent with reason. But what are we to make of the scriptural images of hell, "...where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth" (Mt 8, 12), "...where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched" (Mk 9, 48), "...the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death" (Rv 21, 8)? What do these images really signify?

Character and Destiny

The first point to keep in mind is the soul's indestructibility. To make a long story short, the soul is the subject of a power (the mind) that is able to act independently of matter, that is, to think. If the mind can act independently of matter, it can exist independently of matter, since activity follows upon being. Hence, the soul endures when the body is destroyed.

Now man's destiny is to know and love the highest being (God), and his happiness consists precisely in this knowledge and love, and in the journey towards it (the road to heaven is heavenly). To possess God in the Beatific Vision is to have no need of anything else.

But the human person has to freely choose to love God. He cannot freely do so if He sees God directly; for the will would necessarily cling to God were it to behold the Supreme Good as He is in Himself. That is why the human person is required to choose his destiny, "to work out his salvation", within the order of time. It is only within this order that he can freely determine himself towards God, or reject God by making himself the center of his existence.

To orient one's life towards union with God, the human person must commit to complete loyalty to human goods, not just his own good. Willing only the realization of my own good does not constitute a good will. I am a good person by virtue of my willing the entire spectrum of human goods, and that spectrum is not limited to this individual instance which is myself. Nor is it limited to my immediate family, or relatives, or all those whom I know. If I will "the good", I do so wherever there is an instance of it, that is, I will the good of all human persons. That is why, for example, killing innocent non-combatants in order to bring a quick end to a war, or counseling an abortion in order to minimize the stress of a difficult situation, or euthanizing a handicapped child or a severely depressed adult in order to make one's own life easier or relieve suffering, are incompatible with loyalty to the good; for one may not do evil that good may come of it. So too, cowardliness, over-indulgence, allowing idleness to destroy noble aspirations, individualism, partiality and hostility are incompatible with a will loyal to the good. In such cases, our loyalty is deficient, fragmented, and arbitrary. The hearts of the wicked are focused more on the self that is an individual instance of a human good, than on "human good" as such.

There is no other way to the fulfillment of our destiny than through character. And there is nothing we should value more than its quality. In fact, if people were to value their character as much as they value their lawns, gardens, or automobiles, we'd be living in heaven on earth.

But character is not the same as personality. It is very possible for a person to have a great personality, but bad character. It is also possible for a person of good character to have a miserable personality. Character is entirely determined by oneself, that is, by one's freely chosen moral actions. There is nothing that belongs more intimately to us, nothing that is more "our own" than our moral identity, or character. Environmental factors and inherited traits are not chosen, and indeed they determine much that is within us. But our character is determined by how we have chosen to relate to all these factors that determine us. I have known plenty of people who have been brought up terribly, who came from horribly broken environments, and who are terribly wounded, as is to be expected. But many of them have endured all this with their good character intact. Conversely, there are many who have come from very loving and safe environments, but who have made commitments that are hateful, immoral, and unjust.

Now, we tend to enjoy being in the presence of those who are like us in character. In fact, friendships are founded upon common qualities and interests, especially a common moral identity. When a relationship is attempted and fails, the reason is often that the two "did not have much in common". What does all this mean? It means that it is possible to determine for oneself a character so deficient that one would find it torturous to be in the presence of the communion of saints. As an analogy from the realm of musical taste, imagine a punk rocker sitting through an opera, or Stravinsky at a Marilyn Manson concert. Both would likely be very uncomfortable. Or, consider a person who freely and deliberately fostered racist sentiments throughout his entire life, against Jews, or black people. When he dies, he discovers that everyone in heaven is Jewish, or black. Could such a person be comfortable in this heaven? Clearly not. In some ways hell is but another instance of the mercy of God.

The failure to be open to the entire spectrum of human goods (human life, truth, leisure, sociability, religion, marriage, and integrity) as a result of free choices that are unjust, or hostile, or lazy, or intemperate, or vengeful, or irreverent, or individualistic, or envious, or avaricious, or squeamish, selfish, self-deceiving, vindictive, resentful, or impatient, is to freely harm our relationship to God who is the Supreme Good, to render it either non-existent, seriously wounded, or weakened.

The Pain of Hell

The pain of hell is rooted in the fact that our nature naturally seeks rest but does not find it, because the will has cut itself off from its only source of rest. The Beatific Vision is precisely that rest. The damned have freely deprived themselves of that beatitude by virtue of choices that have ill disposed them to communion with the saints, choices that can be translated as a rejection of friendship with God. It's as if a plant, that had the capacity to know itself and feed itself, refused to water itself, thus ill disposing itself to further life.

The damned have an inordinate love of themselves; for they loved themselves for their own sake, but chose not to love others for their own sake, but subordinated them to their own ends, to be used in one way or another. At the same time the damned cannot help but loath themselves. In so far as evil is a deficiency, a privation, a kind of non-being, it follows that as a person plunges more deeply into sin and darkness, the more depraved he becomes. But the more depraved a person becomes, the less there is in himself to love. Thus, the pain of hell includes the pain of self-loathing. One does not like what one has created.

To get a glimpse of what the pain hell might be like, let's try to do the impossible. It is impossible to imagine eternity or aeviternity; for eternity is the present alone, without past or future, and not time without end, as we usually conceive of it. But eternity is forever, the forever "now", and the only "forever" that is somewhat imaginable -- but not entirely -- is "time without end". So consider having to endure forever a slight discomfort, such as a cold or a feeling of boredom. Begin by imagining what it would be like to endure it for a year, then two, then ten, then one hundred, then one thousand, then ten thousand. Ten thousand years already exceeds the capacity of the human imagination. Finally, consider having to endure this slight discomfort forever, without end. That means that after a billion years, or ten billion, hell hasn't even begun. It simply does not end.

The pain of self-hatred and restlessness is much worse than the pain of a bad cold or feeling of boredom. To have to endure that self-imposed suffering forever, without any hope of an end, could accurately be compared to a gnawing worm that never dies, or to a fire that is never quenched.

Father Arnall employs a rather effective metaphor.

You have often seen the sand on the seashore. How fine are its tiny grains! And how many of those tiny little grains go to make up the small handful which a child grasps, in its play. Now imagine a mountain of that sand, ... imagine such an enormous mass of countless particles of sand multiplied as often as there are leaves in the forest, ... and imagine that at the end of every million years a little bird came to that mountain and carried away in its beak a tiny grain of that sand. How many millions upon millions of centuries would pass before that bird had carried away even a square foot of that mountain, how many eons upon eons of ages before it had carried away all. Yet at the end of that immense stretch of time not even one instant of eternity could be said to have ended (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. 131-132).

The pain of hell also includes the suffering of having to endure bad company as well as the pain of loneliness. There is not an ounce of benevolence in hell. God is Love, but the damned have deliberately and persistently refused God's offer of Himself. And so they cannot love anything that belongs to God. Thus, they hate one another. Father Arnall continues:

Consider finally, that the torment of this infernal prison is increased by the company of the damned themselves. Evil company on earth is so noxious that even the plants, as if by instinct, withdraw from the company of whatsoever is deadly or hurtful to them. In hell all laws are overturned: there is no thought of family or country, of ties, of relationships. ... their ... rage intensified by the presence of beings ... raging like themselves. All sense of humanity is forgotten. ... The mouths of the damned are full of blasphemies against God and of hatred for their fellow sufferers and of curses against those souls which were their accomplices in sin (Ibid., 122).

The more we consider the pain of loss enduring forever, the greater the chance of catching a glimpse of the horror of hell. But to appreciate the justice of hell requires an understanding of the rottenness of sin. Indeed, sin is rotten, but very few of us if any fully appreciate its seriousness. We are little more than dust and ashes, completely and utterly dependent upon God for continued existence, and everything we have and are is pure gift. On top of the sheer gift of human existence, we have been re-created for a supernatural happiness that is so great that we cannot begin to conceive of it here. To make that happiness possible again -- after the fall of man -- , the Second Person of the Trinity assumed a human nature in order to undergo a horrible death. Life Itself destroyed death by entering into it, tasting it, and conquering it by rising. And yet we still manage to convince ourselves that we can do things our way instead of God's way, that we can still live every day of our lives without centering it around a commitment of perpetual thanksgiving to God, without making every effort to live in accordance with divine law. That depravity spreads like cancer undetected so that after a time the truths of the gospel begin to make us very uncomfortable. And this is the evidence that we have taken a wrong turn somewhere along the way.

But hell cannot be unjust, because it is the loss of pure gift, and no one has a right to a gift. Moreover, it is a loss that was brought about as a result of our own free and mysterious will. It is forever because eternity or aeviternity has no future, and so the will that enters it opposed to the will of God is forever fixed as such.

It is impossible to judge the status of an individual person's relationship to God; in fact, we are never entirely certain of the status of our own. One reason is that our capacity for self-deception is remarkably acute. There always seems to be an unbecoming mixture of the sacred and the profane in the lives of ordinary believers. The true believer struggles against these vices and mistakes when made aware of them and is committed to purifying his life of them. But some are not committed to this at all, but are relatively indifferent to it and have given themselves to flirting with secularism and a relatively mild form of hedonism. Some, even believers, have decided not to allow certain aspects of their lives to be scrutinized or challenged in any way. They might be entirely open to reforming social structures and raising taxes, for example, but have a priest dare to challenge their sex lives from the pulpit and watch how many nasty and unsigned letters he and his bishop receive the following week. And then there are those who have given themselves over to evil. These latter can be simultaneously committed to all sorts of goods (for there is no such thing as total evil). A successful abortionist, for example, can be committed to his family, and be an active member of the community, and coach little league baseball. He might very well have convinced himself that his work is necessary and contributes to the common good. But this should not be confused with a judgment of conscience; for it is little more than a shining example of our capacity for self-deception.

The Good News About Sin

A former ethics professor once told me that it takes a great deal of character to be able to admit that one was wrong. This becomes much harder to do the older we get. It is one thing to look back a year or two and admit that one was mistaken, but it is a very different matter to have to look back at the last twenty five or so years and face the fact that one was wrong about something for that length of time. Humility is a childlike quality. Perhaps that is why this virtue becomes more difficult as we move away from childhood into adulthood. It is not often that we come across an adult with such strength of character as to be so at ease with his own finitude and so open to truth that the opportunity for growth has more appeal than the security of not having to gaze upon his own imperfection. But there is a kind of good news about sin. Our route to great character can be very short, and our own sins, imperfections, and errors can be the vehicle to this new and higher stature. St. Therese of Lisieux, whom Pope Pius X regarded as "the greatest saint in modern times" and who is now a Doctor of the Church, was fully aware of this. She writes:

I am no longer surprised at anything, nor do I grieve at seeing that I am frailty itself; on the contrary I glory in it, and expect to discover new imperfections in myself each day. These lights concerning my nothingness do me more good, I affirm, than lights regarding faith. (Story of a Soul, ch. 9)

The greatest and most influential human beings in history were precisely those who took this short route to greatness by daring to gaze upon their own sinfulness, imperfections, and errors and acknowledge them, such as St. Paul, St. Justin Martyr, St. Jerome, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, or more recently Ronald Knox, G.K. Chesterton, and Jacques Maritain, easily three of the greatest thinkers of the twentieth century. One of the most moving examples of rising from darkness to greatness is Dr. Bernard N. Nathanson. He says of himself:

I am personally responsible for 75,000 abortions. ... I was one of the founders of the National Association for the Repeal of the Abortion Laws in the U.S. in 1968. A truthful poll of opinion then would have found that most Americans were against permissive abortion. Yet within five years we had convinced the Supreme Court to issue the decision which legalized abortion throughout America in 1973 and produced virtual abortion on demand up to birth.

He openly tells of his involvement in the deliberate and systematic creation of lies designed to deceive the American public and eventually the Supreme Court of the United States, and confesses that his tactics included persuading the media that the cause of permissive abortion was liberal, enlightened, and sophisticated. He fabricated the results of fictional polls on the number of illegal abortions done annually in the U.S., and on the number of women dying from them. He speaks of how he was involved in the systematic vilification of the Catholic Church and its "socially backward ideas" and his participation in the denigration and suppression of all scientific evidence that life begins at conception.

But Nathanson is now the world's most powerful and influential defender of life and advocate of the unborn. This same man who ran the largest abortion clinic in the western world now writes:

It is clear that permissive abortion is purposeful destruction of what is undeniably human life. It is an impermissible act of deadly violence. One must concede that unplanned pregnancy is a wrenchingly difficult dilemma. But to look for its solution in a deliberate act of destruction is to trash the vast resourcefulness of human ingenuity, and to surrender the public weal to the classic utilitarian answer to social problems. As a scientist I know, not believe, know that human life begins at conception. Although I am not a formal religionist, I believe with all my heart that there is a divinity of existence which commands us to declare a final and irreversible halt to this infinitely sad and shameful crime against humanity.

Nathanson's greatness has nothing to do with his fame, but everything to do with his humility. Had he remained entirely unknown, his greatness of character would not be any the less for it.

One thing at least that I am certain of about modern culture is that we no longer take free-choice and responsibility seriously. This is especially evident in the way we judicially handle violent crime. Consider, too, the number of "rages" we've fabricated in recent years: road rage, air rage, rink rage, office rage, desk rage, work rage, bike rage, abandonment rage, rejection rage, etc. "Something just came over me," is typically the line of defense employed by offenders, and we seem to buy it. The label makes it much easier to hide the fact that such aggression was rooted ultimately in nothing other than good ole fashioned free-choice. But God does take free-choice seriously, because He is a lover who at every instant of our lives offers us his hand of supernatural friendship. It is really only up to us to take it or leave it.

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him. (Dt 29, 19-20)