She opened Her hands once more, as She had done the two previous months. The rays [of light] appeared to penetrate the earth, and we saw, as it were, a vast sea of fire. Plunged in this fire, we saw the demons and the souls [of the damned]. The latter were like transparent burning embers, all blackened or burnished bronze, having human forms. They were floating about in that conflagration, now raised into the air by the flames which issued from within themselves, together with great clouds of smoke. Now they fell back on every side like sparks in huge fires, without weight or equilibrium, amid shrieks and groans of pain and despair, which horrified us and made us tremble with fright (it must have been this sight which caused me to cry out, as people say they heard me). The demons were distinguished [from the souls of the damned] by their terrifying and repellent likeness to frightful and unknown animals, black and transparent like burning coals. That vision only lasted for a moment, thanks to our good Heavenly Mother, Who at the first apparition had promised to take us to Heaven. Without that, I think that we would have died of terror and fear.
– Sister Lucia of Fatima, “Vision of Hell”
One of the most embarrassing of teachings for nominal Catholics is the doctrine of hell, a seemingly unnecessary scare tactic of a bygone age. Even very faithful and devout Catholics have struggled with the idea of an eternal torment, suggesting that we might hope that all will be saved in the end. Sister Lucia was troubled throughout her life by this very brief vision she witnessed at a young age.
After all, wouldn’t our God be a more merciful god if He were to limit the terrible sufferings of those who have remained His enemies through the hour of death? Whether it be a million years, a billion, or some ridiculously large math-geek number, so long as each day suffered is really one day closer to an end?
Nowhere have I found a more thorough and convincing treatment on this troubling subject that in “The Order of Things” by Fr. James Schall, SJ, chapter “The Order of Hell”. He makes an observation that addresses the apprehension we may feel of the idea of hell in view of a loving God: “The contemplation of pain often dulls the sense of justice. Suffering, even just suffering as punishment for terrible deeds, causes compassion.”
While pain is obviously an awful evil in itself, it is often viewed as the ultimate evil, particularly in our age which has been conditioned by centuries of Christian humanism and the distortions that followed. Utilitarianism, which seeks the greatest good for the greatest number, sees right and wrong in terms of pleasure and pain. The utilitarian principle that “something is wrong because someone is suffering” starkly contrasts with the Christian principle that “someone is suffering because something is wrong”.
Pain entered the world through original sin. As bad as it is, it points to the greater evil of moral disorder. Because this disorder is spiritual and not physical, it is sidelined in the contemporary worldview.
An example of the “suffering servant” of Isaiah 53 was taken up by no less than God Himself, taking on the evil of pain and blessing it with the power to vanquish the greater evil of sin, and inviting all faithful Christians to follow Him in redemptive suffering. “Christians know that suffering cannot be eliminated, yet it can have meaning and become an act of love and entrustment into the hands of God who does not abandon us; in this way it can serve as a moment of growth in faith and love.” (Pope Francis, “Lumen Fidei”, 58)
And though our technological advances are indeed noble in seeking to limit suffering, setting this as an end in itself turns our focus away from the real problem of our sinfulness, just as upping the dosage does nothing to address the psychological problems of the heroin addict. Wine was offered to Jesus on the cross, but He refused it because it would attenuate His suffering.
As Fr. Schall alluded, the doctrine of hell has its source in the idea of justice. We have it written on our nature to “have each given his due”. One may object that this is just an artifact of cultural conditioning, that perhaps with a different upbringing our thirst for justice may have never appeared. At the very least, there’s no evidence to indicate that I will have to answer for my own injustices.
The fact is that an insatiated demand for justice has appeared through every culture in every age throughout history. The big issues of our times are so divisive precisely because each side so strongly believes their view is right and just. C.S. Lewis masterfully addresses this issue in “Mere Christianity” (chapter “The Rival Conceptions of God”):
A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it? A man feels wet when he falls into water, because man is not a water animal: a fish would not feel wet. Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too – for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, no simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist – in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless – I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality – namely my idea of justice – was full of sense.
In spite of its limitations in all forms and its many perversions throughout history, government in civil society centers on the commonly recognized need for the distribution of justice. But because we live in an imperfect world, government must be limited to addressing only the gravest of injustices and leave the rest to God, or cause much greater injustices in its own attempts at simulating a divine justice. As J. Budziszewski wisely notes (book “The Line Through the Heart”, chapter “The Second Tablet Project”):
The motto “do the right thing and let God take care of the consequences” makes sense only on the assurance that He will take care of the consequences. Without that assurance, doing the right thing means taking care of the consequences – or trying to. And so it is that unless there is providence, the urge to do good irresistibly consorts to evil; unless God is just, our judgments become unhinged.
So injustices will occur outside the reach of civil laws, and there is ultimately no safeguard against the use of the great powers of government for injustice if those in power are depraved. As Budziszewski observed earlier, ultimate retribution comes through divine providence, and if it does not come in this life, it must come in the next. Any denial of this “place of retribution” ultimately concedes the injustice of creation, which our minds and hearts war against and which Lewis brilliantly refuted. So why can’t all reprobate souls simply be given the opportunity to repay all their sins for a limited time and balance the scale of justice?
Humans are social beings called to give and receive love. Whether we like it or not, the consequences of our actions go far beyond ourselves. As Fr. Schall notes, repentance acknowledges our violation of the order of justice and our powerlessness to stop the cascade of consequences. We are incapable of fully restoring justice through our own devices: we must be forgiven by Him Who is offended and alone has the power to restore full justice. In his sermon “Chastisement Amid Mercy”, John Henry Newman points out that repentance tries to reverse the past, attempting in vain to undo evils already committed and grieving at the inability to make it so. This and only this offering will God accept in reconciliation: “… a contrite, humbled heart, O God, you will not scorn.” (Psalms 51:19)
So back to the original question, wouldn’t God be more merciful if all souls are given as many chances as they need to repent? Shouldn’t hell be more like some demented form of “Groundhog Day”? Fr. Schall appeals to the created human nature to argue against this notion:
A God who cannot or will not by His wisdom or power save everyone, no matter what they think or do, is said to be an inferior, a less-than-all-powerful, totally insensitive God. Yet such theories, when spelled out, deny us the reality and finality of our choices and hence the drama on which our dignity is based. They propose a semi-eternity of choosing not to choose our final fate, in which we rest in either a paradise or a hell. Still, it is the purpose of human life to make this very choice. The purpose of creation is precisely that a free choice of the highest things be made in order that the highest things may in fact exist in our souls.
God’s providential mercy limits the evil we can bring forth, but it does not violate what He created us to be. Our nature seeks a “happily ever after”, the ultimate fulfillment, the final state. Our dignity comes from our inbuilt freewill, our freedom to accept or reject God’s offer to make us His for eternity. Our response to God’s love would mean nothing without our ability to choose whether or not to requite it. The ultimate choice to not love Him in return within the time of mercy He gives us is our decision to reject the reality of His truth, goodness, and beauty, and put ourselves in His place. Thus hell becomes our inability to acknowledge any of these values outside of ourselves while beholding ourselves in the absence of these values, having rejected their source in true finality.
Our everyday lives are fraught with unimaginable significance precisely because we live for a final choice. The way we live really does matter. Our lives are dramas in a way that makes our favorite fairy tales, movies and novels pale into insignificance. Newman observed (sermon “The Lapse of Time”) that after a man dies, the world means less to him than he meant to the world. The greatness bestowed on us by God hangs on our freedom to accept or reject the magnificent gift He offers. With tender love He pardons our failures so that in the end our “yes” will really mean “yes” and we can be drawn into everlasting communion with Him. But this pardon begins with our remorse and our resolve.
So what is five minutes in the confessional on the scale of eternity?