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The Last Things, Part V: Hell
Posted By Eric Sammons On November 8, 2010 @ 8:24 am In Spirituality | Comments Disabled
In our series on the Last Things, we now turn to the most distasteful of doctrines in our age: Hell. There is no belief more scandalous to modern ears than the eternal fire of Hell; nothing appears more contradictory today than the idea of an all-loving God who sends people to an everlasting punishment. It just seems so arbitrary and extreme: why punish someone eternally for something they did over a brief period of time? How can that be loving? Many modern Christians – including many Catholics – have tried to minimize and even forget the existence of Hell, hoping that the doctrine itself will eventually be consigned to its own eternal place of rejection.
Yet anyone even slightly familiar with the teachings of Jesus and the Scriptures know that it is intellectually dishonest for the Christian to ignore Hell. Hell, and its denizens, are throughout the Bible: from the presence of Satan in the Garden of Eden to the final defeat of Hell’s armies in Revelation, Hell has a starring role in the story of Salvation History. Jesus himself was constantly at war with Satan and his demons, and often warned his followers that Hell awaits those who reject God. The Gospel writers present the overthrow of Satan and Hell as a main part of Christ’s mission.
So how should the modern Christian view Hell? First, it is important to recognize the guidelines the Church has insisted upon throughout the centuries:
1) There is a Hell.
2) It is where those who reject God spent eternity.
3) Satan and the other fallen angels inhabit Hell.
In other words, we cannot reject the existence of Hell, we cannot say that it is only temporary, and we cannot say that it is empty (the doctrine of apokatastasis). Each of these beliefs can be tempting for the modern Christian, but they must be rejected as contrary to the Deposit of Faith.
But it is also important to remember that our conceptions of the after-life – be it Hell, Purgatory or Heaven – are all colored by our cultures and times. We have not been given a definitive look at any of these states of the after-life, only glimpses which reflect as much the perception of the one who receives it as they do the reality they represent. Nothing in this life can prepare us to understand the after-life, so all descriptions of a place like Hell must be taken as imperfect, limited attempts to explain in human language the indescribable. So visions of Hell from saints and mystics from the Middle Ages are not doctrines that must be accepted at face value, but instead should be seen as imperfect attempts to explain the unexplainable (and likewise, all modern attempts should be read in the same light).
One reality of Hell that has been recognized more and more over the centuries is that its inhabitants choose to be there. St. Catherine of Genoa was one of the first saints to teach this. From her mystical experiences, she realized that Hell’s doors are locked from the inside; in other words, those who are in Hell are not forced against their will to be there – they prefer it to Heaven. This realization of the nature of Hell was also brilliantly depicted in C.S. Lewis’ classic book The Great Divorce  (a book I highly recommend). But how can that be? Why would anyone choose Hell over Heaven? Ultimately, it is because a person becomes so self-focused that they would prefer their own company over the company of God – and Hell is nothing if not a self-centered realm.
Satre once famously wrote that “Hell is other people.” The opposite is true: Hell is complete and utter aloneness. We are made for communion  with others and most of all for communion with God, and Hell denies any communion with anyone, including with God. And this is what the resident of Hell wants – to be completely focused on self to the exclusion of all others. Elder Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov cried out: “Hell is the suffering of being no longer able to love”, and this is an accurate description of Hell: we were made to love and for Love, and Hell rejects all forms of love for the pitiful facade of self-love, which is no love at all.
One final note about Hell: the Church has never declared that an individual person is in Hell. As members of the Church Militant we are obliged to pray for all the dead, no matter what their lives may have been like. This obligation knows no exceptions, for to exempt someone from our prayers is to limit love. We should hope for the salvation of every man and must leave final judgement to the only true Judge, Jesus Christ. When we contemplate the reality of Hell, the only person we should picture there is ourselves.
Article printed from Divine Life – A Blog by Eric Sammons: http://ericsammons.com/blog
URL to article: http://ericsammons.com/blog/2010/11/08/the-last-things-part-v-hell/
URLs in this post:
 Part I: http://ericsammons.com/blog/2010/11/01/the-last-things-part-i-the-virtue-of-hope/
 Part II: http://ericsammons.com/blog/2010/11/02/the-last-things-part-ii-eternity/
 Part III: http://ericsammons.com/blog/2010/11/03/the-last-things-part-iii-death/
 Part IV: http://ericsammons.com/blog/2010/11/04/the-last-things-part-iv-judgement/
 The Great Divorce: http://www.amazon.com/Great-Divorce-C-S-Lewis/dp/0060652950/
 made for communion: http://ericsammons.com/blog/2010/10/18/christianity-in-one-word/
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