HELL: A REVELATION OF GOD'S LOVE AND MERCY
By Fr. T. Roche, C.S.S.R.
The torments of hell are eternal. This truth of our Faith is set forth in the Athanasian Creed: "They that have done good things shall fo into life everlasting, and they that have done evil things into everlasting fire."
The words of Our Lord are unmistakable: "The chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire".
"Depart from Me into everlasting fire."
Can we understand what is meant by the eternity of hell? No - it is entirely beyond our comprehension. Scientists have measured the extent of the earth, the depths of the sea, but no measure can be found for eternity. No measure can reach the boundary of eternity, because no boundry exists.
"O Eternity", exclaims St. Augustine, "What art thou? say what you will of it and you have never said enough. Say that it includes as many millions of years as there are stars in the formament, grains of sand on the sea-shore, leaves in the trees, drops of water in the ocean, you will never have said enough."
And why? Because no time, no matter how long, can have any proportions to eternity. A sinner condemned to hell a thousand years ago cannot say: "Now I have one hour less to suffer." Eternity remains just as long as it was when he first entered hell.
All that one can say to express the duration of eternity is summed up in the words: forever - ever. When will the ecstatic delights of heaven come to an end? Never. When will the fire of hell cease to torment the reprobate. Never. For how long will the ineffable joys of heaven last? Forever. How long will the wicked have to remain in the terrible abyss of hell? Forever.
It may be asked, how are we to reconcilethe awful punishments of hell with the love and mercy of God? In order to understand this difficulty, we must remember that no one can ever be lost by surprise or trapped in his ignorance. It is Mortal Sin alone that incurs the punishments of hell. Mortal Sin is the fuel of the fire of hell. Now, a bad act must have three conditions to mortally sinful. First, there must be a serious breach of the moral law, in orde that the sin may be mortal. Secondly, there must be full advertance to the grave malice of the act; so that if one were half-asleep, or drowsy, or not in full possession of his faculties, the sin would not be mortal. Thirdly, there must be full and free consent. This consent must be perfect so that a man must wisch to choose the wrong quite deliberately. Now, since God gives abundant helps to all who walk in the path of the commandments, whoever incurs the guilt of mortal sin must lay the blame entirely at his own door. Among these helps not the least is the revelation of the torments of hell.
In his book, "Hell and its Problems", Raupert, to the same effect, writes:
"It is certainly not the love of God that restrains even refined and cultivated people from the indulgence of their passions, and from entering upon crooked and forbidden pahts in the various relationships of life. What foes restrain them is the sense and fear of the punishment in the form of dishonour and loss of social prestige in the temporal order, and order, and of dimly discerned perhaps, but nevertheless conceivably serious consequences in the spiritual order. It cannot be accidental, surely, that HOLY SCRIPTURE CONTAINS FAR MORE WARNING OF HELL THAN PROMISES OF HEAVEN. He who searches the hearts and reins knows what truth is best calculated to stay and direct the weak and frail mind of men. I feel confident that when the secret history of each saved soul comes hereafter to be revealed, it will be found that the fear of hell has saved more souls than the promises of heaven. Although fear is not the highest motive to virtue, it is the most common nevertheless, and in the critical moments of life the most powerful one beyond doubt."
THE GREAT GATE OF HELL On one occasion Our Lord warned His Apostles, saying: "Fear ye not them that kill the body and are not able to kill the soul; but rather fear him that can destroy both body and soul in hell." (Matt. X, 28) God has placed on the shore of eternity, two great lights to guide us on our path through life: the red light of hell, as a warning and a deterrent, and th green light of heaven, to give us hope and encouragement. We should, therefore, fear God, and fear hell, which is for all of a dread possibility.
"We should tremble", says St. Alphonsus," at the thought of being lost, and tremble not so much at the thought of hell, as of sin, which alone can send us there."
Objections are sometimes raised by not only non-Catholics but Catholics also the the doctrine of hell and its punishments. God is good, they say, and He is too meciful to condemn anyone to an eternity in the fire of hell. But God is not only good and merciful, He is also infinitely just. The answer of St. Augustine to all objections against the fire of hell and the eternity of hell, is: "CHRIST HATH SPOKEN IT." God has said it, and His word is true. Moreover, God does not send any soul to hell. Men cast themselves into hell. Scripture testifies to the truth of this: as for example: "What things a man shall sow, those also shall he reap." (Gal. V1, 8) And again: "Before man is life and death, good and evil, that which he shall choose, shall be given him." (Ecclus. XV, 18). Before man is heaven and hell, that which he shall choose shall be given him.