"Many will come from east and west, and feast with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, but the children of the kingdom will be put forth into the darkness outside; and there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
The Reality of Hell
Matthew's Gospel records the journey of our Lord in and around the village of Capharnaum, where he performs a variety of compassionate miracles; He makes a leper clean, heals the centurion's servant, rids Peter's mother in law of a fever, and heals several people who are under the possessed by the devil. But even while our Lord is demonstrating His great kindness and mercy, He warns us of the reality of punishment in hell. Those who refuse to be part of His "kingdom will be put forth into the darkness outside; and there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." We are put on notice that, even though God is merciful -- the essence of mercy itself -- He is also just, and will punish those who reject Him and break His laws.
While "hell-fire, and brimstone" sermons may not produce the classic Christian dispositions in the soul, it is occasionally necessary to spend a few moments thinking about the awful nature of hell in order to understand our life on earth in its complete perspective. One of our parishioners expressed to me the idea that the children who witnessed the apparitions at Fatima were so faithful to our Lady's commands precisely because they had been granted a vision of hell. Understanding the immense suffering of the souls of the damned helped them to be completely dedicated to working for their salvation. Even though we have not been granted such a vision, we would do well to follow suit.
The Nature of Hell
We should remember that we were not created to go to Hell. We were fashioned to enjoy happiness with God in heaven. All of our appetites, all of our wants, all of our desires, even when they are somewhat distorted, tend to toward the things of heaven. It is only God's goodness which will satisfy our needs. The damned in hell are completely out of their own element, for they are completely cut off from the source of this goodness.
Hell was created as a place of punishment for the disobedient angels, and for those souls who refuse to cooperate with God's graces. In hell, the abandoned souls experience the pain of the senses. Just as they have given themselves over to the inordinate and improper use of created things in life, so too in death they are afflicted by material things. So to speak, "we get what we ask for," and must suffer the consequences of our malicious choices.
The Sacred Scriptures indicate that something very much like earthly fire afflicts those in hell. This will be all the more true after the general resurrection, when all have been restored to their bodily form, and the unfortunates have what should have been a glorious body to feel the physical pain. For they too will take part in the general resurrection, but the body which should have served to increase their glory will only serve to increase their torment.
Those in hell will feel punishment from their own consciences. They will have the sinking feeling that they have condemned themselves for eternity through their own fault. They will see clearly that they could have taken advantage of God's graces with comparatively little effort -- yet they, themselves, threw these precious gifts out the proverbial "window."
In hell, one's neighbors will be devils who delight in sharing their misery, and all of the worst people of the earth; the unrepentant murderers, perverts, thieves, and so on. You might think of it as purposefully moving into the worst neighborhood, in the worst slum, in the worst city, on the worst planet in the universe. Popular jokes to the contrary, it will not be the "interesting and sophisticated people" who are in hell, but the worst and most disgusting.
Most importantly, in hell the damned will -- with direct and certain knowledge -- will know the infinite beauty of God and His heaven. And equally, they will know that they have thrown this beauty away forever. They will know of the beautiful light, yet will have banished themselves to the "weeping and gnashing of teeth in eternal darkness." They will be punished with the self reproach that comes from having thrown away the most valuable thing in all of creation.
Hell is Eternal
All of the torments of hell will be made much worse by the knowledge that they will go on forever. The damned will know that they have elected to disobey and dishonor the infinite God, and, therefore, are worthy of infinite punishment. The eternal nature of hell is mentioned in many places in Scripture, and has been the constant teaching of the Church. Yet, there are always the foolish who are ready to deny it. A year or two ago, the current pope appointed, among others, a certain man to be a cardinal. In this, the Holy Father made a serious mistake, for the man was one who had written several books contradicting this central teaching of the Church It is instructive to know that this priest was taken by death the night before he was to be installed in his new office. It is not hard to see the operation of the Holy Ghost in preserving the doctrinal purity of the Church.
The notion of hell is unpleasant, but it is real. Many modern people, caught up in the pleasures of the material world, would like to believe that it is only a fiction, or that it only lasts for a little while. They are wrong; they are fooling themselves. We have our Lord's word for it: hell is real, hell is eternal.
But instead of allowing this information to frighten us, we should make it a source of encouragement and direction. It should cause us to get our lives going in the direction which will assure us of heaven. Prayer, fasting, the Rosary, the Mass, the Sacraments, frequent Confession and Communion, devotion to the hearts of Jesus and Mary, and so on. And, it should motivate us to work industriously for the salvation of others; particularly those close to us, upon whom we have measurable influence; our friends, family, and other associates.
"O my Jesus, forgive us our sins. Save us from the fires of hell. Lead all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of Thy mercy!"