Saint Matthew's Gospel records the journey of our Lord in and around the village of Capharnaum, where he performs a variety of merciful 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 direct influence of the devil.
But even while our Lord is demonstrating His great kindness and mercy, He warns us of the reality of punishment in hell. That 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 “hellfire and brimstone” sermons may not produce truly 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 from a complete perspective. One of our people 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. There may be more to it than that, but the suggestion makes a great deal of sense. We would do well to follow suit.
To begin with, we should remember that we were not created to go to Hell. We were fashioned to enjoy the happiness with God in heaven. All of our appetites, all of our desires, even when they are somewhat distorted, tend to toward the things of heaven. The damned in hell are completely out of their own element. 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.
The sacred scriptures indicate that something 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 these unfortunates have what should be a glorious body to feel the physical pain. In that sense, the resurrection will be something dreaded by the souls in hell.
Those in hell will also be punished by 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, through 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, and 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 people” who are in hell, but the worst and most disgusting.
Most importantly, in hell the damned will—with direct and certain knowledge—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 come from having thrown away the most valuable thing in the universe.
And, of course, all of these torments will be made much worse by the knowledge that they will go on forever. They will know that they have elected to disobey and dishonor the infinite God—and therefore to be 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.
About twenty years ago, a man was appointed to be a cardinal—a priest who had written several books contradicting this teaching of the Church the current pope appointed—it might be instructive to know that this priest died the night before he was to be officially installed in office. It was almost as though God had intervened in the selection of the princes of the Church—as though the denial of hell was more serious than the other sins Cardinals have been known to commit.
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 would like to believe that no one is responsible for their own actions—that we are all just playing our particular part in God’s plan. There is even a movement afoot to hold Judas without guilt for his betrayal of Jesus Christ, in spite of our Lord’s words that “he would have been better if he had not been born”! Such people 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 inspiration and encouragement. 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, 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!”