The Rosary Light & Life - Vol 44, No 6, Nov-Dec 1991

Theology for the Laity


By Father Paul A. Duffner, O.P.

If there is any topic that preachers hesitate to preach about, and writers hesitate to write about, it is the topic of hell. Yet, we cannot do away with the reality merely by ignoring it, or avoiding it because it is unpleasant. As Fr. Walter Farrell, O.P. has stated, "What is surprising, and not at all flattering to humanity, is that men should shrink from the truth of hell, as if the place of eternal torment could be obliterated by our denial of it . . . It is the height of unreason to give a divine truth treatment of this kind." (Comp. to Summa, 4, p. 452)

We who profess the Catholic faith, cannot pick and choose between the doctrines revealed by Christ, but must accept His word in all things. As we shall see, Christ clearly and frequently referred to an eternal punishment for those who die rejecting Godís will.


The Scriptures place much emphasis on the general plan of manís final end. The whole of mankind is called to that final glorification with Christ, when the Son will present the Blessed to the Father.

Yet, it is possible for the individual to be excluded from that final fulfillment. The Sacred Books utter urgent warnings as to the dire consequences to those who would exclude themselves from this final glorification, by choosing a life lived exclusively for themselves, instead of a life for God in the community of their fellow men.

God wills that all mankind be saved, yet He has given to each man a "free will" to choose Godís plan or reject it. In order to save the whole of mankind, Christ underwent His passion and death, thereby gaining sufficient graces for the redemption of the whole human race. But once one reaches the use of reason, in order to share in those redeeming graces, he must "choose" Christ, i.e. he must believe in His redeeming sacrifice, and "choose" to follow in His footsteps by keeping His commandments. Those who choose worldly satisfactions forbidden by God, and die clinging obstinately to that choice, have chosen an eternity of painful separation from God.


St. Paul said of such individuals, "they have not opened their hearts to the truth in order to be saved" (2 Thes. 2:10). Of all the misfortunes that can befall man . . . such as severe physical affliction because of sickness or accident, total loss of oneís worldly possessions, abandonment by or loss of family or friends, etc. . . . none of these misfortunes can compare to the affliction of "hardness of heart" in the rejection of God. Those former afflictions bring suffering in this life only, and can even occasion a growing closeness to God and a greater dependence on Him; while the last mentioned, except for a miracle of grace, increases the soulís resistance to grace, and can even bring an eternity of unspeakable torment. In his epistle to the Romans, St. Paul speaks of this hardness of heart:

There is an essential connection between hell and manís freedom. A refusal to believe in hell is a refusal to take Godís word seriously, and a refusal to take seriously manís own freedom and his consequent responsibility.

It is important to remember, then, that no one incurs eternal punishment by accident. Nor, strictly speaking, does God sentence anyone to hell. It is the sinner who goes there by his own choice. For his will has become so fixed on that to which he clings, his heart has become so hardened against God, that he resists the last-moment graces of God seeking his surrender and repentance.


While the Church has made no solemn definitions as to the nature of the punishment of hell, there are sufficient indications in the Scriptures and Tradition to establish the doctrine which the Church teaches regarding eternal punishment.

Hell is the ultimate consequence of sin. It is a monument to the creatureís declaration of independence from the Creator. In every grave sin there is a two-fold element: a turning away from God, and a turning to creatures, i.e. a seeking some creature-satisfaction in opposition to Godís commandments. And because of this two-fold element in every grave sin, there is a corresponding two-fold punishment in hell, namely, the pain of loss (for oneís turning away from God), and the pain of sense (for choosing creature-satisfaction in preference of God.

A) The Pain of Loss:

St. Augustine wrote centuries ago, "Our heart is made for Thee, O God, and it will be restless until it rests in Thee." Only God can fill all the yearnings of the human heart. In this life man is often unaware of the cause of his restlessness, and at times will seek to fill the vacuum in his heart with passing satisfactions, even satisfactions forbidden by God. If one continues to seek forbidden satisfactions, it can lead to an exclusive love of self that involves an habitual disregard of God. If such an individual ends his life clinging to that choice, that is, unrepentant, his will is fixed eternally in that choice - an eternal separation from God.

The pain of loss depends on the realization of the value of the thing lost. And in the life beyond the grave, the lost souls - no longer hampered by union with the body - see with a clearness unknown in this life the true value of things. They will have an immeasurably greater realization of what God is than they were capable of while on earth. Locked in forever in the choice they have made, they are impelled by their very being to reach out for God, but they are imprisoned by their own selfishness. Their frustrating lot brings untold anguish and remorse, but not repentance, for they are no longer capable of any change of mind or heart. In the very depth of their being they are torn apart by the struggle within.

The human soul was created for the perfect enjoyment of the Beatific Vision of the Divine Trinity. Just as the enjoyment of the "face to face" vision of God constitutes a beatitude beyond anything we can imagine in this life, so the eternal loss of it constitutes a "pain of loss" beyond anything we can conceive in this life. For all eternity the damned have to live with the horrible choice of self in preference to God, the choice of earthly satisfactions (which now only disgust and torment) in preference to the possession of Him who is infinite GOOD, infinite LOVE, infinite TRUTH, infinite BEAUTY.

As the eye is made for light, so the mind is made for truth, and the will is made to love. Thus souls in hell, confirmed in hatred of God and deprived of the vision of God, will never attain the end to which they must tend by force of their very nature. Their existence is one of neverending frustration, an eternal unsatisfied craving of their whole being. The utter void of these souls, made for the enjoyment of infinite truth and infinite goodness, causes untold anguish.

Their consciousness of having by their own deliberate folly forfeited the greatest blessings for transitory and delusive pleasures humiliates and pains them beyond measure. Their desire for happiness inherent in their very nature, wholly unsatisfied and no longer able to find any compensation in creature-satisfactions for their loss of God, renders them totally and perpetually in a state of incompleteness and frustration.

They were called to be "children of light" (Eph. 5:9), but have been cast into "exterior darkness" (Mt. 8:12). They clearly see what their true end should have been, and their unclouded intellect makes the thought of God a maddening mystery to them, a torment that does not go away.

During the course of their earthly life-span no failure was final, because there was always another chance, at least in regards to repentance for oneís mistakes. But for those in hell, their lifeís failure is final without any hope of another chance, or of regaining what was lost. They hate and curse God as the inflictor of punishment, they hate the Blessed for having what they lack, they hate themselves for choosing a way of life that led to this end. They would gladly accept annihilation as an escape from their torments, but they know there is no escape. Their lot is utter despair.

Nothing supernatural remains in hell, except the marks of baptism, confirmation and the priesthood deeply imprinted in the soul. These bring the constant and bitter memory of graces once received, to the increase of their remorse and the sense of greatness of what was lost. And while all the souls of the damned suffer the "pain of loss", that punishment will not be equal for all, for all did not equally reject God during their time of trial.

B) The Pain of Sense:

In addition to the privation of the vision of God - the pain of loss - which constitutes the primary suffering of hell, there is another source of pain afflicting those condemned to hell, referred to as the pain of sense. The PAIN OF LOSS is caused by the absence of something, whereas the PAIN OF SENSE is caused by the presence of something, namely, what Scriptures refer to as the "fire" of hell. The former torments the heart of man from within, while the latter torments man from without. The sinner condemned to hell chose some created thing instead of God as his ultimate good, clinging to it to the end. Because of this, a created thing (hell-fire) will be a source of torment for all eternity.

It would be wrong to imagine that the fire of hell afflicts only the body of lost souls. Scripture indicates that it was created primarily to afflict spiritual beings. Shortly before His passion Our Lord, in His discourse on the last judgment foretold what the condemned will hear: "Depart from me . . . into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angles." The angels have no bodies, nor do lost human souls prior to the end of the world. Only after the general resurrection will their bodies share the torments of the soul.

While the nature of the fire of hell is a mystery, most theologians are in agreement that it is not a mere metaphor for the intensity of suffering. It is an objective reality external to the sufferer. The words "fire" and "flame" are used to describe the pain of sense of hell eight times in the gospels and thirty times in the entire New Testament. This seems to indicate that the pain of sense inflicted on the damned is similar to that caused by the fire we know on earth. Theologians describe the differences of this fire as follows:

While it is not possible for us to know the precise nature of the fire that torments devils and lost souls, St. Thomas Aquinas held that it was of a corporeal nature. If that is so, how can a corporal agent torture a spiritual being which is without a body? The Angelic Doctor answers that it can do so, not by its own natural power, but "as an instrument of vengeance of divine justice. For the order of divine justice demands that the soul, which by sinning subjected itself to corporeal things, should be subjected to them also in punishment." (Suppl. 70,3) Fr. Francis Cunningham, O.P. summarizes the teaching of St. Thomas in this matter as follows:


After reading much in the New Testament about the mercy of Christ, it comes as a shock to some to learn of the severity of punishment in store for those who deliberately and obstinately defy His teaching. The merciful Christ who forgave Magdalen and the woman taken in adultery, and forgave the repentant thief, is the same Christ who spoke time and again of hell as an "unquenchable fire" (Mk. 9:44), as "everlasting fire" (Mt. 18:8), and as a "furnace of fire" (Mt. 13:42,50). God is not only infinitely merciful, but also infinitely just. His mercy is manifested during our life on earth. But he has told us clearly that at the end of this time of trial there comes a judgment of our whole life, and a reward or punishment that is final and eternal. St. Paul expressed the same to the Thessalonians:


1) Why must hell be eternal? Since grave sin is an outrage against God, a Divine Person of infinite dignity and majesty, man incurs thereby an infinite debt of punishment. And since finite man cannot be punished in a way that is infinite in intensity, he must be punished in a way that is infinite in duration.

2) Is the punishment of hell the same for all? Just as there are "different mansions" in heaven, so there are different degrees of suffering in hell. A more intense hatred of God in this life, will merit a more intense pain of loss in the next. A more intense seeking of forbidden pleasures as oneís ultimate good in this life, will merit a more intense pain of sense in the next.

3) Is the existence of hell a dogma of our faith?The Church has repeatedly defined this truth. One example is the first Council of Lyons which decreed in 1245: "If anyone dies without repentance in the state of mortal sin, he will without doubt be tormented perpetually in the flames of an everlasting hell."

4) Is it likely that one will incur eternal punishment who tries to lead a good life, but from time to time falls into grave sin out of human frailty? Such a one almost invariably will very quickly repent and return to Godís friendship. If the good thief on Calvary stole heaven the last moment, the reverse, we believe, is rarely true - that one who tries to live in Godís friendship loses that friendship the last moment. Speaking of the different mansions in heaven and hell, Fr. Walter Farrell, O.P. commented:

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