The doctrine of hellfire attests to the fact that we can make ourselves such as not to need God. “But every creature needs God to continue to exist,” you say. Yes, metaphysically, every being other than God receives its being from God and therefore needs God. We can become such persons, however, that in our thoughts and wishes, our desires, plans, and pleasures, it makes no difference to us if there is a God. Some would even regard the universe as better if He were not.
Many people are like this. Sure, you might describe them as “people who mistakenly believe that they do not need God.” For them, though, it’s much more than a misguided “belief.” It’s a way of living. It touches their core. We must describe them in their own words: they’ve defined the meaning of the universe that way.
“Oh, but their hearts are restless, and they will not rest until they rest in God,” you say, quoting a great authority. “They will find out someday that they are wrong.” But what if they don’t? They seem not to have found that out for the fifty, sixty, seventy years they have lived. Why would seventy more make a difference?
A greater authority said, “Water the tree for one more year, and then, if it does not bear fruit, cut it down.” Our hearts are indeed restless, by nature, but we can wreck that nature, so that it becomes obscured to us, except for a miracle.
This is where hellfire comes in. Someone with a restless heart somewhere deep down, if banished from the presence of God eternally, will be filled with an eternal aching regret: not the regret of repentance, mind you, but the regret of mere self-recrimination, the “worm which never dies.” They do not respond to God after death as, “Oh, this is the one I have been restless for,” because, if that were the case, they would not have been banished to hell.
The saints say that eternal regret is hell enough: indeed it is, for even the vaguely restless at heart. But what about the ones who really have made themselves such that they nowhere acknowledge in their being the good that is God? For them, banishment is just fine. It rids them of a potential nuisance. An eternal vacation on their own, free from the cares of temporal necessity, and the “hell” which is other people would be, for them, fantastic.
There may be more of our fellow human beings in this state than we usually think.
Everyone can see that letting them continue to define the meaning of the universe for themselves would be unjust. It is necessary that God now do some defining for them. Taking away the eternal vacation is a good start. But the saints have held that real justice, indeed even as medicinal, indicates that they must be made to experience in their bodies something analogous to the gnawing ache that most feel in the soul. This would also be, in a way, medicinal, since it would improve them. Again, that highest authority who says “the worm never dies” also says, of Gehenna, that “there the fire is never quenched.”
So I repeat it: The doctrine of hellfire attests to the fact that we can make ourselves such as not to need God.
It is a doctrine, and Catholics must believe it, on pain of heresy, and to avoid rendering their epitaph ironical: “Here lies a well-intentioned Catholic who died denying the doctrine of hellfire.”
In the Catechism the doctrine of hellfire is taught with clarity, although its articulation seems a bit sheepish (and thus not pastoral):
The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire.” [Note 617] The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.
One suspects the phrase “eternal fire” was put in scare quotes because the fire is not earthly fire but only something like it. Yet today the scare quotes will be understood as skepticism, calling the doctrine into question. It’s impossible for a scare quote to be a sufficiently scary quote.
Still, in the Catechism, the footnotes are invariably edifying. Note 617 gives a bevy of citations: “cf. DS 76; 409; 411; 801; 858; 1002; 1351; 1575; Paul VI, CPG § 12.” “DS” is a reference book which used to be on every seminarian’s desk alongside the Bible: Denzinger’s (and now Schönmetzer’s), Enchiridion Symbolorum, which is an authoritative compilation of magisterial teachings: Those texts will be in Latin or Greek and therefore unintelligible to nearly all Catholics, including bishops.
But it’s easy enough to look up “CPG” in English, the Credo of the People of God. On this important point pope-beatusPaul VI evidently wanted the Church to teach with unmistakable clarity: “He ascended to heaven, and He will come again, this time in glory, to judge the living and the dead: each according to his merits – those who have responded to the love and piety of God going to eternal life, those who have refused them to the end going to the fire that is not extinguished.” (The Latin text is even stronger, saying that the latter are “delivered over” or “abandoned to” that fire.)
“But I know that I need God,” you say. “How could I get through even a single day, do my work well, keep my patience, sustain my optimism, without praying?” To someone who said this, undoubtedly, Our Lord would look at him and love him. (Mk 10:21) But then he might add: “There is one thing that you lack. Do you need God?”
And this raises the question of heaven – for next time.
*Image: Dante and Virgil [observing a tormented soul in hell] by William Bouguereau, 1850 [Musée d’Orsay, Paris]