During my early morning run the other day I was thinking about this post, where I suggested that, according to standard Catholic doctrine, a pretty large percentage of Americans over the past forty years were prime candidates for eternal damnation. And it occurred to me that, according to the standard doctrine I learned growing up, I’m going to hell too, along with a large chunk of the people I know. Not because of anything to do with abortion, but because I was given the gift of faith and rejected it, turning my back on God’s love.
Hell doesn’t come up much nowadays–I’m sure parts of the Church find the fire-and-brimstone stuff embarrassing. This Times article (“Hell Is Getting a Makeover”) points out that the latest Catholic catechism contains only five paragraphs about hell in a 700-page book. And the pain of hell, we now believe, is not physical but mental:
Hell is best understood as the condition of total alienation from all that is good, hopeful and loving in the world. What’s more, this condition is chosen by the damned themselves, the ultimate exercise of free will, not a punishment engineered by God.
Of course, to get to this spot, the theologians have to go the “Jesus’ words shouldn’t be taken literally” route, since Jesus had lots to say about unquenchable fire and the weeping and gnashing of teeth and so on. But that’s theology for you.
In any case, hell is still real, and apparently I’m going there. Maybe I’ll contemplate Pascal’s wager on my deathbed–but I doubt it.
And I can’t help thinking that the sermon in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a far more interesting vision of hell than the etiolated modern view. Here is just a taste.
The horror of this strait and dark prison is increased by its awful stench. All the filth of the world, all the offal and scum of the world, we are told, shall run there as to a vast reeking sewer when the terrible conflagration of the last day has purged the world. The brimstone, too, which burns there in such prodigious quantity fills all hell with its intolerable stench; and the bodies of the damned themselves exhale such a pestilential odour that, as saint Bonaventure says, one of them alone would suffice to infect the whole world. The very air of this world, that pure element, becomes foul and unbreathable when it has been long enclosed. Consider then what must be the foulness of the air of hell. Imagine some foul and putrid corpse that has lain rotting and decomposing in the grave, a jelly-like mass of liquid corruption. Imagine such a corpse a prey to flames, devoured by the fire of burning brimstone and giving off dense choking fumes of nauseous loathsome decomposition. And then imagine this sickening stench, multiplied a millionfold and a millionfold again from the millions upon millions of fetid carcasses massed together in the reeking darkness, a huge and rotting human fungus. Imagine all this, and you will have some idea of the horror of the stench of hell.
But this stench is not, horrible though it is, the greatest physical torment to which the damned are subjected. The torment of fire is the greatest torment to which the tyrant has ever subjected his fellow creatures. Place your finger for a moment in the flame of a candle and you will feel the pain of fire. But our earthly fire was created by God for the benefit of man, to maintain in him the spark of life and to help him in the useful arts, whereas the fire of hell is of another quality and was created by God to torture and punish the unrepentant sinner. Our earthly fire also consumes more or less rapidly according as the object which it attacks is more or less combustible, so that human ingenuity has even succeeded in inventing chemical preparations to check or frustrate its action. But the sulphurous brimstone which burns in hell is a substance which is specially designed to burn for ever and for ever with unspeakable fury. Moreover, our earthly fire destroys at the same time as it burns, so that the more intense it is the shorter is its duration; but the fire of hell has this property, that it preserves that which it burns, and, though it rages with incredible intensity, it rages for ever.
That should’ve kept those Irish lads on the straight and narrow!