Final thoughts about eternal damnation

Not that I’m dying or anything, I just have one blog post left in me about hell before I focus on politics for a while (which is its own kind of hell). Or maybe hurricanes.

Anyway, here is another quote from the New York Times article about hell getting a makeover:

While the catechism says that Jesus spoke of hell as an ”unquenchable fire,” it says hell’s primary punishment is ”eternal separation from God,” which results from an individual’s conscious decision.

”To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him forever by our own free choice,” the catechism says.

This argument–that a loving God doesn’t send you to hell, you basically send yourself there–is familiar to me.  But it has always struck me as completely bogus.  First of all, God makes the rules about who goes to hell.  Second, He doesn’t publish the rules.  I learned a lot of rules growing up, but those can’t be the right rules, because otherwise everyone is going to hell.  For example, I learned that missing Mass on Sunday or a Holy Day of Obligation was a mortal sin.  Was it true back then?  Is it still true now?  Have the rules changed?  No one is going to tell you.  I read an online essay about hell where the author opined that failure to follow the Church’s rules on contraception was a grave sin, possibly meriting hell.  True?  Who knows?  This is like Calvinball, except if you lose at Calvinball, you don’t suffer eternal torment.

Speaking of eternal torment, the real reason for this post is that I wanted to quote from Jonathan Edwards’ Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, which rivals Joyce’s sermon for a great vision of who you are messing with if your are considering missing Mass on a Holy Day of Obligation:

The bow of God’s wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart, and strains the bow, and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood. Thus all you that never passed under a great change of heart, by the mighty power of the Spirit of God upon your souls; all you that were never born again, and made new creatures, and raised from being dead in sin, to a state of new, and before altogether unexperienced light and life, are in the hands of an angry God. However you may have reformed your life in many things, and may have had religious affections, and may keep up a form of religion in your families and closets, and in the house of God, it is nothing but his mere pleasure that keeps you from being this moment swallowed up in everlasting destruction. However unconvinced you may now be of the truth of what you hear, by and by you will be fully convinced of it. Those that are gone from being in the like circumstances with you, see that it was so with them; for destruction came suddenly upon most of them; when they expected nothing of it, and while they were saying, Peace and safety: now they see, that those things on which they depended for peace and safety, were nothing but thin air and empty shadows.

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you were suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.

Awesome stuff.

In which I contemplate my eternal damnation

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!