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Eschatology or the Catholic Doctrine of the Last Things
A Dogmatic Treatise
Rev. Joseph Pohle Ph.D. D.D

Though the Church has defined nothing with regard to the nature of the punishment which the wicked are compelled to suffer in Hell, theologians usually describe it as partly privative and partly positive.

Its most dreadful element is undoubtedly the loss of the beatific vision. To this (poena damni) are added certain positive torments (poena sensus).

The twofold punishment of the wicked, according to St. Thomas, corresponds to the twofold nature of sin, which is both a turning away from God (aversio a Deo) and an inordinate turning towards the creature (conversio ad creaturam). “Punishment,” he says, “is proportionate to sin. Now sin comprises two things. First, there is the turning away from the immutable good, which is infinite, and therefore, in this respect, sin is infinite. Secondly, there is the inordinate turning to mutable good. In this respect sin is finite, both because the mutable good itself is finite, and because the movement of turning towards it is finite, since the acts of a creature cannot be infinite. Accordingly, in so far as sin consists in turning away from God, its corresponding punishment is the pain of loss, which also is infinite, because it is the loss of the infinite good, i. e. God. But in so far as sin turns inordinately [to the mutable good], its corresponding punishment is the pain of sense, which also is finite.”

1. THE PAIN OF LOSS (POENA DAMNI).—Damnation consists essentially in a realization, on the part of the creature, of the fact that through its own fault it has lost the greatest of all goods and missed the very purpose of its existence, and thereby its natural destiny. This knowledge causes a feeling of unhappiness akin to desperation, which is the exact counterpart of the beatitude of Heaven. The poena damni is expressed in the words, “Depart from me, ye cursed!” whereas the poena sensus is indicated in the phrase, “into eternal fire.” There are other Scriptural texts that confirm this doctrine. Luke 14:24: “But I say unto you that none of those men that were invited, shall taste of my supper.” In the parable of the Master of the house, Luke 13:27 sq., the Lord says: “I know you not, whence you are: depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you shall see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and all the prophets, in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrust out.”

The Fathers unanimously confirm the teaching of Scripture. St. John Chrysostom describes the pain of loss, in contradistinction to the pain of sense, as follows: “The fire of Hell is insupportable—who does not know it?—and its torments are awful. But if you were to heap a thousand hell-fires one on top of the other, it would be as nothing compared to the punishment [that consists in] being excluded from the beatific glory of Heaven, hated by Christ, and compelled to hear Him say, ‘I know thee not.’ ”

It is difficult, nay impossible, to write a psychology of the damned. This much, however, is certain: the reprobates in Hell are beyond redemption, and sanctifying grace in their souls is replaced by a fierce hatred of Almighty God.

Schell has protested against the “rigorism” which asserts that the will of the wicked after death is suddenly set against God and that their previous half-hearted love of, or indifference towards Him, becomes transformed into “satanic malice.” The germs of moral good which a soul takes with it into the next world, he argues, cannot be lost, since God destroys no good thing. This doubtful principle led Schell to conclusions closely akin to those of Hirscher. His teaching was violently assailed by Father J. Stufler, S. J. Professor F. X. Kiefl defended Schell and interpreted his words more mildly. It is undeniable, however, because of the essential distinction existing between the status viae and the status termini, that when the damned enter Hell, where grace ceases and conversion becomes impossible, they are smitten with great confusion of spirit and a corresponding sentiment of impenitence. Being permanently deprived of grace makes them enemies of God. It is not necessary to conceive this state as a sort of confirmed “Satanism.” No doubt there are degrees of malice and impenitence in Hell. But all the damned hate God more or less because He is no longer their friend. Herein lies the dreadfulness of eternal punishment. The natural will, being a gift of God, remains good; but it no longer wills that which is good. It wills the bad, or if it wills the good, wills it with a wrong intention. St. Thomas explains the reason as follows: “The damned are absolutely turned away from the final end of the rightly directed will. The will cannot be good except it be ordered to that end, so that, even if [the damned] willed something good, they would not will it in the right way, i. e. so that their will might be called good.” Though such an exercise of the will is sinful, it entails no demerit, because the damned are in the status termini. Hence the damned by the sins which they commit in Hell do not merit an increase of the poena damni or of the torments which constitute the poena sensus. This is the common teaching of Catholic theologians, based on the wisdom and justice of God.

2. THE PAIN OR PUNISHMENT OF SENSE (POENA SENSUS).—“Pain of sense” in Catholic theology means a pain which is caused by a sensible medium, regardless of whether it is felt by the senses or not. The external medium through which the positive punishments of Hell are inflicted is called by Sacred Scripture fire (ignis, πῦρ). Must this term be taken literally or may it be interpreted in a metaphorical sense?

“The worm that dieth not” is undoubtedly a figure of speech, signifying the pangs of conscience, and hence there is no intrinsic reason why the word “fire” might not signify mental anguish, as Origen, Ambrose Catharinus, Möhler, and others have maintained. The Church has never issued a dogmatic definition on the subject. Hence we are not dealing with an article of faith nor even with a sententia fidei proxima. However, since the literal interpretation is favored by the great majority of Fathers and Scholastics, it may be regarded as “sententia certa.”

There must be some external medium or agent—(whether solid, fluid or gaseous, or in some state transcending the laws of nature)—by which the wicked are tormented, and the nature of which is absolutely unknown to us. In taking this position we oppose the naïve realism of those who regard Hell as literally a gigantic “furnace” or an active volcano.

a) In trying to ascertain the nature of the infernal fire, the first thing that strikes us is that, though it is physical and real, it cannot be material.

α) Neither in its nature nor in its properties, neither in its beneficent nor in its malign effects, is the fire of Hell identical with, or even similar to, the material fire of nature.

Sacred Scripture speaks of Hell as a “furnace of fire,” a “pool of fire and brimstone,” an “external darkness in which there is howling and gnashing of teeth,” an “eternal fire” prepared for the devil and his angels from the beginning. Now the devil and his angels (the demons), being pure spirits, cannot be affected by material substances such as fire and brimstone, heat and darkness, because they possess neither senses nor sensitive faculties. The same is true of the souls of the wicked during their disembodied state, i. e. before the Resurrection of the flesh.

This fact was clearly perceived by the Fathers. Lactantius says: “The nature of that everlasting fire is different from this fire of ours, which we use for the necessary purposes of life, and which ceases to burn unless it be sustained by the fuel of some material. But that divine fire always lives by itself, and burns without nourishment; nor has it any smoke mixed with it, but it is pure and liquid and fluid, after the manner of water.” St. Ephraem and St. Basil declare that the fire of Hell causes darkness and incessantly torments its victims, without however destroying them. St. Ambrose writes: “Therefore it is neither a gnashing of the bodily teeth, nor a perpetual bodily fire, nor a bodily worm.” St. Augustine says that the fire of Hell, while it bears some resemblance to our material fire, is not identical with it. St. John of Damascus teaches: “The devil and his angels and his man, i. e. Antichrist, as well as all other impious and wicked men, will be thrust into eternal fire, [which is] not a material fire like ours, but of a quality known to God.”

β) A few Catholic theologians (Henry of Ghent, Toletus, Tanner, Lessius, and Fr. Schmid) conceive the action of the infernal fire upon the demons and the souls of the wicked as that of a material upon an immaterial substance. Opposed to this theory is the fact that pure spirits as well as disembodied souls are utterly devoid of sense perception. But could not God make them feel sensual pain by a miracle? That depends on the answer to another question, viz.: Is there an intrinsic contradiction involved in the assertion that pure spirits can be affected by a material substance? Neither philosophy nor Revelation gives a definite answer to this question. The existing uncertainty has led other theologians to devise a more plausible theory. They regard the effect of the fire of Hell as purely spiritual, holding that the constant presence of fire, which is a material element, occupies the intellect of the damned in a disagreeable manner and fills the will with sadness and aversion, or the fact of their being locally and inseparably bound up with this lowly element hinders the free activity of the spirit and thus causes internal anguish (per modum detentionis). The souls of the lost before the Resurrection, says St. Thomas, “shall suffer from corporeal fire by a sort of constriction (alligatio). For spirits can be tied to bodies, either as their form, as the soul is tied to the human body to give it life; or without being the body’s form, as magicians by diabolic power tie spirits to images. Much more by divine power may spirits under damnation be tied to corporeal fire; and it is an affliction to them to know that they are tied to the meanest creatures for punishment.” This opinion is shared by the majority of Thomists. Suarez goes so far as to say that the effect of hell-fire is purely spiritual, disfiguring the demons and the disembodied souls of the lost in a manner analogous to that in which sanctifying grace beautifies the angels and saints. This theory, though it correctly emphasizes the mysterious nature of the fire, reduces it to the level of an intangible metaphor.

One thing has been made certain by the subtle debates of the Schoolmen, namely, that the fire of Hell cannot be identical with material fire, but must be something at the same time physical and supra-physical, a punishment invented by an avenging God, of which we know nothing except that it exists and torments the damned.

b) What we have so far said applies principally to the demons, who are pure spirits; but it is applicable also to the souls of the wicked before the Resurrection.

These souls, it is true, do not lose their sensitive faculties when they leave the body. But they become incapable of sense perception for lack of adequate organs (brain and nervous system). “Incorporeal subsistent spirits,” says St. Thomas, “have no organs of sense nor the use of sensory powers.” It is different after the Resurrection, when the souls are reunited with their bodies. “Whatever may be said of the fire which torments the disembodied souls,” adds the Angelic Doctor, “the fire that torments the bodies of the damned after the Resurrection must be regarded as corporeal, because a pain is not adapted to the body unless it is a bodily pain.”

Nevertheless, the theory we have set forth is not free from difficulties. It implies two strange corollaries, viz.: (1) that the pains of sense which the souls of the lost suffer in Hell differ before and after the Resurrection; and (2) that the souls of wicked men throughout eternity suffer more intensely than the demons, for whom the everlasting fire was originally prepared. For if that fire be qualitatively the same for the demons and the souls of wicked men, it must cause the same kind of pain to both. True, the body, too, is affected; but this bodily pain need not be conceived as a real burning; it may be something entirely sui generis. We can obtain no certain knowledge in the matter, though the possibility of a real burning is undeniable. However, if we consider that the assumption of a material fire, or a fire analogous to the material, does not sufficiently account for either the quantitative inequality of the torments inflicted or their qualitative adaptability to the different kinds of sins to be punished, we shall be confirmed in the conviction that the fire of Hell in no wise resembles the material fire of nature.

But if this be true, why does Sacred Scripture call the mysterious medium of eternal punishment “fire”? Why not “water,” or “snow,” or “ether”? The answer is easy to guess. The most intense pain known to man is caused by fire. We can no more form an adequate conception of the nature of eternal punishment and its medium than of the beatitude of Heaven, and hence the sacred writer could hardly have chosen a more appropriate phrase than “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire,” even in a context where metaphorical expressions are otherwise avoided. If Christ had called the infernal fire by its true name, we should not have understood His meaning as well as we do now.

For all these reasons we deem it advisable to confess our ignorance in a matter that plainly exceeds human understanding, rather than engage in speculations which might easily lead us into error. Let us live so that we need not fear the mysterious fire of Hell.

3. ACCIDENTAL PAINS OF THE DAMNED.—Besides the pain of loss and the pain of sense, which together constitute the essence of Hell, the damned suffer various accidental punishments. There is first and above all the remorse of conscience, which the Bible compares to a worm that will not die. This and other accidental pains are all the more terrible as the damned never experience the slightest alleviation of their suffering and are compelled to live forever in the company of demons and witness their hideous outbursts of rage and hatred. The reunion of soul and body after the Resurrection will further increase the misery of the lost souls in Hell.

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