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

The pains of Hell have two distinguishing characteristics: (1) they are eternal and (2) they differ in degree according to guilt.

1. THE PAINS OF HELL ARE ETERNAL.—In consequence of the erroneous teaching of Origen, the Church early in her history defined the eternity of Hell as an article of faith. She did this at the Council of Constantinople, in 543. The definition given by this Council was approved by the Fifth Ecumenical Council of 553. The Athanasian Creed, which was compiled about the same time, says: “They that have done good shall go into everlasting bliss, and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire.” This truth was repeated in similar terms by the Fourth Council of the Lateran. The Protestant Reformers did not attack the dogma of eternal punishment, and hence the Tridentine Synod contented itself with declaring: “If any one saith that in every good work the just man sins, … and consequently deserves eternal punishments, … let him be anathema.”

a) The dogma of eternal punishment is clearly contained in Sacred Scripture. The prophet Daniel proclaims: “Many of those that sleep in the dust of the earth, shall awake: some unto life everlasting, and others unto reproach, to see it always.” The New Testament speaks repeatedly of an eternal and inextinguishable fire. St. John says in the Apocalypse: “And the beast and the false prophet shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.”

Though saeculum (αἰών) is sometimes used indefinitely to denote a period of long duration, its meaning in this passage obviously is eternity. The phrase in saecula saeculorum always has this meaning in the New Testament, whether referring to the glory of God, the kingdom of Christ, or the joys of Heaven. St. Augustine has pointed out that there is no stronger argument for the eternity of Hell than the fact that Sacred Scripture compares it in respect of duration to Heaven. This reasoning is confirmed by the Biblical teaching that the fate of every man is irrevocably sealed at deaths. That there is no hope of salvation for the wicked in Hell may be concluded from our Saviour’s dictum, “It were better for him if that man had never been born.”

b) The Fathers echo the teaching of Scripture. St. Polycarp tells his executioners: “You threaten me with fire, which burns but for an hour and then is extinguished; for you know not the eternal fire of punishment reserved for the wicked.” Minucius Felix says: “There is neither measure nor termination to these torments. There the intelligent fire (πῦρ σωφρονοῦν) burns the limbs and restores them, feeds on them and nourishes them.… So that penal fire is not fed by the waste of those who burn, but is nourished by the unexhausted eating away of their bodies.”

Origen held that all free creatures, demons as well as lost souls, will ultimately share in the grace of salvation (apocatastasis). This heretical teaching to some extent influenced even such enlightened writers as Didymus the Blind, Evagrius of Pontus, and St. Gregory of Nyssa. It is not true, however, as some writers assert, that St. Gregory of Nazianzus and St. Jerome denied the dogma of eternal punishment.

c) The proposition, “Ex inferno nulla redemptio,” can be demonstrated also by theological reasoning.

If it were possible to rescue a lost soul from Hell, this could only be in one of four ways: by conversion, by an apocatastasis in the sense of Origen, by complete annihilation, or through the intercession of the living.

The first and second of these methods have been excluded by positive arguments, which incidentally also prove the impossibility of the fourth. St. Augustine expressly says that the damned do not receive the slightest alleviation of their sufferings through the intercession of the living. Some Fathers and theologians, particularly St. Chrysostom and the poet Prudentius, held that now and then, on stated days, as in the night before Easter, God grants the damned a certain respite through the prayers of the faithful. Petavius judges this hypothesis mildly, whereas St. Thomas rejects it as vain, presumptuous, and without authority. The singing of a certain hymn by St. Prudentius at the lighting of the Paschal candle is not equivalent to an ecclesiastical approval of the author’s belief.

The only other means by which a reprobate could escape eternal punishment is complete annihilation. The Socinians thus interpret “the second death” of the Apocalypse. But this interpretation is contrary to the teaching of St. John. Cfr. Apoc. 14:11: “The smoke of their torments shall ascend up for ever and ever.” Apoc. 20:14: “And hell and death were cast into the pool of fire; this is the second death.” St. Paul, too, plainly avers that the damned are punished forever. “The wicked,” he says, “will pay the penalty of everlasting ruin, from before the face of the Lord and the glory of his might.” Tradition is equally positive. St. Cyprian declares that the fire of Hell is everlasting and no respite is granted to the damned. St. Gregory, in a characteristic passage of his Expositio in Librum Job, generally known by the title of Moralia, calls Hell “mors sine morte, finis sine fine, defectus sine defectu, quia et mors vivit et finis semper incipit et deficere defectus nescit.”

d) Philosophy cannot furnish conclusive evidence for the eternity of Hell, but it can show that this truth is not repugnant to reason and that the objections raised against it prove nothing.

α) When the wicked soul enters into the status termini, it realizes that it is irrevocably lost. God, who alone could save it, refuses to do so. “He who falls into mortal sin by his own free will,” says St. Thomas, “puts himself into a state from which he cannot be rescued except with the help of God, just as one who casts himself into an abyss from which he could not escape unaided, might say that it was his will to stay there forever, no matter what else he may have thought.” The final decision being irrevocable, the will is confirmed in malice and can no longer feel contrition.

Moreover, punishment must be coextensive with guilt. The guilt of mortal sin consists in the deprivation of grace, which loss, for those who have entered upon the status termini, is irretrievable, and consequently the reatus poenae, too, must be eternal. “Therefore,” says St. Thomas, “whatever sins turn man away from God, so as to destroy charity, considered in themselves, incur a debt of eternal punishment.”

β) It has been objected that there is no proportion between a sinful act or thought, which lasts but one brief moment, and eternal punishment. The comparison is not correctly drawn. Though the sinful act (peccatum actuale) be brief and transient, the ensuing sinful habitus or state endures. St. Thomas explains this with his wonted lucidity as follows: “The fact that adultery or murder is committed in a moment, does not call for a momentary punishment; in fact, these crimes are sometimes punished by imprisonment or banishment for life, sometimes even by death; … this punishment, in its own way, represents the eternity of punishment inflicted by God.”

The so-called misericordes, whom St. Augustine combatted, appealed to the mercy of God as an argument against eternal punishment. But God is not only merciful, He is also infinitely just and holy, and His justice and holiness compel Him to hate and punish sin in proportion to its guilt. The divine mercy is not a weakly sentimentality, but benevolent goodness tempered by strict justice. If there were any chance of conversion in the other world, or any hope that Hell might end, even after millions of years, how few would shrink from sin! The thought of eternal punishment alone deters the average man from crime.

St. Gregory of Nyssa’s friendly attitude towards Origen’s theory of a universal apocatastasis is explicable on the assumption that he regarded the reform of the evildoer as the sole object of punishment. This view is incorrect. Punishment is inflicted primarily to satisfy divine justice and to vindicate and restore the disturbed moral order (poena vindicativa). Not even worldly justice can get along without vindictive punishments, though Lombroso and Liszt have tried to abolish them by declaring all crimes to be the result of bodily disease or mental disorder. “Even the punishment that is inflicted according to human laws,” says St. Thomas, “is not always intended as a medicine for the one who is punished, but sometimes only for others. Thus when a thief is hanged, this is not done for his own amendment, but for the sake of others, that at least they may be deterred from crime through fear of punishment.”

Another objection raised against the dogma of eternal punishment is based upon the desire for happiness which the Creator has implanted in every human heart. But God is not obliged to gratify this desire in all men. He has conditioned eternal happiness upon a good life. If the innate desire for happiness remains unsatisfied in some, it is their fault, not God’s.

It is true that the happiness of rational creatures is the secondary purpose of creation; but, as we have seen in a previous treatise, this purpose is subordinate to the glory of God (gloria Dei), which is attained by the manifestation of His justice no less than His mercy.

2. THE PAINS OF HELL DIFFER IN DEGREE ACCORDING TO GUILT.—Though one single mortal sin renders the sinner as deserving of Hell as a thousand crimes, justice demands that sins be punished in proportion to their grievousness. Accordingly, to the degrees of reward and happiness enjoyed by the Blessed in Heaven there correspond analogous degrees of punishment and misery in Hell. This is the express teaching of the Church.

a) Our Divine Saviour draws a clear-cut distinction between the judgment pronounced on Tyre and Sidon and the penalty inflicted on the unbelieving inhabitants of Corozain and Bethsaida. The inspired seer of the Apocalypse says of the corrupt city of Babylon: “Render to her even as herself hath rendered, and give her double according to her works; … as much as she hath glorified herself and wantoned in luxury, so much give her of torment and mourning.” Cfr. Wisd. 6:7 sqq.: “… the mighty shall be mightily tormented, … a greater punishment is ready for the more mighty.”

b) The Fathers seem to have held that the poena damni, being a mere privation, is inflicted equally on all, but that the poenae sensus differ in degree. Thus St. Gregory the Great says: “As there are many mansions in the house of the Father, according to the different degrees of virtue, so the disparity of guilt subjects the damned in different degrees to the fire of Hell.” Dante exemplifies this belief in the concentric circles of his Inferno. Of course only a mysterious and essentially supernatural fire can produce such radically different effects.

READINGS:—Patuzzi, De Futuro Impiorum Statu, Venice 1749.—Carle, Du Dogme Catholique sur l’Enfer, Paris 1842.—J. Bautz, Die Hölle, 2nd ed., Mayence 1905.—L. de Ségur, L’Enfer, 39th ed., Paris 1905 (German tr., Die Hölle, 3rd ed., Mayence 1889.)—Fr. Schmid, Quaestiones Selectae ex Theologia Dogmatica, pp. 145 sqq., Paderborn 1891.—Tournelize, Opinions du Jour sur les Peines d’Outre-tombe: Feu Métaphorique, Universalisme, Conditionalisme, Mitigation, Paris 1899.—Passaglia, De Aeternitate Poenarum deque Igne Inferno, Rome 1854.—J. Sachs, Die ewige Dauer der Höllenstrafen, Paderborn 1900.—C. Gutberlet, “Die Poena Sensus,” in the Mayence Katholik, 1901, II, 305 sqq.—F. X. Kiefl, Die Ewigkeit der Hölle und ihre spekulative Begründung, Paderborn 1905.—J. Hontheim, S. J., art. “Hell,” in the Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. VII, pp. 207–211.—Card. Billot, De Novissimis, Rome 1902.—Hewitt, “Ignus Aeternus,” in the Catholic World, LXVII (1893), pp. 426 sqq.—V. Morton, Thoughts on Hell; A Study in Eschatology, London 1899.—Jos. Rickaby, S. J., Everlasting Punishment, London 1916.—Dublin Review, Jan. 1881, Vol. V, pp. 130 sqq.—Charles R. Roche, S. J., “Eternal Punishment,” in the Irish Theological Quarterly, Vol. V (1910), No. 17, pp. 64–79.—Delloue-Leahy, Solution of the Great Problem, New York 1917, pp. 228 sqq.—J. G. Raupert, Hell and its Problems, Buffalo, N. Y., 1917.—B. J. Otten, S. J., A Manual of the History of Dogmas, Vol. II, St. Louis 1918, pp. 426 sqq.—J. S. Vaughan, “Eternal Punishment,” in the Irish Eccles. Record, No. 615 (March, 1919), pp. 177–188.

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