THE REALITY OF HELL
by Saint Anthony Mary Claret
This article, including the following instructions, was published in Rome in the May/August 1988 issue of "Christ To The World" with the approbation of the Vicariate of Rome (Cum Approbatione Ecclesiastica Vicariatus) edited by Father Basil Mary Arthadeva, O.M.V.
The meditation on hell, treated in passing or ignored by many preachers today, plays a fundamental part in a course of spiritual exercises according to the Ignatian spirit and method. Firstly, because hell is a defined truth of the Catholic faith (the voluntary doubting of which is a sufficient sin for meriting a soul's eternal loss);1 secondly, because the thought of God's frightful justice is a basic motive for a man to avoid sinning (so much so that the great majority of men would be lost if they did not believe in it); thirdly, because one of the clearest ways of realizing the true malice of sin is through serious reflection of the nature of the punishment it merits (the meditation promotes a reverence for God which is a beginning for loving Him in a true way).
Mediation on hell or on any other fundamental Christian truth is necessary for the purification and transformation of the soul which is the scope of spiritual exercises. To neglect or treat lightly any such truth is to seriously impair their effect. Through a deepening of his knowledge of the essential truths of the faith a retreatant will more easily practice Christian virtue. That of the fear of God is vitally connected with horror of His punishments: the more sublime virtue of God's love does not dispense with the first gift of the Holy Spirit, purifying it from servility to holy and filial fear.
With a good sense of order, St. Ignatius puts the meditation on the pains of hell immediately after the one on sin, so that one may the more detest his sins if he has unhappily committed any. In this way our heart, naturally fearful of punishment, especially eternal punishment, will be withdrawn from committing sin. (Fear Him who can destroy both body and soul in Hell — Mt. 10:28.) This is a right and just motive for repenting and grieving over past sin, and for imploring divine mercy, which those who do not believe in hell or doubt its existence unfortunately lack.
The penalty infallibly follows our crime in the after life, for in the very moment a man sins mortally he becomes like a criminal sentenced to die on a scaffold, who has no way of appealing against the sentence. If God does not use His mercy and grant him the grace of repentance, he incurs a debt to be paid only by eternal damnation.
First Point of Meditation
After the preparatory prayers as in the previous exercises, follows the first preamble of St. Ignatius: "composition of place. I shall observe the length, width and depth of hell. I shall see with the eyes of the imagination the great fire and the damned souls appearing as incandescent bodies. With the ears I shall imagine that I hear the frightful wails and blasphemies against Christ Our Lord and His saints. I will smell the smoke, the sulphur, the odor of filth and putridness. The fourth concerns the sense of touch: I will feel the intense fire which burns souls."
The second preamble of St. Ignatius will be "to beg an appreciation of the punishment which the damned suffer in order that if, because of my repeated faults, I become indifferent to the Father's love, the fear of hell's awful pains at least will deter me from committing further sin."
God is just in His judgments: He rewards the upright with the glory of Heaven and punishes the wicked with the sorrows of hell. We have already seen how man was created to love and serve God. When he sins, he really despises Him (Isaias 1:2). His punishment will be in proportion to the malice of his sins and their number.
In every sin one finds five kinds of malice. The first is the light regard with which the sinner has treated God. On this account he will be duly punished with pain of the loss of God: hence he will be eternally deprived of the sight of God. The second malice is man's act of rebellion or independence from God, his abuse of liberty. Thus it is right he should lose that liberty and suffer subjection to satan; for God says, Since you would not serve the Lord your God with joy…. In hunger and thirst, in nakedness and utter poverty, you will serve His enemies (Deut. 28:47-48). The third is the over-fondness for a created object, cause of one's sin. Thus fire, likewise a created object, will cause him torment, and this is called a pain offense. The fourth kind of evil is the sensual or spiritual satisfaction which the sinner found in sin. He will thus be tormented with a corresponding dissatisfaction: As much as she hath glorified herself and lived in delicacies, so much torment and sorrow give ye to her (Apoc. 18:7). The fifth malice is pride which consisted in man wanting to be independent of God. In hell he will thus find humiliation, confusion, with every other kind of pain, and, as there he will be obstinate in his evil disposition like a rock in a well, the duration of his suffering is duly and rightly eternal.
The Pain of the Loss of God in Particular
Picture to yourself, Christian soul, a man whose lot is one of total misfortune, without anything good. A Christian who is damned to hell loses God, the Supreme Good, and eternal happiness. To lose God is a misfortune which goes beyond all that the imagination can grasp. It is just as impossible to understand it, as it is impossible to comprehend the infinite Good of one who possesses God. Yet we can form a vague idea of it. Enter into yourself, O my soul, and seriously weigh what it means to lose God.
One Who is Damned Loses the Enjoyment of God
At the moment a soul enters Heaven, God gives it so clear an enlightenment that it can perfectly know — as far as a creature can — all the depths of His Infinite Nature: and this inflames the soul with such a burning desire to enjoy God, that any delay, even a moment, would cause it infinite pain. Because it so ardently desires this Good and at the same time perfectly enjoys It, together with the infallible certainty that it will eternally enjoy It, the soul experiences such a flood of joy that all other delights of paradise could be counted as nothing by comparison. Now in hell just the opposite is true. When a soul enters hell, God sheds over it a light so vivid that it can know to the limits of its capacity, the greatness of His infinite and divine Essence. Though it craves with infinite impatience and ardor to possess this tremendous Good, at the same time it sees itself violently separated, together with the certainty that it will never enjoy God for all eternity. Such a painful sadness arises from this that, compared to it, all other torments of hell are considered as nothing.2 To sum up, as the happiness of a soul in paradise is beyond all measure because it possesses God, so the grief of a soul in hell is boundless due to its loss of Him.
He Loses God's Devoted, Special Providence Which Cared for Him
As long as a man is alive, he is under the care of God, who enlightens his mind with exalted lights and encourages and fortifies him in his suffering. But a soul which has entered the eternal abyss must hope for none of this. God no longer cares over it and regards it as something which belongs to Him no more. And so for all eternity God will never again enlighten its mind, and not arouse its will toward the good, nor awaken a pious desire in its heart. The soul will become incapable of any good. There will be nothing other than terrifying spectres appearing to the imagination. Only the most distressing thoughts will prevail in the mind. The will will be forever stirred up with rage, sadness and despair. The memory will perceive itself always grieved with very painful recollections. Wherever the soul may turn, it will find only confusion and bitterness.
By Losing God He Ceases to be Loved Any More by Creatures
The Blessed Virgin, one's guardian angel, all the saints, love a man, however wicked, as long as he lives on earth. But once he is condemned by God, then God's friends agree in God's judgment and condemnation. For all eternity they will not have a kind thought for this wretched soul. Rather they will be satisfied to see him in the flames as a victim of God's justice. (The just shall rejoice when he shall see the revenge — Ps. 57:1.1.) They will abhor him. A mother will look from paradise upon her own condemned son in hell without being moved, as though she had never known him (Better for him had he never been born — Mk. 14:21). What is worse, is that in all the immense throng of persons damned in hell, no one will fail to increase the torments of his companions, due to the horror each one causes the other, the anger with which they rage against one another, and due to the heat, the stench and the closeness in which they are condemned to live.
A Condemned Person Also Falls Under the Devil's Power
God delivers the damned soul up to the enemy's will. And, alas! what will the devil not do with this soul? As the devil is tremendously powerful, has great hatred for man, is full of rage, he will torment the souls in hell according to the number and gravity of the sins they have committed and for which they are damned. He can twist into the form of a serpent, enter the mouth and bite and gnaw lungs, liver, heart and all the bowels. He can make his victim swallow molten metal and feed him poisonous toads.
He can torment him in fact as he wishes, at his own pleasure, for God has withdrawn and the man is left under the fiendish demon's despotic control.
Act of Repentance … O Jesus, how frightening are Your judgments! How strict is Your justice! Oh, what a great evil sin is and how bitter are its effects! To be shut out of paradise for all eternity, to be forever cursed by the elect, to be always tormented and oppressed by the devil's tyranny — this is the reward of sin. Up to now have I believed these truths? Yes, indeed — that is just what increases my guilt! I have believed that a single sin is enough to make me lose God and all happiness forever; and yet I have sinned. I have done this without caring, without shuddering. I do not know which is greater, my blindness or my malice. O my Jesus! Do not withdraw Thy mercy from me.
Resolution … What will I do? What will I resolve upon? By all means I want to behold Thee in Thy glory. O Supreme God and my Last End! Though it would cost me a thousand lives, with all determination I will to reach Heaven to embrace You there, my Jesus, my beloved Redeemer.
I must yet see Thee, O my dearest Mother, and you, O dear friends of God in paradise, even though it cost me all the blood in my veins…. This is my resolution — to rather die a thousand times than commit a single sin. Ye angelic spirits, be witnesses to the sincerity of my heart. I repeat: a thousand deaths to ever sinning again. I will now confess with repentance the sins I have committed up to now.
One who is condemned in hell finds God to be as a Supreme Evil.
One who loses God as his Supreme Good, finds Him to be like a supreme evil. How can God, who is man's Supreme Good and Blessedness, change into that same man's supreme misery? Reflect with attention, my soul, to what God does with those who are damned, and you will clearly realize this truth.
Within the reprobate, God places and maintains a very vivid knowledge of the Divine Beauty, together with a very ardent desire to enjoy It.
If the soul in hell did have a knowledge equal to what it had in this life, then it would be spared its greatest torment. But because its knowledge is very clear and presents very vividly to it the immense happiness and blessedness which it could have enjoyed in God, a bitterness arises which is inconceivable. Every moment it is driven toward God with a burning desire, and at each instant it is cast off by the Lord! Think of the torment of a thirsty man, tied hand and foot a thousand years seeing ever before him a large drinking vessel with a very delicious drink, even a drop of which he cannot reach to nor taste with his lips.
Within the damned person God preserves the sight of the Divine countenance outraged by his sin.
Before the eyes of a damned soul, God is presented as a Lord supremely outraged, armed for vengeance and ever engaged in tormenting and pursuing it. The soul may try with all its might to withdraw from such a sight, to flee from God's presence and escape His wrath. Yet the more it tries, the more closely God approaches, to make it suffer the weight of His Hand and all the bitterness of His anger. It will be easy to estimate the horribleness of his pain. Just as God's loving face fills all the elect with a boundless joy, likewise His angry countenance is enough to strike infinite terror and pain into all the damned.
God keeps alive the person who is damned.
The strongest desire of a damned soul in hell is to die. (Men shall seek death and shall not find it. And they shall desire to die: and death shall fly from them Apoc. 9:6). For knowing it can never appease God's anger, it desires death as the only means of escape. But it will desire this in vain; the damned person will live as long as God will live! Just as God forever preserves the saints in Heaven to delight them with new pleasures, so He will allow forever the damned to live in hell, to always torment them with new sufferings.
God remains angry toward the condemned.
The wretched damned will curse their sins over and over again, yet they will remain for ever impenitent. They will roar with pitiful moans, they will shed tears enough to flood the earth. A time will come when they could say, I have suffered in these flames a thousand million years for every single mortal sin. In spite of this, they will not calm God's anger nor move Him to pity.
The Lord will continue to hate the sinner for all eternity. As the reprobate knows this, he will surrender to complete despair and will go into a fury, his heart filled with rage; in an extreme spite he will gnaw his own flesh which he cannot destroy. Frustrated, he will conceive an eternal hatred for God and he will become, so to speak, a devil vomiting out continuous curses and blasphemies. He will have such spite against God as to engender the complete destruction of God and all His works if it were possible.
Act of fear … Oh, how happy it is to be at peace with God and how bitter to have Him angry with us! How sweet are His consolations and how sorrowful are His punishments! How dreadful to find oneself planted in hell, suffering evils which fall like rain upon the damned! How bitter to lose Him forever! What could I do to escape this infinite evil? Ah, my soul! There is no remedy but a deep hatred of sin and a sincere repentance. — I now have access to this, and turning to Thee, my God, I weep in all earnestness and with the most contrite remorse … I am truly sorry for my sins and I give Thee my word that I will go to confession.
Act of Repentance … O my God, with all my heart I detest and curse all the sins that I have committed until now. I realize deeply the evil I have done. To Thee, sin is the supreme evil, because it is an offense committed against Thy infinite Goodness and Mercy. It is the greatest of evils in reference to me too, because it leads to the ruin of my immortal soul. I detest it then and I curse it with all my heart. Oh, would that I had never sinned, my Jesus! Oh, would that I had never offended Thee, my Sovereign Good! I have lost Thee, O my last End and only happiness, and I can never again rejoice with Thee except by means of penance and tears. O my heart, repent truly and do not be satisfied with a half-hearted sorrow, but expand, enlarge yourself as much as possible and squeeze inside an immense sorrow. Be witness to this desire, my Jesus, that if I had a thousand lives, I would want to spend all of them in pain and torments if in this way I could undo the sins I did. I want to repent and indeed do so for all my sins. O God! It is my intention to renew this repentance in Thy presence as many times as there are drops of water in all rivers and seas. O my Jesus, I offer to Thy Eternal Father, in addition to my sorrow and repentance, the immense sorrow which Thou suffered in the Garden for my sins.
Resolution … How will I conduct myself in the future? I decide to sin no more: if I cannot shun sin except by dying, I willingly choose death, even the most cruel rather than sin. If I can avoid sin only by bearing insult and contempt, I will gladly be despised and abused by everybody rather than sin. I really want to embrace anything rather than sin. With this aim I will use all my days, hours and moments in loving my Supreme Good and keeping closely united with Him. O my Jesus, engrave deeply in my heart these resolutions so that I will never forget to practice them. (Our Father, Hail Mary…)
To sum up, as the happiness of a soul in paradise is beyond all measure because it possesses God, so the grief of a soul in hell is boundless due to its loss of Him.
1. For those who, while not denying hell's existence, do not believe that any soul goes there, we refer them to the condemnation by Pius II as a most pernicious error the teaching that all (Christians) are saved (D.S. 1362). Besides the fact that from this condemnation it follows as an object of secondary infallibility that some souls are dammed to hope — when we know for certain that many men are actually sinning mortally — that none of them will end in hell cannot in practice be disassociated from the unpardonable blasphemy of presumption.
2. We can see, with St. Theresa of Avila, how, in the light of this consideration, the pain of sense, equally God's justice, is also His mercy: these pains — the descriptions of which are branded as part of a medieval sadistic mentality, are in fact the sole "relief" the souls of the damned experience in hell.