Hellish thoughts – Part 1

20 05 2019

The above video is of yet another intelligent Catholic thinker fumbling through the idea of the eternity of Hell for condemned souls. Admittedly, she is very honest in stating that she doesn’t really know how a soul can condemn itself to the worst pain and loss imaginable for all eternity, and how a merciful God can allow this. She does give the standard answers of how hell is a necessary implication of love and free will. If we are to come to love the supreme good definitively, it must be of our own accord, which means we can choose not to love. That this failure to love is accompanied by unspeakable loss and suffering remains a mystery in this line of thinking.

I cannot fault this philosopher at all, as this is a difficult topic. The purpose of these loose notes is not to refute her or the traditional understanding of the Last Things in Catholic theology. My purpose here is to ask some rather basic questions: What does it mean to be at enmity with God? Why must this enmity be frozen into eternity upon the death of the human person? And finally: What role does this eternal enmity have in the Catholic cosmovision? To help me in these off-the-cuff reflections, I will have as an interlocutor the portrait of reality painted by Gaudiya Vaishnavism. By way of housekeeping, these arguments will be informally stated without much recourse to sources, and readers are invited to look into the premises and correct them as necessary.

To really understand the nature of the hell in Catholic thought, we have to start with the human soul. Following Aristotle as codified in Aquinas et al., the soul is seen as being first and foremost the form of the body, its principle of motion. Unlike Platonic or Vedic thought, the soul isn’t just accidentally in the body, it didn’t “fall into it” from elsewhere. The soul is part of a composite that makes the human person in his essence: a rational animal. Without the soul, a body is a decomposing corpse. But without the body, the soul is a ghost, and it was arguable in antiquity if it could have any independent existence at all (and in animals, it certainly doesn’t). Once the machine was turned off (to use a crude analogy), so was its programming, even if the programming’s essence was to act beyond the material nature of the machine. This is why reincarnation would be a rather silly idea. The soul of the dog is the form of the dog, that which imparts its “dogness.” Such a soul could not transmigrate into a worm or a human being. It would be like trying to use a 1980’s VCR user manual to program the Large Hadron Collider.

If we apply this schema to Christian revelation, we get a limited time frame in which the human person can achieve eternal bliss. Presupposing a bunch of accepted doctrinal premises, the human being in Christianity is an eternal being who has a definitive beginning but no end. Human beings come into the world as tabula rasa, a blank slate, and have to reach an eternally blissful destination over the course of four or five score years (if they’re lucky). And the only thing that matters is the end of one’s life. Whether you love God or hate the supreme good at the moment of death determines where you will spend your eternity. The reasoning behind this has to do with how malleable our minds due to the nature of our knowing. We abstract the essence of things through the rather cumbersome process of sense perception: seeing this tree, that tree, that tree over there, and the tree in this book to get at the idea of Tree which exists in all of these individual examples of trees. Once we are no longer able to greedily accumulate the things of the world through our senses, time runs out, the painting is finished, and it can no longer be altered. Whoever we are at the moment of death, whatever last things we see, smell, hear, and subsequently think, that is who we are from that point unto the rest of eternity.

The unique aspect of this perspective is that it could be deemed as merciful or unbelievably cruel, depending on the outcome. Saints and preachers have taught the relative ease of achieving an eternity of bliss after only a number of decades of suffering. It would be like having to wait in a reception area for an hour to get a million dollar check: sure, you might be bored out of your skull for 60 minutes, but it’s a million dollars! On the other hand, human beings are exceptionally careless and stubborn, and much of what we get in life is entirely dependent on dumb luck. Even getting out of the womb is a crap shoot, with a significant percentage of fertilized eggs being ejected before the mother even knows she was pregnant. Modern theologians thus have to pull out the argument of God being merciful, that we don’t know if those young souls are saved by other means, that invincible ignorance is a literal deus ex machina that saves the Muslim or Buddhist who only vaguely has heard of Jesus, etc. The modern thinker has to alter his thinking to not offend the sensibilities of his hearers, whereas the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, taking things far more literally, had no problem thinking that the vast majority of humanity was damned and there was nothing wrong with that.

But why can’t God save everyone? I remember reading one question from Aquinas’ Disputed Questions on Evil concerning whether the demons can be saved after their fall. He answers in the negative stating that the definitive damnation of the demons affirms the eternal salvation of the Elect. In other words, once in Heaven or Hell, always in Heaven or Hell; the contrary position would mean that the good angels and souls would have chosen the Good for nothing since they could still lose it. Aquinas and similar thinkers are all about the idea of justice and harmony in the cosmos. Here you have to balance mercy and justice, and failure to do so would mean you get neither mercy nor justice. It is not merciful nor just to the elect to award the vices of the damned, nor is it merciful nor just to the damned to bestow upon them an eternity they did not choose. From the Christian perspective, there is no salvation by magic trick.

This hasn’t stopped some from presupposing that maybe, just maybe, there is a means by which even condemned souls can be saved even in Hell. In the Orthodox Church there seem to be prayers for the souls in Hell at Pentecost, and there is a story of St. Gregory the Great praying the Emperor Trajan out of Hell. I believe there is a story around somewhere in Orthodox lore of the Virgin Mary imploring some relief for the souls in Hell during Easter week. In spite of Scriptural and theological principles, there still exists a hint of compassion for souls in Hell in the Christian conscience.

That’s all for now. In the next part, we will talk about Hell from a particular Vedic perspective.




2 responses

24 05 2019

Here’s what I found interesting. The first quote from the link you gave is from St. Alphonsus Liguori, saying that most will be damned. However, I’ve been reading The Glories of Mary lately, and in it, again and again, Liguori emphasizes how powerful Mary’s intercession is, how she has the power and desire to save all, how even the worst, most hardened sinner need just barely think of her to be turned around, how Jesus is full of wrath, but Mary protects sinners from it, etc. There’s a lot of that in the works of St. Louis de Montfort, too. It’s kind of like they’re still saying on paper that most souls are lost, while preaching a sort of quasi-universalism where Mary lets sinners in by the back door, à la the old joke.

24 05 2019
Robert Paxton

Just discovered that you were back online. It was a great pleasure because it seems hard to find any writing on religious matters that is not hysterical these days. I read your stuff back when the Ochlophobist, Michael Liccione and Energetic Processions were stirring things up in the Orthodox/Catholic blogosphere. It’s been a long time. I hope you keep posting.

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