Aw Hell! Who Put the Fire Out?


By Maureen McKew

Villanova Magazine, Summer 2000

Last summer, Pope John Paul II threw a figurative pail of cold water on the popular image of hell as a place of unending flame. His statement followed an article on the subject in La Civilta Cattolica, a Jesuit magazine believed to have close ties to the Vatican. The article said that hell is not a place but a state of being in which a soul suffers from being deprived of God for all time.

“Rather than a place, hell indicates the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God,” the Pope told a group of visitors shortly afterwards. The pontiff went on to say that the “lake of fire and sulfur” referred to in the Book of Revelation was symbolic.

This set off a brief but intense firestorm, particularly among some fundamentalist Christians. Other theologians, however, said it was high time for the notion of a great furnace, with its apparently limitless supply of fuel, to be updated.

For one thing, classic images of hell, its fires and its denizens have been trivialized. The evil one himself is popularly portrayed as a little fellow sporting horns on his head, wearing an outfit that looks suspiciously like red long underwear, and carrying a pitchfork.

“What the hell,” we say to express either mystification or insouciance. “When hell freezes over” is more colorful way of saying “never.” Even curses, which really are a very dangerous business, have become commonplace and more acceptable in polite society than many well-known Anglo-Saxon epithets.

Perhaps these are just ways of keeping one from dealing with the unthinkable. Reduce the devil to a cartoon character and douse hell with humor, then they won't scare you so much.

When did hell catch fire?

The Old Testament books say very little about hell. More references to it appear in the New Testament, especially in the Book of Revelation. There are scattered mentions in the gospels, too. Matthew's gospel speaks of a hellish place of fire and torment called Gehenna. (A January article in U.S. News & World Report noted that this Gehenna got its name from the Jerusalem city dump, where garbage was disposed of by burning.)

Some of the early Church fathers also believed that hell was a place of physical punishment. St. Jerome, who was given to vivid imagery, wrote of eternal fires. St. Augustine of Hippo, however, taught that hell was a place of both real pain and separation forever from God.

The Rev. Donald X. Burt, O.S.A., '52, in his book, Augustine's World, An Introduction to His Speculative Philosophy (University Press of America, 1996) wrote that Augustine's idea of hell certainly included fire.

Augustine also believed hell had a sizeable population and warned people not to risk ending up there.

Yet, as terrible as everlasting fire might be, even worse was separation from God. It was a second death, as Augustine described it in The City of God. Unlike physical death, which happens in a second, this second death was endless.

In the 14th century, an Italian poet joined with the theologians and philosophers in fanning the flames of hell.

Dante's Inferno offered a terrifying, unforgettable scenario of damnation. Michelangelo used his talent to paint scenes of hell in the Sistine Chapel. By the 17th and 18th centuries, many Christian preachers were regularly terrorizing their congregations with sermons that were themselves pyrotechnic events.

However, there were exceptions to this view of hell. Theologians and philosophers believed hell to be a real place, to be sure, but a place whose real punishment was everlasting separation from God, not fire. This separation they maintained, was worse than any fire imaginable. Martin Luther, that old firebrand and spiritual son of Augustine, was of those thinkers.

In the 20th century, hell's fires began to cool down in people's minds. For one thing, all the fire-and-brimstone descriptions of hell paled in comparison to the sight of an atomic bomb detonation or to the photos of Holocaust victims. Also, in the latter half of the century, particularly the 1960s and 1970s, the belief that “God is Love” overtook the “God is just” theory in many people's minds. Polls indicated that a growing number of people no longer believed in hell.

As the century drew to a close, however, the Roman Catholic Church, in preparation for the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Christ, issued a new Catechism. It restated the existence of hell and its punishment as a state of everlasting separation from God. This tenet was the one the pope himself spoke of in 1999.

Who sends souls to hell?

Surely not God? This is a question that has puzzled believers since before Augustine's time. How could God, who is all love and all good, consign the highest expression of divine love—humankind—to hell?

Back in the 3rd century, Origen of Alexandria taught that hell was a place to do time, rather like a penitentiary, and that once a soul was sufficiently rehabilitated, it went to heaven and the loving God.

Unfortunately for Origen, the Church did not agree, and his view was held as heretical by the Council of Constantinople in 543.

Origen's theory appeared to ignore the fact that the loving God wants all souls to be saved; the just God must give human beings a chance to reap the consequences of their actions.

This is the answer to the question of who actually condemns souls to damnation: We do it to ourselves.

God doesn't send anyone to hell. Anyone who winds up eternally separated from God has chosen it. Human beings who reject God book their own passage to damnation and wind up in a state of everlasting isolation, sorrow and indescribable regret for having brought it all on themselves. That's a worse prospect than anything the most imaginative fire-and-brimstone preachers—or even Dante himself—could have conjured up.

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