This is damnation: to be in a darkness where the Holy Spirit no longer touches souls with His love and where, as a consequence, there is only rejection, hatred and despair. To be in hell is to be locked into one's ego forever, to be blind to all that is beautiful and good and true, to be incapable of reaching out to another to say, I love you. The damned are weighed down with a boredom that stifles every aspiration to creativity and joy and that congeals into a hatred that can only think of new ways to undermine, to corrode, to destroy. Guilt and hate go together. Hell is the graveyard of all hopes and dreams. The damned see all that they might have been but refused to become. They hate themselves for what they are.
This doctrine on hell is the convex side of what is concave in the freedom of the will. God takes our free will seriously. He lets us go our own way; He pours graces on us; He sends messengers into our lives. He batters on the doors of our souls and calls loudly to us just as He called to Lazarus in the tomb: "Come out!"
The theme of judgment resounds all through the New Testament and the Old. Consider, for example, that dramatic scene recounted by Matthew in his Gospel:
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, murderess of prophets and stoner of those who were sent to you! How often have I yearned to gather your children, as a mother bird gathers her young under her wings, but you refused me. Recall the saying, 'You will find your temple deserted.' I tell you, you will not see me from this time on until you declare, 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!' (Mt 13: 37-39).
This is the background against which the teaching on the possibility (the possibility, mark well) of eternal ruin must be placed and seen. God offers grace and light and love. We may choose to say to God what the men possessed by devils screamed: "What do we have to do with you, Jesus, Son of the Most High?"
The angels, like ourselves, have free will. Some of them turned from God; we humans can also reject grace in our turn. The beginning of hell is to listen to the serpent who urges us to decide for ourselves what is good or evil with out reference to God. Satan knows, if we do not, that there is no goodness or beauty or truth or love that are not sparks cast off from the Pure Source of Goodness and Beauty and Love and Truth that God is. We can no more create moral goodness on our own than we can create the stars. The goodness of honesty or integrity or chastity exists outside and beyond anything we may elect, vote for or decide.
Pope John Paul II has brilliantly analyzed this objectivity of moral goodness in his Encyclical, The Splendor of Truth (Veritatis splendor). What he insists on, if not in these exact words, is the that the moral law, like the law of gravitation, does not come from our consensus. It does not come from earth but from heaven. We are free to accept or reject it but we are not free to accept or reject the consequences. If we turn from the goodness of honesty or fidelity or compassion or responsibility or truth or love, if we turn from God deliberately and with malice, we enter into the realm of disorder, alienation and hate. We carry our personalities with us into eternity. We ratify what we have chosen to become. If we leave this world locked into ego, our choice of self apart from God becomes final, irrevocable and complete. This is known as hell.
Many people raise emotional difficulties here. They ask, how could a good God condemn souls to hell? They have an image of God as an almighty hanging judge. They do not understand that God condemns souls to hell in much the same way that He "condemns" bodies to destruction if they choose to jump from great heights, if they attempt to digest poison, or if they abuse their system with alcohol or drugs. We live in a cosmos, not a chaos. If we choose disorder, disorder we shall have.
In some way the teaching on hell is one of the easiest truths of the Faith to accept, not the hardest. The reason is that we see previews of hell all around us. There are many who not only do evil, they love evil. They go around "looking for trouble" as if rage, violence and hatred are the atmosphere they must exist in. Evil we refuse to repent begins to destroy us deep within. This is the "hell" we refuse to come out of, no matter what grace or light God may send. There is one thing the Lord never does: He does not force our will. Our will is our own . . . literally. God solicits, touches, urges, inspires--all of that--but He never forces. All of this within space and time; at death we leave the chance of change behind: we never change our minds again. We enter into what we have chosen to become.
The teaching of the Church on the demonic and on hell will never become passe. The line between heaven and hell passes through every heart. If we never examine ourselves before God, if we do not cry out for the light to see ourselves as we are, we may begin to rationalize the evil that we do. One of the tragedies of life is here: we imagine that we are "religious," or even "devout," but we can too easily be poisoned with malice, with self-will, with hate. We need grace to begin to see ourselves as we are before God. We need even more grace to prepare ourselves to live comfortably in the realm of goodness and love and truth He is calling us to.
From Meditations for the Parishioner, 5.