Wednesday, September 17
Hell is Other Existentialists
Boy: ...And then the Devil says, "why aren't they burning?" And the other guy says, "They're from Seattle, they're too wet to burn."
Mother: (somewhat distracted, not really sounding amused). Oh! Haha. (She said "haha," but didn't actually laugh per se.)
Speaking, for once, more seriously, this brings to mind the old debate on whether or not hell-fire (the poena sensus) is material or not; many theologians have tended to view it as indeed corporeal (though, naturally, differing from ordinary earthly fire for obvious reasons), while other orthodox authorities speak of it as spiritual, incorporeal, or metaphorical in nature. (This is not to say that you're any better off in this setup.) I believe there was some discussion of this at the Council of Ferrara-Florence, coming from different perspectives of East and West. In either case, as the Catholic Encyclopedia reminds us, there are considerable grey areas, and both opinions have been held by theologians without censure by higher authority.
I used to be perplexed by the idea of a materially fiery hell. But then, as Hell is a place as Heaven is a place (if, of course, a place outside time, space and the universe), and that the damned will have their bodies back just as the just will, and that bodily delight will have some (unfathomable) role in the joys of heaven, surely bodily pain will have an equal (if thoroughly unpleasant) role in hell. Why should it not be material, then? This real fire may be very little like our own earthly fire; the only thing that we know for sure is that it is corporeal. (And even then, the Church tolerates other positions, at least as of 1913). It is best not to think about it too much, lest we make Hell more seductively interesting than it actually is. (It is interesting how the Devil is often a figure of fun in society today, a bit like Count Chocula. There is no reason we ought to be afraid of him, as, of course, the Devil is an ass, but he's also not Mr. Excitement, nor fodder for jokes either.) Hell may not be the dramatic, fiery, Boschian pain we imagine; it may be something infinitely worse. I'm quite sure of it. The Devil can only mock God's creation, never create. We are too kind in making him as seductively interesting as he pretends to be. I am quite certain Hell's real color is institutional beige rather than vivid red, too bright and glorious a color to be appropriate for the dullest, most excruciatingly soul-crushing place in existence. (Think Dunder-Mifflin, without the whimsy.) The ultimate pain of Hell is ultimate disunion with God--the most severe loneliness imaginable. Think about that for a while.
Moral of the story: next time you're tempted to commit mortal sin, consider whether your few minutes of fun are worth the price of of dragging yourself down to Confession next Saturday to get cleaned up. As in judo, sloth may sometimes work to your own advantage. (And if the answer is "yes, it's worth it," go read John 18:12-27 and pray to St. Peter that God give you some commonsense.)