In our last installment, we saw the New Testament basis for the modern teaching of Hell. The Catholic Catechism has refined this imagery from the putrid, constantly burning, refuse pit. The imagery, that of a fiery place of torment, was entrenched in popular imagination, and theology, by Dante’s Divine Comedy.(1308-1320), which has a terrifying depiction of Hell. Dante uses the term Inferno. It seems that the term, first found around 725 AD and in later Norse Mythology, was just coming into popular usage.
We see a most vivid description of Hell in the autobiography of St Theresa of Avila (1515-1582), in part, her vision of Hell reads;
“What I felt, it seems to me, cannot even begin to be exaggerated; nor can it be understood. I experienced a fire in the soul that I don’t know how I could describe. The bodily pains were so unbearable that though I had suffered excruciating ones in this life and according to what doctors say, the worst that can be suffered on earth for all my nerves were shrunken when I was paralyzed, plus many other sufferings of many kinds that I endured and even some as I said, caused by the devil, these were all nothing in comparison with the ones I experienced there. I saw furthermore that they would go on without end and without ever ceasing. This, however, was nothing next to the soul’s agonizing: a constriction, a suffocation, an affliction so keenly felt and with such a despairing and tormenting unhappiness that I don’t know how to word it strongly enough. To say the experience is as though the soul were continually being wrested from the body would be insufficient, for it would make you think somebody else is taking away the life, whereas here it is the soul itself that tears itself in pieces. The fact is that I don’t know how to give a sufficiently powerful description of that interior fire and that despair, coming in addition to such extreme torments and pains. I didn’t see who inflicted them on me, but, as it seemed to me, I felt myself burning and crumbling; and I repeat the worst was that interior fire and despair.’’
The Catholic Church has affirmed these words in her Catechism.
1033: hell is “[the] state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed.”
1035: The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire”. The chief punishment of hell is separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.
1861: “Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself.”
To further explain this article the Catechism writes; “[Mortal sin] results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back.
The Catechism echoes an underlying theme that was presented by Jesus Christ. In many teachings, He suggests that we are the engineers of our own abode for eternity. Christ is the “bridge” from us to the Father; Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me". (John 14:6) Yet, He also gives us a stern warning; “But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven”. (Matthew 10:33) Finally, we are our own judge; “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you”. (Matthew 7:1-2)
Therefore, we can exclude ourselves from God and withdraw from the Covenant He makes with us through our free will. But, our actions, produced by that same free will, can come with an eternal price.