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Hell and Purgatory

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

As we have been doing, we are covering our final master theme on the last things: death, judgment, heaven, and this evening hell and purgatory, and tomorrow morning on Christ’s Second Coming.

As with life after death in general, so the existence of eternal punishment becomes clearer only in the later books of the Old Testament. The prophet Daniel saw in vision among those who now sleep in death, “Some will life forever. Others will be in everlasting horror and disgrace,” Daniel 12:2. In the Canticle of Judith, the enemies of the people of God are threatened with eternal punishment. “For the Lord Almighty will take revenge on them for He will give fire and worms into their flesh so they may burn and may feel forever,” Judith 16:20, 21. With the coming of Christ however, the revealed existence of hell and its eternity are made perfectly plain. Christ literally exhausted the vocabulary of human language to leave no doubts in any sincere believer’s mind. Jesus warned sinners about the punishments of hell. He calls it Gehenna, “Where the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched,” six verses in Mark 9:43-48. Christ predicts that God will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor and will gather His wheat into the barn but the chaff, “He will burn up with unquenchable fire.” Hell, Christ tells us, is a place of darkness. It is a furnace of fire where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, but the most extensive and definitive prediction of hell is in the Savior’s prediction of the final judgment. It was made, as we know, on the eve of His Passion and foretells His Second Coming on the last day to judge all the nations of human history. He will separate the sheep from the goats. This figure of speech was meant to emphasize Christ’s exercise of judicial power. He will decide who stands where on the last day. Then, as King of the Universe, He will first invite those who are saved to take possession of the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world at which the just will enter heavenly glory because they had practiced charity toward others. Then for our purpose, He will turn to those on His left, “Depart from me you cursed ones into the everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you did not give me to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take me in; naked and you did not clothe me; sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”

In our next meditation we will look more closely on what it means to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty and so on. For the present concentrating on those who were damned, once the sentence is pronounced against them by Christ the King then He will say, “As long as you did not do it for one of these least ones, you did not do it for me.” This wouldn’t be a retreat if we did not say something, and as strongly as I can, about the practice of charity. We’ve said much already and more to come. Let’s make sure we know that hell is mainly reserved for those who fail in charity. There is a final summing up in the famous twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. To be exact, verse 46. Twice then, reflecting on the destiny of both the saved and the lost, He will declare, “And these,” speaking of the lost, “These will go into everlasting punishment but the just into everlasting life,” the Savior. The most important element in this prophecy, and I dare say one of the hardest tests of our faith, is that hell is the eternal, conscious duration of pain. We’d better know and be very sure that what we believe is an eternity of hell. The word used by the inspired writer, “eternal,” I will analyze, oh for some five or more minutes, because there is no single adjective in divine revelation that is more important than this one. How do we know? Are we sure that hell is eternal? We do know. We are sure. Here is some of the evidence. First; all the ancient manuscripts of the Bible going back in fragments as far back as the second century, all the ancient manuscripts of the Bible agree that Christ used the self-same words to declare the eternity of both heaven and hell. In the original Greek He said, “Into everlasting punishment (Into everlasting punishment),” and He said, “Into everlasting or eternal life (Into everlasting or eternal life),” same word. Since there has never been any question about the eternity of heaven, no believer dare doubt that hell is also eternal. Second evidence, Christ equated the punishment of sinful human beings with the punishment of the devil and his angels. Since the endless duration of hell for the devils was and is certain so too should be the endless suffering of the lost men and women. Moreover, the Greek word, “aionion,” is consistently used in the Bible to mean unending duration. For example, God is said to be aionios, eternal, when Abraham invoked by name, “The Lord God Eternal.” If God is called eternal and it’s the same word for God as for hell, you follow the logic? God’s eternity is endless duration so too must be the eternity of man’s punishment. Isaiah foretells a song of victory that will be sung in the land of Juda to rest in the Lord forever for the Lord is an eternal rock. Same words. I won’t tell you how much time I’ve spent in going through ancient Greek Lexicons to nail down the word, “aionios.” As far back as I went in the Bible, and when I looked into the Greek classic writers, same thing. Aionios is referred to as eternal for God, for the Spirit of God. In other words, selectively under Divine Inspiration the sacred writers chose the one single word in the richest language of human history that’s Greek. When they had a word for it, that was the word for it. They had a word for eternal. It was referred to the eternity of God and the divine attributes, and the same word under the Holy Spirit is the word used to identify the duration of punishment. It is eternal. We know St. John affirms that the Son of God has come and has given us discernment to recognize the One Who is True, and we are in the One Who is True for we are in His Son, Jesus Christ. He is the True God and Eternal Life. The same words used by John, used by all the evangelists, used by St. Paul. In other words, the most unmistakably, unquestionably, certain adjective is, under Divine Inspiration, to describe the duration of hell is - it is unending. It isn’t often that I spent two hours tracking down a single adjective, but I thought it was worth it. Let’s make sure, and with this I close this section of our meditation.

St. Ignatius of Loyola then, whom I know of no spiritual master, who more emphasized the need for the love of God to inspire us to the practice of virtue. It was Ignatius, however, who said we should all be ready to call upon the fear of God and the dread of hell because, says Ignatius, even the saints could be so tempted that the love of God would not be enough to sustain them in resisting temptation. Even the saints, we are told, at times need the fear of God’s punishment to remain in His grace. For me, the most eloquent evidence of that is the martyrdom of the Jesuit Polish saint, Andrew Bobola. For years he had successfully converted thousands of Orthodox back to Catholic unity. The Russian Cossacks, to venge themselves on this apostle of Catholic unity, tracked him down and exhausted the cruelty of the most barbarous haters of the Roman Catholic Church to get Andrew to apostatize. When the Holy Father canonized Andrew Bobola he declared, “We know of no martyrdom in the annuls of Christianity more barbaric than this one.” Andrew under the hours of ordeal and torture, long before he died, kept praying, “Lord keep me faithful. Save me from the fires of hell.” The last recorded word of St. Andrew Bobola was the word, “hell.” “Lord save me from the fires of hell.” He was afraid of weakening under torment and denying his faith. What sustained him? The fear of an eternal loss of God in hell. It is the same need of that motivation, my friends, so do we. I cannot think of a more salutary and inspiring way to practice charity than to develop an extraordinary concern for the poor souls. Pray for them, and especially offer for their speedy release from their purgatory or, and hear it, the mitigation of their pains by our own patient endurance of our purgation on earth. The beauty of our patient endurance of suffering on earth is that it has a two-fold merit. One for ourselves; it purifies us. It expiates our own punishment due to sin and contributes to the release from and mitigation of pain in purgatory. Let’s close with a short prayer:

Lord Jesus our highest motive for serving You and doing Your Will is our love for you, but we believe you are also the God of Justice who punishes sin. Inspire us, therefore, dear Savior not only for the deep love of You, but also with a salutary fear of Your Justice. So that fearing hell we may never, dear Lord, never, dear Lord, never lose Your friendship by mortal sin and that our fear of purgatory may help us to avoid even the least deliberate venial sins. We believe, dear Jesus, that nothing defiled can enter heaven. Make us, dear Savior, undefiled so that as we approach the dawn of eternity we may enter that heaven you have prepared for us we beg, dear Lord, immediately. Amen.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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