|Justice the founder of my fabric mov'd: |
To rear me was the task of power divine,
Supremest wisdom, primeval love.
Before me things create were none, save things
Eternal, and eternal I endure.
All hope abandon, ye who enter here.
21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Luke 13:22-30
After the master of the house has arisen and locked the door, then will you stand outside knocking and saying, ‘Lord, open the door for us.’ He will say to you in reply, ‘I do not know where you are from. […] Depart from me, all you evildoers!
With these words, Christ reveals to us the eternity of hell – there will be no forgiveness after death for the sinner who has died in unrepentant mortal sin. No plea for mercy will then be heard and none will come to the aid of the damned, but their punishment will last for all eternity and there will be no end to their misery.
What is it that makes hell to be eternal? Is it God’s justice? Does God deny the damned the grace necessary for repentance? Are the wicked so abstinent as to refuse God’s grace? We shall see that the human soul, after death, becomes immutably fixed on either good or evil, such that no change of course is possible – not even God could bring a soul out of hell, there no grace is efficacious!
(In our discussion of this topic, we rely principally on part 2 of Garrigou-Lagrange’s spiritual classic Life Everlasting)
Why is hell eternal?
Hell is eternal on account of the grave offence which sin is against God. The gravity of punishment is not determined so much by the duration of the sin (most sins only last a moment, but hell is eternal), rather the punishment is determined by the malice in the soul of the sinner and the infinite good of the God who is offended. Thus, since mortal sin kills the soul by annihilating charity and offends God by completely severing any supernatural bond to him in love, such sin requires an eternal punishment. This punishment is the pains of hell (both the despair of the soul who has no hope and the physical pains of fire and ice).
Moreover, hell is eternal because the souls there are immutably fixed in evil, hating God and neighbor. Some theologians (Scotus and Suarez) held that this obstinacy is caused for men and for demons because God no longer offers the grace of conversion to these souls. This, however, is unsatisfactory, since the eternity of hell is then predicated upon a refusal on the part of God and not on the part of man.
Cardinal Cajetan shows the beginnings of a better way. He argued that, in death, the human soul becomes something like the angelic soul – as the pure spirit has a judgment that is immutable so to the judgment of the separated human soul is immutable. Because we are now living on earth and in terrestrial time, after making a choice we can learn something new and successively change our will. The angels however, have an intuitive knowledge, see reality in all its aspects, and can learn nothing new – thus they can never change their will. So it is with the separated soul after death, having chosen for either good or evil in the last moment of life, it can never alter this choice. Having freely chosen for either good or evil, the separated soul immutably fixes itself in this choice.
Later Thomists developed and adapted this fundamental insight of Cardinal Cajetan maintaining that “the soul begins to determine itself by the last free act of the present life, and it attains this fixation immutably, in regard to its knowledge and its will, in the first instant after death. Thus, it immobilizes itself in its own choice. Hence it is not a lack of God’s mercy which fixes the soul in obstinacy.” (Life Everlasting)
Finally, it will be helpful to consider that each man judges according to his inclination. Thus, the humble man judges all things by his inclination to humility, but the ambitious man judges by his inclination to pride – hence the proud man sees the same event quite differently than does the humble man. After death, our inclination to our last end cannot change: thus, the humble man will continue in the next life to judge definitively according to the inclination to virtue, but the proud man will judge definitively according to his pride. The pride of the unrepentant sinner is now eternalized, he is fixed in obstinacy, he is forever perverted and incapable of choosing the only road of return, namely, humility and obedience.
The words of the theologian Fr. Lacordaire: “Had justice alone created the abyss, there might be remedy. But it is love, the first love sempiternal, which made hell. This it is which banishes hope. Were I condemned by justice, I might flee to love. But if I am condemned by love, whither can I turn? Such is the fate of the damned, Love, that gave his blood for them – this Love, this same Love, must now curse them. […] Love is not a farce. It is God’s love which punishes, God’s crucified love. Love is life or death. And if that love is God’s love, then love is either eternal life or eternal death.” (cited in Life Everlasting)