Can you Shed Light on God's Mercy in Hell, Purgatory?

I often receive questions about Hell and about Purgatory, perhaps because many of us find it difficult putting together the idea of a God of Mercy with the idea of punishment for sin in the next life. For example, one fellow named Stan recently sent me the following missive:

I have just read your reply to the question about the fires of purgatory. My problem is that I have a deep fear of Purgatory. I'm concerned that when it's time for my death I will be unable to die peacefully because of this fear. I know that our Lord has asked us to not be afraid, but that is easier said than done. I do sincerely believe in the Divine Mercy of our God, and I do pray daily for the poor souls in Purgatory. Do you have any advice for a poor sinner who is really trying?

Well, Stan, you write about your fear and anxiety over Purgatory, but Purgatory is really a wonderful gift to us from The Divine Mercy. It means that even if we do not finish the sanctification process in this life - that is, the process of growing in holiness here on earth, in preparation for heaven - our Lord will see it through to its completion in the life to come. You state that you are afraid of the fires of Purgatory, but I think you are looking at only one side of the coin, so to speak. Look at the last article that I wrote in my four-part series on Purgatory. That article is entitled "What's So Painful About Purgatory?" There, I explain about how Purgatory is also a place of peace (because the soul in Purgatory knows for sure that its ultimate salvation is secure) and joy (because the soul is being healed of the last wounds caused to it by sin and sees itself getting well and feels itself drawing nearer and nearer to the glorious vision of God in heaven. In particular, this was the teaching of St. Francis De Sales, but it only stands to reason: Purgatory is a place of healing. Insofar as a healing process can also be painful, it is a place of suffering (which is only just, because the souls who are there never deeply repented in faith and love for their sins) - but it is still a place of peace and security, healing and joy.

A woman named Marion sent me another question, this one about Hell - and this time wondering whether a prominent Catholic writer was not making Hell out to be a better place to go than heaven! She wrote:

I am a relatively new devotee of The Divine Mercy. I'm a little distressed at Fr. Benedict Groeschel's [teaching] that people who spend their lives turning away from God are least miserable in hell. Also, if the Catholic Church teaches that you are responsible for what you know, why would someone want to become knowledgeable, practicing Catholics? ... The more I know, the more I'm responsible for, and will have to answer to God for. Is ignorance really bliss?

Great questions, Marion.

As I recall, in the book Healing the Original Wound, Fr. Groeschel said that souls are permitted by God to go to Hell not only as an act of justice (because they deserve eternal loss; their stubborn, cold and impenitent hearts are an outrage to the infinite, divine love that they betrayed by their sins) but also as an expression of His mercy, because He knows that damned souls would be less miserable in hell than if He dragged them to heaven in their impenitent, God-hating state. Think about it for a moment, and I am sure you will see that Father is right. What do faithful and loving souls receive as their eternal reward in heaven? The chance to see God face to face, and know Him and be close to Him and love Him forever. But if you hate someone, what could be more awful than to be told: "Congratulations: you get to spend eternity enjoying the company of someone, and gazing in the eyes of someone, that you can't stand!" God mercifully permits the damned to turn their backs on Him forever; that is why Jesus calls it the outer "darkness" - because souls there have irrevocably turned their backs on the light.

Now, please notice. This does not mean that the souls in Hell are not miserable; they certainly are, as miserable as those frozen in self-chosen darkness can be. But the point is that God is even merciful to them in their misery, because they are not as miserable as they might have been if forced to be in heaven.

As for your increasing knowledge of the Catholic faith making you more responsible for your actions than ever before (and therefore in a greater risk of Hell), it is indeed true that you are more responsible as a Catholic, but I don't think it follows that your "risk of Hell" is thereby increased. Quite the opposite, in most respects. For what is knowledge of the Catholic faith? It is ever-greater light for your soul about God's merciful love for you and for all people, and unless you are cold-hearted beyond all recall, that light is going to warm your heart and inspire you more and more to love Him back. That surely is much more likely to help your relationship with Jesus Christ, rather than to damage it and increase your risk of eternal loss.

What happens when you throw aside the curtains on a bright summer day and let the light stream through the windowpanes? It warms up the room! Of course, it also increases the chance that you may ignore all that light and warmth coming into the room, and hide under the bed, and that would be exceptionally foolish. But since we are creatures who need light and warmth, creatures whom God made to enjoy light and warmth, is it better to remain mostly in the dark? More people get lost in the darkness than turn their backs on the clear light of day. Better to have all the light you can!

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press). Got a question? E-mail him at

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