If God is so Merciful, Why is There a Hell?

Several people wrote to me recently about the references to hellfire and damnation in St. Faustina's Diary. Not surprisingly, they referred especially to St. Faustina's terrifying vision, recorded in entry 741:


Today, I was led by an angel to the chasm of hell. It is a place of great torture; how awesomely large and extensive it is! The kinds of tortures that I saw; the first torture that constitutes hell is the loss of God; the second is perpetual remorse of conscience; the third is that one's condition will never change; the fourth is the fire that will penetrate the soul without destroying it - a terrible suffering, since it is a purely spiritual fire, lit by God's anger; the fifth torture is continual darkness, and a terrible, suffocating smell, and despite the darkness, the devil and the souls of the damned see each other and all the evil, both of others and of their own; the sixth torture is the constant company of Satan; the seventh torture is horrible despair, hatred of God, vile words, curses and blasphemies. These are the tortures suffered by all the damned together, but that is not the end of their sufferings. There are special tortures destined for particular souls. These are the torments of the senses. Each soul undergoes terrible and indescribable sufferings, related to the manner in which it has sinned. There are caverns and pits of torture where one form of agony differs from another. I would have died at the very sight of these tortures if the omnipotence of God had not supported me. Let the sinner know that he will be tortured throughout all eternity, in those senses which he made use of to sin. I am writing this at the command of God, so that no soul may find an excuse by saying there is no hell, or that nobody has ever been there, and so no one can say what it is like.

What are we to make of this? How are we to reconcile this vision with the message of the merciful love of God that permeates the rest of St. Faustina's Diary?

First of all, we need to remember that St. Faustina's Diary, beautiful and profound as it is, is not the equivalent of the inspired and inerrant Holy Scriptures. When our holy Mother the Church gives its nihil obstat to the writings of a saint, therefore, she does not thereby proclaim that every word the saint wrote is the pure, infallible Word of God - only that there is nothing in the saint's writing in question that clearly contradicts the definitive teachings of the Church on faith and morals.

The reflections and opinions of a saint - even their visions and meditations - can sometimes be colored by their own cultural background and blind spots, and their own psychological make-up (on this, see Fr. Benedict Groeschel's book, A Still Small Voice).

In general, of course, we should give the benefit of the doubt to a saint, because he or she is filled to overflowing with the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth. But sometimes a saint can form opinions or make speculations that go beyond what the Church has been willing to define about one or more of the mysteries of the Faith.

To some extent, that is the case here. Saint Faustina claims she had a vision of hell - and no doubt she did. But whether she understood that vision entirely clearly, or whether it was colored, to some extent, by her own expectations or speculations or cultural assumptions, is hard to say.

The Church has not defined that the souls in hell suffer torments of the flesh directly corresponding to the manner in which the soul sinned in the flesh, nor has the Church defined that there is a spiritual "fire" that penetrates the soul that is "lit by God's anger." Nor for that matter has the Church defined that the torments of hell include a literal, physical fire (which, in fact, St. Faustina does not mention). These things are matters for theological speculation, and the content of St. Faustina's vision is not decisive evidence on these matters for the Church.

Secondly, we need to interpret St. Faustina's frightening vision of hell in the context of the rest of her Diary. In entry 1588, for example, our Lord told her that He is reluctant to mete out retributive justice to sinners. "I do not want to punish aching mankind but to heal it, pressing it to My merciful Heart," He says. "I use punishment when they force Me to do so; My hand is reluctant to take hold of the sword of justice."

On another occasion St. Faustina stated that the ultimate punishment, eternal damnation, is actually a self-chosen condition. "I received a deeper understanding of divine mercy," she writes. "Only the soul that wants it will be damned, for God condemns no one" (Diary, 1452). This fits very well with the Catechism's definition of hell as "a state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God" (Catechism, 1033).

The horror of irrevocably rejecting communion with God is that one thereby deliberately cuts oneself off from the true Source of all goodness and light, and to lose all goodness and light is to lose everything. Is it any wonder that the souls in hell are in endless "darkness," when they have turned their back upon the everlasting Light?

The torments of hell described by St. Faustina are probably not far from the reality of what total, eternal loss would be like, both spiritually and physically. Somewhat similar, sobering truth is related in the words of Jesus Christ in the gospels, and in the Catechism (1034-1036).

If we look more closely at her vision, St. Faustina does not actually say that "God" is the one who "tortures" the souls in hell, or that He is the one who "designed" special torments of the flesh for each particular kind of sinner. Unofficial Catholic tradition tells us (largely based on the visions of other saints and blessed) that it is Satan and his demons that do that. After all, to reject God is to choose instead the company of those who hate and despise Him, and who thereby hate and despise the creatures He made in His "image" (Gn 1:26-27)!

And yet, in another sense, it is true to say that this state of irrevocable self-exclusion from communion with God, the source of all good, with all its destructive effects, is something that in His justice God permits. As St. Thomas Aquinas would say, it reflects God's just and "consequent will," not his original and absolute will for the good of His creatures.

At one point St. Faustina says that she saw a "fire that will penetrate the soul without destroying it - a terrible suffering, since it is a purely spiritual fire, lit by God's anger." But we need to remember that God's anger is not an emotion, nor vindictiveness, but His total, unrelenting opposition to evil.

What burns the soul in a "spiritual" way, we may surmise, is to be unavoidably confronted with the full truth about one's evil deeds and irreversible rejection of God's love, and to hear Jesus Christ Himself ratify that truth with His words, "Depart from Me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Mt 25:41). In the end, the truth will win out, and God will not be mocked.

Then why does St. Faustina tell us about hell. Is it just to frighten us into obeying God?

No, rather, it is to magnify God's mercy. For like any loving parents who warn their children about the dangers of playing with matches or running across streets without looking out for the traffic, God wants to preserve us from harm. His warnings are warnings of the very real dangers that we face, and they are given out of love for us. In fact, God is so merciful that He even assumed our human condition as Jesus Christ, and died on the Cross for us to save us from such eternal dangers.

In addition, we should remember that many of the saints teach us that even hell itself is tempered by God's mercy (e.g. St. Catherine of Siena and St. John Eudes). God is always as merciful to us as we will allow Him to be, so His mercy reaches right into the depths of hell.

First, by allowing souls to reject Him and His love forever, God thereby respects human freedom - the dignity of human free will that He gave to us - right to the end. He will never take away from us the dignity of being able to choose our own destiny.

Second, God knows that for souls who truly despise Him, to see Him face to face forever, would make them even more miserable than their self-chosen exile from Him. That is why Cardinal Newman wrote: "heaven would be hell to the irreligious." In Paradise Lost, the poet John Milton quotes Satan as voicing the sentiments of all the damned: "Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven." As C.S. Lewis put it: "The gates of hell are locked from the inside."

The doctrine of Hell, therefore, though it is disconcerting and sad to us, does not contradict the merciful love of God. God will not force people to repent, and thereby open up their hearts to Him that they may be filled with his love, and saved from eternal self-destruction. He does not want puppets on a string, or robots; the only repentance and love relationship worth having must be freely chosen.

But what about those people who will not freely choose it ? C.S. Lewis summed it up best in his book, The Problem of Pain:

In the long run, the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell, is itself a question: 'What are you asking God to do?' To wipe out their past sins, and at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing over every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what He does.

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


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