"The one thing necessary which Jesus spoke of to Martha and Mary consists in hearing the word of God and living by it."

R. Garrigou-Lagrange, OP

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"What good does it do to speak learnedly about the Trinity if, lacking humility, you displease the Trinity? Indeed it is not learning that makes a man holy and just, but a virtuous life makes him pleasing to God. "

Thomas á Kempis

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"Every man naturally desires knowledge; but what good is knowledge without fear of God? Indeed a humble rustic who serves God is better than a proud intellectual who neglects his soul to study the course of the stars."

Thomas á Kempis

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Fr Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P.  (1877 - 1964)  taught at the Angelicum in Rome from 1909 to 1960, and served for many years as a consulter to the Holy Office and other Roman Congregations.


By Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange,OP





Three reasons lead us to speak at length concerning hell. First, there is today an unwillingness to preach on this subject, and therefore people often forget revealed truth that is very salutary. They do not give attention to the truth that the fear of hell is the beginning of wisdom and the beginning of conversion. They forget that, in this sense, hell has saved many souls.

Secondly, there are in the world many superficial objections to this teaching, objections that seem to some believers more true than the traditional answers. Why? Because they have never entered deeply into these answers. It is easy to fasten on some superficial objection, and it is difficult to see clearly a reply involving the depths of soul-life or the immeasurable height of God's justice. To understand these answers we need more maturity and penetration.

An illustration. A priest one day asked one of his friends, a lawyer, to aid in a dialogue conference, by offering objections against the teaching of the Church on hell. The lawyer presented the common objections in a brilliant fashion under a popular point of view which captured the imagination. Since the priest was not sufficiently prepared, the objections seemed to be stronger than the answers, and the answers themselves seemed to be merely verbal. They did not capture the imagination, nor did they lead sufficiently to the notions of mortal sin without repentance, of obstinacy, of the state of termination, so different from the state of the way. Neither did they lead sufficiently to the notion of God's infinite justice. Hence we must insist on all these points, since the dogma about hell helps us to appreciate by contrast the value of salvation. Similarly we do not know the value of justice unless we examine what is meant by a great injustice, actual or threatened. Our Lord illumined St. Theresa on the beauty of heaven, but only after He had shown her the place which she would have had in hell had she continued on the road whereon she had already made some steps.

Hell signifies properly the state of the damned souls, of demons first, then of men who die in the state of mortal sin and are consequently condemned to suffer eternally. Secondly, it signifies also the place where condemned souls are detained.

The existence of hell was denied in the third century by Arnobius who, following the Gnostics, held that those who are reprobated are also annihilated. This error was renewed by the Socinians of the sixteenth century. In ancient times, further, the Origenists, especially in the fourth century, denied the eternity of punishment in hell, because they held that all the reprobate, angels and men, would finally be converted. This error was taken up again by liberal spirits, particularly among the Protestants. The rationalists say the eternity of suffering is in contradiction to the wisdom of God, to His mercy, and to His justice. They imagine that suffering must be proportioned to the time necessary for committing the fault, and not to the gravity of the perpetual state wherein the soul finds itself after it has left the world with grievous and unrepented sin.

The Athanasian Creed and many councils affirm as a dogma of faith the existence of heaven, the eternity of punishment, both of loss and of pain, and likewise the inequality of suffering proportioned to the gravity of the faults committed and left unrepented.

Let us first see what Holy Scripture itself teaches on this point. Its teaching prepares us to understand better the doctrine of purgatory, where there is certitude of salvation, and further the doctrine of eternal beatitude. Darkness and evil show in their own manner the value of eternal light, of the sanctity that cannot be lost.

The Latin word infernum (hell) comes from infernus and signifies dark places beneath the earth. In the Old Testament the corresponding term, sheol, signifies the place of the dead in general, good or bad. [183] We are not surprised at this, since before the ascension of Jesus Christ no soul could enter heaven. In this same sense we speak of the descent of Jesus into hell. But in the New Testament the hell of the damned is often called Gehenna, [184] which signifies the Valley of Hinnom, a ravine to the south of Jerusalem where people were accustomed to dump refuse, and even corpses. Fires burned there almost continually, to consume trash. Hence the word, after Isaias, came to express the real hell: hell which lasts forever, a worm which will not die, a fire which cannot be quenched.

Hell in the Old Testament

In a learned article on hell, M. Richard, [185] has made a deep study of those texts of the Old Testament which prove the existence of hell in the strict sense. Before the time of the prophets, he notes, the condition of the wicked after death remained very obscure although ultramundane sanctions are often affirmed. For example, by Ecclesiastes: [186] "Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is all man." "For all these God will bring thee into judgment." [187]

To the great prophets God began to show clear perspectives of the future life. We have already cited some of these texts when speaking of the Last Judgment. Isaias [188] lays open a great prophetic vision of the world beyond. It is the restoration of Israel for all eternity, with new heavens and a new earth. "All flesh shall come to adore before My face, saith the Lord, and they shall go out and see the carcasses of the men that have transgressed against Me. Their worm shall not die and their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be a loathsome sight to all flesh." All commentators see in this text an affirmation of the last judgment, and under a symbolic form that of eternal hell. This last text is cited in St. Mark [189] by Jesus Himself, and in St. Luke [190] by St. John the Baptist.

Daniel says more clearly: "Many of those that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some unto life everlasting, and others unto reproach, to see it always." [191] Thus the Old Testament, for the first time, declares the resurrection of sinners to meet a judgment of condemnation.

The Book of Wisdom, after describing the sufferings reserved to the wicked after death, continues: "The just shall live for evermore." [192] It adds: "For to him that is little mercy is granted, but the mighty shall be mightily tormented." [193] It says of the wicked one: "He returneth to the same out of which he was taken, when his life which was lent him shall be called for again." [194]

Ecclesiasticus speaks in the same sense: "Humble thy spirit very much, for the vengeance on the flesh of the ungodly is fire and worms." [195] In the Second Book of Machabees [196] we read that the seven brothers, martyrs, were sustained in their sufferings by the thought of eternal life. They say to their judge: "The King of the world will raise us up . . . in the resurrection of eternal life; . . . but thou by the judgment of God shalt receive just punishment for thy pride."

All these texts of the Old Testament speak of hell in the proper sense. Many of them affirm the inequality of punishments proportioned to the gravity of the faults committed and unrepented.

Hell in the New Testament

The Precursor said to those who were guilty: "Ye brood of vipers, who hath showed you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruit worthy of penance." [197] Again: "There shall come one mightier than I, . . . whose fan is in His hand, and He will purge His floor and will gather the wheat into His barn, but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire." [198]

Jesus announces simultaneously the eternal salvation for the good and Gehenna for the wicked. He begins by exhorting to penance. The scribes say of Him: "By the prince of devils He casteth out devils." His reply is: "All sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men, and the blasphemies wherewith they shall blaspheme. But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost shall never have forgiveness, but shall be guilty of an everlasting sin." [199] Jesus [200] commands fraternal charity, and the avoidance of luxury and lust lest the body be cast into eternal fire. At Capharnaum, after admiring the faith of the centurion, Jesus 19 announces the conversion of the Gentiles, whereas certain Jews remain unbelieving and obstinate: "They shall be cast out into the exterior darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth." [201]

Jesus warns the apostles against the fear of martyrdom, saying: "Fear ye not them that kill the body and are not able to kill the soul; but rather fear Him that can destroy both soul and body in hell." [202] All this doctrine is summed up by St. Mark: "If thy hand scandalize thee, cut it off; it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into unquenchable fire, where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not extinguished." [203] The doctrine is taught also in the parables, that of the cockle, that of the royal marriage, that of the wise and foolish virgins, that of the talents.

The same doctrine we find in the maledictions [204] addressed to the hypocritical Pharisees: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, . . . blind guides, . . . you are like to whitened sepulchers, which . . . are full of . . . all filthiness; . . . you serpents, generation of vipers, how will you flee from the judgment of hell?" [205] Jesus speaks still more clearly in the discourse on the end of the world and the last judgment: "Then shall the King say to them that shall be on His right hand: Come ye blessed of My Father, . . . for I was hungry, and you gave Me to eat.... Then He shall say to them also that shall be on His left hand: Depart from Me, you cursed, into everlasting fire, which was prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave Me not to eat: I was thirsty . . . I was a stranger . . . naked
... sick and in prison, and you did not visit Me.... And these shall go into everlasting punishment, but the just into life everlasting." [206] Such is the last sentence, without appeal, and without end. The word "eternal" in regard to fire is used in its proper sense, because it is opposed to eternal life. The parallelism in the two instances shows that "eternal" is used in the proper sense of the word. [207]

The Gospel of St. John speaks repeatedly of the opposition between eternal life and eternal loss. "He that believeth not the Son shall not see life." [208] To the obstinate Pharisees Jesus says: "You shall die in your sin. Whither I go, you cannot come." [209] "Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin. Now the servant abideth not in the house forever, but the son abideth forever." [210] "If anyone abideth not in Me, he shall be cast forth as a branch and shall wither; and they shall gather him up and cast him into the fire, and he burneth." [211]

The epistles of St. Paul, [212] too, announce to the just souls eternal life and to the obstinate in evil eternal death. "Those who do the works of the flesh shall not enter the kingdom of God." These are those who perish. [213] There are two irreconcilable cities, that of Christ and that of Belial. [214] These are those who are condemned forever. [215] We read in the Epistle to the Hebrews: "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God." [216] St. Peter [217] announces to the false prophets that they are going to eternal loss. The Epistle of St. Jude [218] speaks of eternal chains. The Epistle of St. James [219] threatens judgment without mercy on him who does not do mercy. Wicked men, without heart for the poor, amass treasures of anger for the last day. [220]

Lastly, the Apocalypse [221] contrasts the victory of Christ in the heavenly Jerusalem with the damnation of all those who will be thrown into the abyss of fire and sulphur. [222] This eternal damnation is called second death. It is the privation of divine life, of the vision of God, in a place of eternal punishment, where those will be tormented by fire who wear the sign of the beast, and hence are excluded from the book of life. [223]

This is the doctrine already announced by the great prophets and in particular by Isaias. [224] From the time of these prophets to the Apocalypse the revelation about eternal hellfire never ceased to become more precise, just as the doctrine of eternal life became
more precise. Among these punishments we find those of loss, of fire, of inequality in pain, of eternal duration. Mortal sin unrepented has left the soul in a habitual state of rebellion against an infinite good.

We must be brief on the testimony of tradition. Before the third century, before the controversy with the Origenists, the Fathers teach the existence and the eternity of the pains of hell. [225] The martyrs often say they do not fear temporal fire, but only the eternal fire.

From the third century to the fifth most of the Fathers combat the error of the Origenists on the non-eternity of the pains of hell. Among them we may cite particularly St. Methodius, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, St. Epiphanius, St. Basil, St. Chrysostom, St. Ephrem, St. Cyprian, St. Jerome, and especially St. Augustine. [226] In the mind of all these Fathers the affirmation of the final conversion of demons and of reprobated man is contrary to revelation. In their minds a converted demon is an impossibility. The same holds good of a condemned soul. In the fifth century the controversy ended with the condemnation of this error of Origen at the synod of Constantinople, [227] confirmed by Pope Vigilius. The Fathers often cite the words of Isaias, recalled by Jesus: "Their worm dieth not, and the fire is not extinguished." The Origenist controversy served to make precise the meaning of these words of the Gospel. [228] St. Augustine [229] in particular shows that the word "eternal" is not to be taken here in a wide sense, because of its opposition to "eternal life" where the word "eternal" is used in the proper sense of the word.

183. Gen. 37:35; Num. 16:30.
184. Matt. 5:22, 29; 23:15, 33; also Mark and Luke.
185. Dict. theol. cath., s.v. "L'Enfer."
186 Eccles. 12:13 and 14.
187 Eccl. 11:9.
188 Isa. 66:15-24.
189 Mark 9:43.
190 Luke 3:17.
191 Dan. 12:1-2.
192 Wisd. 5:16.
193 Ibid., 6:6.
194 Ibid., 15:8.
195 Ecclus. 7:17.
196 II Mach. 7:9-36.
197 Matt. 3:7.
198 Luke 3:7-17.
199 Mark 3:29; Matt. 12:32; John 8:20-24, 35.
200 Matt. 5:22, 29, 30.
201 The phrase occurs six times in St. Matthew. We find it also in St. Luke 13:28.
202 Matt., 10:28.
203 Mark 9:42-48; Matt. 18:8, 9.
204 Matt. 23:15.
205 Ibid., 23:13-33.
206 Ibid., 25:33-46.
207 De civ. Dei, Bk. XXI, chap. 23.
208  John 3:36.
209 Ibid., 8:24.
210 Ibid., 8:34.
211 Ibid., 15:6.
212 Gal. 5:19-21; Eph. 5:5; I Cor. 6:9, 10.
213 II Cor. 2:15, 16; 4:3; 13:5.
214 II Cor. 6:14-18.
215 I Tim. 5:6, 11-15; II Tim. 2:12-20.
216 Heb. 10:31.
217 II Pet. 2:1-4; 12, 14; 3:7.
218 Jude 6:13.
219 Jas. 2:13.
220 Ibid., 4:4-8; 5:3.
221 Apoc. 21:8.
222 Ibid., 21:27; 22:15.
223 Ibid., 13:18; 14:10, 11; 20:6, 4.
224 Isa. 66:15-24.
225 Enchir. patrist., Index theologicus, no. 594.
226 Ibid., cf. Dict. theol. cath., "L'Enfer."
227 Denz., no. 211.
228 Matt. 25:41-46.
229. De civ. Dei, Bk. XXI, chap. 23.