Father Charles had just finished his sermon on Hell. Being a good orator — partly his native “Irish gift,” partly his good seminary training and experience — he had kept the congregation on the edge of their seats. True, the chandelier falling midway through the sermon (causing one lady to faint), added some dramatic tension, but this sermon was good even without the unintended special effects. As the preacher was taking off his surplice and stole in the sacristy, a native-born Irish lady entered therein, to say that his was a superlative piece of sacred eloquence. The priest thanked her graciously.
Before taking her leave, the good lady made her gentle brogue heard once more. “Why, Faaather ,”she said, “the way you preached on Hell… I’d think you were born and raised there!”
Hell is a serious thing, an eternally serious thing. But, as a priest friend of mine says (I think quoting G.K. Chesterton), to be serious is not to be humorless. So, I begin this article on the most serious of subjects with a humorous but true story from another priest friend of mine (R.I.P.), Father Charles Martin Poirier.
I have no intention of making this a macabre examination of the minutiae of Hell’s torments. Suffice it to say, the best book I’ve read on the subject of Hell’s torments (after Holy Scripture) is The Inferno from Dante’s Divine Comedy. Read that volume if you are looking for a tour. I offer this only as an apology.
The Sources of Faith: Holy Scripture
The Christian Faith is not a set of sentimentalities. Neither is it a utopian dream of how things ought to be. Nor is it a set of mere theories regarding the impenetrable mysteries of the cosmos. Above all, the Christian Faith is a revelation, descending as a gift from the Father of lights — the only One qualified to reveal — to those to whom He gave the power to become His children. Therefore, we must begin the examination of any mystery of our Faith with what God has to say about the subject.
In “Imagine There’s No Hell,” I noted that this article of our Faith has more abundant testimony than many others. I cited Monsignor Joseph Pohle to this effect: “it has been justly said that no other Catholic dogma has such a solid Biblical basis.” While the Sadducees and various Christian heretics of the early centuries (notably, Valentinus) denied the existence of Hell, its reality is emphatically attested to in the Scriptures. Here is a brief digest of New Testament passages witnessing unmistakably to our doctrine:
Saint Jude writes in his canonical epistle of “the punishment of eternal fire” (Jude 7).
Saint Paul calls it “eternal punishment in destruction” (2 Thess. 1:9).
Saint John, in his Apocalypse, says “And Hell and death were cast into the pool of fire; this is the second death” (Apoc. 20:14). The Apocalypse also relates that “the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, they shall have their portion in the pool burning with fire and brimstone, which is the second death” (Apoc. 21:8).
Jesus Himself, the Saint of saints and the very Word of God, tells us in His own words that Hell is an “unquenchable fire”: “And 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. And if thy foot scandalize thee, cut it off. It is better for thee to enter lame into life everlasting, than having two feet, to be cast into the Hell of unquenchable fire: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not extinguished. And if thy eye scandalize thee, pluck it out. It is better for thee with one eye to enter into the kingdom of God, than having two eyes to be cast into the Hell of fire: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not extinguished” (Mark 9:42-47; cf. Mt. 18:8-9).
In the parable of Dives and Lazarus, we are told by our Savior that, “The rich man also died: and he was buried in Hell. And lifting up his eyes when he was in torments, he saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom” (Mt. 16:22-23).
In Saint Matthew’s Gospel, having already spoken of the happy lot of the blessed, Our Lord describes the judgment of the wicked: “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, and you gave me not to drink. I was a stranger, and you took me not in: naked, and you covered me not: sick and in prison, and you did not visit me. Then they also shall answer him, saying: Lord, when did we see thee hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister to thee? Then he shall answer them, saying: Amen I say to you, as long as you did it not to one of these least, neither did you do it to me. And these shall go into everlasting punishment: but the just, into life everlasting” (Mt. 25:41-46). (We note in passing that the different sentences passed on the just and the unjust were based, in this passage, solely on the criterion of good works. This does not contradict, but merely complements, those passages of Scripture which show that God’s grace and Christian Catholic Faith are necessary for salvation.)
In Our Lord’s discourse after the Last Supper, He tells the disciples, “If any one abide 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” (John 15:6).
The Sources of Faith: The Fathers
The Fathers simply echo this teaching of divine revelation. Saint Ignatius of Antioch writes to the Ephesians: “do not err, my brethren; … if a man by false teaching corrupt the faith of God, for the sake of which Jesus Christ was crucified, such a one shall go in his foulness to the unquenchable fire, as also shall he who listens to him” (Letter to the Ephesians, 16:2).
The apologist and philosopher, Saint Justin the Martyr, writes of Hell in his Second Apology: “I will briefly reply that if the matter be not thus, either there is no God, or if there is, He does not concern Himself with men, virtue and vice mean nothing, and they who transgress important laws are unjustly punished by the lawgivers” (Second Apology 2:9).
That great witness of the Antiochine and Byzantine traditions, Saint John Chrysostom, amply and aptly summarizes the issue thus: “All of us, Greeks and Jews, heretics and Christians, acknowledge that God is just. Now many who sinned have passed away without being punished, while many others, who led virtuous lives, did not die until they had suffered innumerable tribulations. If God is just, how will He reward the latter and punish the former, unless there be a Hell and a Resurrection” (Homily on the Epistle to the Philipians, 6:6).
The same Golden-Tongued Doctor also observes: “If those who argue against Hell would embrace virtue, they would soon be convinced of its existence” (Homily on the Epistle to the Romans, 31:4).
Other patristic witnesses to the truth of this doctrine can be found at the Corunum Apologetic Web Site and Catholic Answers.
The Sources of Faith: The Magisterium
Ultimately, there is only one “source of Faith.” It is tradition, whether written or merely orally transmitted (cf. II Thess. 2:14). But that tradition, if it be authentic, is definitively mediated to the faithful through the teaching authority (magisterium) of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. That teaching authority has taught us that there is a Hell.
The Athanasian Creed: “He [Jesus Christ] shall come again to judge the living and the dead; at his coming all men have to arise again with their bodies and will render an account of their own deeds; and those who have done good, will go into live everlasting, but those who have done evil, into eternal fire. This is the Catholic faith; unless every one believes this faithfully and firmly, he cannot be saved” (Denz. 40).
Pope Innocent III: “The punishment of original sin is the deprivation of the vision of God, but the punishment of actual sin is the torments of everlasting Hell. . .” (Denz. 410).
Lateran Council IV: “But He [Christ] descended in soul, and he arose in the flesh, and He ascended equally in both, to come at the end of time, to judge the living and the dead, and to render to each according to his works, to the wicked as well as to the elect, all of whom will rise with their bodies which they now bear, that they may receive according to their works, whether these works have been good or evil, the latter everlasting punishment with the devil, and the former everlasting glory with Christ” (Denz. 429).
The Council of Florence: “Moreover, the souls of those who depart in actual mortal sin or in original sin only, descend immediately into Hell but to undergo punishments of different kinds” (Denz. 694).
The Council of Florence: “It [the Catholic Church] firmly believes, professes, and proclaims that those not living within the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews, and heretics, and schismatics, cannot become participants in eternal life, but will depart ‘into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels’ [Matt. 25:41], unless before the end of life the same have been added to the flock; and that the unity of the ecclesiastical body is so strong that only to those remaining in it are the sacraments of the Church of benefit for salvation, and do fastings, almsgiving, and other functions of piety and exercises of Christian service produce eternal reward, and that no one, whatever almsgiving he has practiced, even it he has shed blood for the name of Christ, can be saved, unless he has remained in the bosom and unity of the Catholic Church” (Council of Florence, Decree in Behalf of the Jacobites, Denz. 714).
There are numerous other statements from the magisterium, but I think these will suffice. Collections of dogmatic decrees of the Church, such as Denzinger’s, present much more complete catalogues.
The Essence of Hell: On Loss and Torment
The magisterial statements above are very chaste in their description of Hell’s torments. We know that there are torments, that they are eternal, and that they are proportional to the crimes of the guilty. We know, further, that there are two distinct kinds of torment which afflict the damned: the pain of loss (the loss of the Beatific Vision — the immediate intellectual intuition of the Blessed Trinity), and the pain of sense (the positive torments of Hell, “hellfire”). The pain of loss is something all the damned share in common; the pain of sense is the unique punishment each of the lost has earned through his own actual sins.
Historically, it is this very logical, sensible, and clear distinction between the two pains that has allowed theologians and the common faithful alike to believe in the “limbo of the infants” (the word limbo means “borderland” or “margin”), that region where the pain of loss exists, but where there is no pain of sense, since there is no actual sin. Father Feeney used to speak of “the essential Hell,” by which he meant the pain of loss only. Because they partake in this pain – though how it affects them is utterly unknown to us  – the unbaptized infants in limbo are in the “essential Hell.” But the Church has permitted theologians to hold, as Father Feeney himself did, that this state is compatible with some degree of natural happiness — even a perfect natural happiness. It was the heretical Jansenists who censured this pious belief as “a Pelagian fable” (Denz. 1526).
We may be met with two objections on this point. The first is that the International Theological Commission (ITC) published a document, “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized,” essentially denying the existence of limbo, or, at least mooting the whole issue by saying that the souls of unbaptized infants probably go to the Beatific Vision. Since the ITC is under the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) — the Church’s highest doctrinal authority after the Pope himself — this document is taken as authoritative. The second objection is that the whole thing seems so cruel. After all, why would infants be “punished” at all? Aren’t they innocent?
The first objection is easily dismissed. The ITC is a purely advisory body. Its documents have literally no authority. (Father Georges Cottier, O.P., General Secretary of the ITC, said that the body “does not have the role of pronouncing with the authority, which is characteristic of the Magisterium.”) This is true even though the news media are utterly oblivious to the fact, and presented “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized” as quite authoritative.
One very good thing about the ITC’s document is that its study of scriptural, patristic, and magisterial sources provides abundant proof for the conclusion that unbaptized infants do not partake of the Beatific Vision. Few defenders of the orthodox position could have put the case better. Only in its last few pages, where modern theologians suddenly took precedence over these much weightier authorities, do we find a false optimism concerning the unbaptized. It is not disrespectful to write this way of “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized.” The document, as I said, has no magisterial authority.
The second objection, regarding the cruelty of infants being denied Heaven, is more philosophical. The reply to this is that babies, no matter how cute and otherwise innocent they are, are all born in original sin, and it is part of revelation that nobody in original sin can partake of the Beatific Vision. Original sin and heavenly beatitude are simply incompatible. While it is quite common in our very confusing days for the faithful and even churchmen to speak as if it does not exist, to deny original sin and its effects is to fall into Pelagianism.
While all men are ordained to heavenly beatitude (this is the so-called “natural desire for God”), an eternity of happiness with the Trinity is an unmerited gift. It is not something to which we are entitled by nature. We must be elevated above our nature by grace to be fitted for Heaven. And grace is not something God “owes” us.
Is It “Down There”?
The question concerning Hell’s whereabouts is one of those speculative points that ultimately produce more smoke than light — if that figure of speech be pardoned in this context! In a homily on Romans, Saint John Chrysostom said, “Do not inquire where Hell is, but how to escape it.” And even Saint Gregory the Great, the Supreme Pontiff himself, said in his fourth Dialogue, that “I dare not define anything on this subject, for some believed Hell to be situated somewhere within the earth, whereas others look for it under the earth.”
The only reason the question is worth bringing up at all is to establish that Hell is indeed a place. While the fallen angels need no material dwelling in which to be localized (indeed, unless we use the words analogically, “place,” “dwelling,” and “location” are material concepts), after the general judgment, the human denizens of Hell will certainly need a (material) place for their flesh to occupy. This is part of the dogma of the resurrection of the body. The same is true of Heaven, with this difference only: We know there are bodies in Heaven now (Jesus and Mary at least), but we know no such thing concerning Hell.
Besides their being places, Heaven and Hell are also states. They are more essentially states than places, as what defines them are the respective possession or final loss of the Beatific Vision. Our Lord speaks of unclean spirits inhabiting the possessed as their “homes,” whence leaving, the evil spirit “walketh through places without water, seeking rest” (Luke 11:24). Yet, the whole time, they are damned — that is, in Hell. Similarly, concerning the good spirits, who guard the “little ones” we are admonished not to scandalize, Jesus says, “their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 18:10). These holy angels take their beatitude with them, just as the damned spirits carry their damnation with them (almost like Joe Btfsplk, the character in Al Capp’s Li’l Abner cartoon, who perpetually had a storm cloud over his head wherever he went).
Jesus as man, while on earth, partook of the direct Vision of God. True, Our Lord is the only man ever to be both a wayfarer and a comprehensor at the same time (Christology teaches us that Jesus was both in via and in patria during His earthly sojourn). But this is a further indication of the logical distinction between Heaven as a place and Heaven as a state. In Saint John’s Gospel (3:13), Our Lord almost playfully speaks of Himself being contemporaneously “ascended into heaven,” “descended from heaven,” and “in heaven.” The literal truth is, He was all three at once. 
The “Pool of Fire”: A Closer Look at the Pain of Sense
Rationalists tend to mock the whole notion of Hell. They generally make appeals to what they consider the disproportionate nature of the crime and its punishment, frequently appealing to human “reasonableness” in the face of a stern Christian preaching on the subject of Hell’s torments, “which” — to cite our friend, Hosea Ballou — “ministers have, with an overflowing zeal, so constantly held up to the people, and urged with all their learning and eloquence, [and which] have tended so to harden the hearts of the professors of this religion.” It is probably true that many preachers — and not only the heterodox ones Ballou had in mind (Calvinists, Baptists, etc.), but also Catholics — have sought to “prove too much” on the subject of Hell. And the rule of logic is inflexible: “He who proves too much, proves nothing.”
It does not detract a bit from Catholic dogma to concede that, at times, a certain baroque school of preaching on the doctrine has done a disservice to the orthodoxy.
Concerning the pain of sense, the “fire”mentioned in Scripture, we know very little. We know that it is fire, but to say that, while entirely adequate to indicate a severe pain that we must strive to avoid, is not to affirm that Hell’s fire has the properties identical to the stuff upon which we roast hotdogs.
Monsignor Joseph Pohle tells us:
Neither in its nature nor in its properties, neither in its beneficent nor in its malign effects, is the fire of Hell identical with, or even similar to, the material fire of nature.
Sacred Scripture speaks of Hell as a “furnace of fire,” a “pool of fire and brimstone,” an “external darkness in which there is howling and gnashing of teeth,” and “eternal fire” prepared for the devil and his angels from the beginning. Now the devil and his angels (the demons), being pure spirits, cannot be affected by material substances such as fire and brimstone, heat and darkness, because they possess neither senses nor sensitive faculties. The same is true of the souls of the wicked during their disembodied state, i.e., before the Resurrection of the flesh.
Monsignor Pohle goes on to cite some Fathers on the mysterious nature of hellfire. One of these is Lactantius, who says: “The nature of that everlasting fire is different from this fire of ours, which we use for the necessary purposes of life, and which ceases to burn unless it be sustained by the fuel of some material. But that divine fire always lives by itself, and burns without nourishment; nor has it any smoke mixed with it, but it is pure and liquid and fluid, after the manner of water.” Another Father, Saint John Damascene, says that the eternal fire “is not a material fire like ours, but of a quality known to God.”
There are various theories to explain how it is that fire can punish non-corporeal beings. Saint Thomas gives a great explanation, to wit, that by a sort of constriction, the demons are tied to this element of fire, “and it is an affliction to them to know that they are tied to the meanest creatures for punishment.” After summarizing what other scholastic theologians have said on the matter, Monsignor Pohle concludes that “Hell cannot be identical with material fire, but must be something at the same time physical and supra-physical, a punishment invented by an avenging God, of which we know nothing except that it exists and torments the damned.”
Because God is just, we know that punishment is proportioned to guilt. This truth has consistently been upheld by the magisterium, as indicated above by the passages cited from Lateran IV and Florence. A pubescent boy, who committed one mortal sin against purity, is not going to be cast into the same blast furnace as a serial rapist. And if that rapist were one of the predatory homosexual priests we’ve read about with such horror, then his punishment will be considerably worse, for, “unto whomsoever much is given, of him much shall be required: and to whom they have committed much, of him they will demand the more” (Luke 12:48). To his crimes of impurity and violation of innocence the malign cleric has added the not insignificant sins of sacrilege and public scandal.
One of the wonders of that mysterious fire of Hell is that it will punish with greater severity those who are more guilty. Perhaps this truth could be brought out better in preaching, so that what Gregory the Great taught may be more widely appreciated: “As there are many mansions in the house of the Father, according to the different degrees of virtue, so the disparity of guilt subjects the damned in different degrees to the fire of Hell.” Dante’s conception of Hell, with its concentric circles representing greater and lesser severity of punishment, artfully conveys this great truth.
Probably the most weighty objection to the doctrine of Hell has perennially been the seeming incongruity of everlasting punishment. There is a disparity, it is said, between a crime committed in time and a punishment lasting all eternity.  This is related to the more generic notion of disproportion mentioned above.
First, we should reiterate that our creed is not a mere emotion, sentiment, or aesthetic outburst. It is something we receive in fidelity to Him who reveals. And God did reveal the eternity of Hell to us in Holy Scripture. Father Pohle tells us that “St. Augustine has pointed out that there is no stronger argument for the eternity of Hell than the fact that Sacred Scripture compares it in respect of duration to Heaven. This reasoning is confirmed by the Biblical teaching that the fate of every man is irrevocably sealed at death. That there is no hope of salvation for the wicked in Hell may be concluded from our Saviour’s dictum, ‘It were better for him if that man had never been born.’”
Saint Gregory the Great summons his penetrating oratorical powers to describe Hell as, “death without death, end without end, defect without defect — which death lives, which end ever begins, and which defect never defects.”
The reasonableness of Hell’s eternity can be summed up this way: Sin is defined as a turning away from God toward some created good (aversio Dei, et conversio ad creaturam). When, by mortal sin we turn away from God completely, we constitute ourselves in a state of opposition to Him, just as the state of grace constitutes us in God’s friendship. As grace is fulfilled in glory, so aversion from God in this life is fulfilled in Hell. Saint Thomas points out that when, because of death, there is irreparable damage caused to the principle of union with God, theological Charity, there is an everlasting chasm between the soul and God. Truly, there is no greater horror than final impenitence, which causes that chasm, which is none other than the “great chaos” Abraham spoke of to Dives, who was “buried in hell” — “between us and you, there is fixed a great chaos: so that they who would pass from hence to you, cannot, nor from thence come hither” (Luke 16:26).
In the Summa Theologiae, Saint Thomas replies quite reasonably to the objection of incongruity outlined above:
Punishment is proportionate to sin in point of severity, both in Divine and in human judgments. In no judgment, however, as Augustine says (De Civ. Dei xxi, 11) is it requisite for punishment to equal fault in point of duration. For the fact that adultery or murder is committed in a moment does not call for a momentary punishment: in fact they are punished sometimes by imprisonment or banishment for life — sometimes even by death; wherein account is not taken of the time occupied in killing, but rather of the expediency of removing the murderer from the fellowship of the living, so that this punishment, in its own way, represents the eternity of punishment inflicted by God. Now according to Gregory (Dial. iv, 44) it is just that he who has sinned against God in his own eternity should be punished in God’s eternity. A man is said to have sinned in his own eternity, not only as regards continual sinning throughout his whole life, but also because, from the very fact that he fixes his end in sin, he has the will to sin, everlastingly. Wherefore Gregory says (Dial. iv, 44) that the “wicked would wish to live without end, that they might abide in their sins for ever.”
We’ve Grown Up
Another objection holds that “mature people don’t need sticks and carrots.” The only authentic motive to do good is for its own sake, not because a Cosmic Truancy Officer is going to crack your knuckles if you’re bad. Goodness has to come from an inner impulsion, not from external threats. Old time religion simply put people in fear, at the expense of love.
This objection sounds high-minded and seems to appeal to virtue rather than to vice. After all, we should want to be good because goodness is good, not simply because badness gets punished. The problem, of course, is that this rosy portrait leaves God out of the picture. All that is good is so because it conforms to God’s designs, either ontologically or morally. It is God who put in us a hunger for goodness. It is God who placed in our beings a potency for the divine, a desire to cleave to Him, and a sense of alienation when we abandon Him. And this God is just. He will not punish us beyond our demerits, but He will punish — and He has revealed so. If God did not punish, then there would be no justice in the very Principle of creation. Now the civil order that mankind establishes when he is acting his best — complete with standards of good and evil, virtue and vice, rewards and punishments — is based upon an order of things deeply rooted in the human conscience. This is none other than the natural law. If God does not punish, then our best conceptions of human justice are arbitrary, based upon no transcendent values, and unduly constricting of our nature as free beings.
Part of this objection has merit: that we ought to do good for the sake of good, or, more precisely, for the sake of God, the source of all good, who is the Object of our love. But this truth is not jeopardized by the doctrine of Hell. Indeed, it fits into the same divine economy of which Hell is a part. Our act of contrition distinguishes between the lower motive of sorrow (sorrow because of God’s punishments), and the higher (sorrow because we have offended God who is all good and deserving of all our love). Similarly, Saint John says that “perfect charity casts out fear” (1 John 4:18), meaning that the fear we have of being punished (theologians call it “servile fear”) is gone when we have made sufficient progress in the interior life. But we still have “reverential fear,” which is a gift of the Holy Ghost that even Jesus had (and still has) as Man.
An Argument from Modern Art
In Christian antiquity, the doctrine of Hell was universally upheld, and hardly denied even by pagans. Mankind in general believed in a personal judgment, which established the good and the wicked on their respective paths of happiness and misery. Theologians have used this universal testimony of mankind as a proof for Hell’s existence.
In our day, however, atheism, rationalism, naturalism, and other fruits of the intellectually and morally bankrupt “Enlightenment,” have made the denial of Hell a more popular thing. But if modernity has furnished its own stubborn denials of the doctrine, I would offer that modernity has also provided at least one interesting proof for it. The more the arts have drifted from the sacred into the unnatural and even diabolical, the more common becomes a theme so popularly explored in modern art: alienation.
To penetrate what I’m getting at, the reader might picture to himself two pretentious Bohemians at a modern art museum, taking in the latest scatological offerings of Andres Serrano. As each vies to look more than the other like Che Guevara, nodding pensively and stroking their goatees, they mutter, mantra-like, “Oh, the alienation, the pathos… it kills me.” Modernity feels alienated, and this alienation is frequently expressed in what passes for serious art. All of the arts have been infected with this, from letters to the plastic arts to theater to music.
There is good reason for this. Modernity is alienated — alienated from God! None of their sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll will fill in the void for these pious believers in the zeitgeist. The more we alienate ourselves by sin, the more alienated we feel. God’s grace can and will heal us of this, if we cooperate with it, but when we resist grace, which heals human perversity, we engage in greater and greater perversity in an unavailing attempt to make the pain go away. The drug addict, plummeting deeper and deeper into his enslavement, presents a very dramatic picture of this, but the moral aspect of his chemical addiction is not unique to him. His path is only a more obvious example of the psychology of sin. “Thou has made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee,” Saint Augustine rightly said. And what folly our restless hearts are capable of!
Hell is the ultimate alienation, but, like the dark mirror it is of heavenly beatitude, it is only the fulfillment hereafter of what is begun in this life. Alienation begets alienation.
Not an Isolated Doctrine
The doctrine of Hell makes sense only as part of the complete economy of salvation, or, if you will, as part of a total revealed cosmology. That cosmology includes man’s supernatural vocation to happiness, the fall, Redemption in Christ’s Blood, the Church, divine grace and the means of obtaining it, the sacraments, free will, and everything else that makes for Catholicity. That economy also includes the Blessed Virgin Mary, who will crush the head of that damned infernal serpent — and whom we call our life, our sweetness, and our hope.
* * * * * * *
1. I am much inclined to Saint Thomas’ view on the subject: “St. Thomas says that the children of limbo can be happy, in spite of their exclusion from heaven. It is true that they do not enjoy the beatific vision, but they are united to God by their native ability to know and love him; and in this they find their happiness” (Dyer, Limbo, the Unsettled Question, p. 50). There is much more to be said on the subject of limbo. From my readings, I believe that the scholastic theologians of the high middle ages said all that really needs to be said. The Jesuit theologians of the Counter-Reformation added quite a bit of detail, emphasizing the happiness of these infants. Much of what they had to say is doubtless of great value, but I take it to be a reaction against the cruel spirit of Jansenism. In my humble opinion, the medievals told us what we need to know.
2. This is not to detract from the Mystery of the Ascension of Our Lord, by which Christ ceased being a wayfarer in body and soul; nor from the Resurrection, by which Jesus was no longer passible (able to suffer). The statement merely affirms that Christ, even while He walked our earth, was all three: descended from Heaven (as the Divine Logos), ascended into Heaven (as a Man hypostatically united to God), and in Heaven (as a Man always partaking of heavenly beatitude).
3. To be precise, eternity is an attribute proper only to God. It is a mode of duration without beginning, succession, or end. Rational creatures (angels and men) have a beginning, but no end. Unlike men, angels, who are aeveternal, do not experience succession from one moment to another. In the highest sense in which the word can be used of a rational creature, “eternity” is a participation in God’s own duration and happiness in Heaven. Hell’s punishments are, properly speaking, “everlasting.”