Question: Many who might otherwise accept God’s punishment of sinners are still dismayed that hell is eternal. Why should one be punished eternally for sins committed over a brief time span, perhaps in just a moment? The punishment does not seem to fit the crime.
— Jackson Miller, Washington, D.C.
Answer: This view presumes that the eternal nature of hell is due to the punishment, but it is not. Rather, hell is eternal because repentance is no longer available after death. Our decision for or against God and the values of his kingdom becomes forever fixed. Because at this point the will is fixed and obstinate, the repentance that unlocks mercy will never be forthcoming.
St. Thomas Aquinas teaches: “[A]s Damascene says (De Fide Orth. ii) ‘death is to men what their fall was to the angels.’ Now after their fall the angels could not be restored [cf. Summa I:64:2]. Therefore, neither can man after death: and thus the punishment of the damned will have no end. … [So] just as the demons are obstinate in wickedness and therefore have to be punished for ever, so too are the souls of men who die without charity, since ‘death is to men what their fall was to the angels, as Damascene says” (Summa Theologica, Supplement, Question 99, Article 3).
Some argue that the souls in hell do regret their sin and that, in the parables, Jesus often depicts them as seeking entrance to heaven after the doors are closed. Still, it remains a teaching that, after death, repentance in the formal sense is not possible. Here, too, St. Thomas distinguishes formal repentance from incidental repentance and explains: “A person may repent of sin in two ways: in one way directly, in another way indirectly. He repents of a sin directly who hates sin as such: and he repents indirectly who hates it on account of something connected with it, for instance punishment or something of that kind. Accordingly, the wicked will not repent of their sins directly, because consent in the malice of sin will remain in them; but they will repent indirectly, inasmuch as they will suffer from the punishment inflicted on them for sin” (Summa Theologica, Supplement, Question 98, Article 2).
This explains the “wailing and grinding of teeth” in so far as it points to the lament of the damned. They do not lament their choice to sin without repenting, but for the consequences. In the parable of Lazarus, the rich man in hell laments his suffering but expresses no regret over the way he treated the beggar Lazarus. Indeed, he still sees Lazarus as a kind of errand-boy, who should fetch him water and warn his brothers. In a certain sense the rich man cannot repent; his character is now quickened and his choices forever fixed.
Purgatory and the four last things
Question: The Church teaches on the four last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell. But why is purgatory not listed? It seems many of us may be there for a time.
— Mary Macklin, via email
Answer: Purgatory is seen in terms of death and judgment, but it is not a “last thing.” It is not ultimate (last or final) but penultimate (second to last). It precedes one’s entrance to heaven but is not permanent. It is not a destination; it is a stop on the way.
Whether and how long we undergo purgation is an aspect of judgment. For those who die in a state of grace, the judgment in question is not between heaven and hell so much as it is a judgment on whether the saving work of Christ is complete in us. Jesus promised we would be perfect one day, as the Father is perfect (cf. Mt 5:48). Since most of us die short of that promise, the Lord surely purges venial sins, attachments, sorrows, regrets and so forth. St. Paul wrote: “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it” (Phil 1:6). Hence purgatory completes our journey and is not a destination. St. Paul discusses this purgation: “If anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, the work of each will come to light, for the Day will disclose it. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire [itself] will test the quality of each one’s work. If the work stands that someone built upon the foundation, that person will receive a wage. But if someone’s work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor 3:12-15). Hence purgatory is not a last thing, but something from which one emerges unto heaven.