Death, or perhaps we should say life-after-death, has been the topic of this latest series of morceaux. We will eventually get to considering our funeral liturgies, but since we’ve already considered the better alternative of heaven, I suppose that now it’s time to move on to the real but awful alternate possibility: hell.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church is clear that hell is real: “The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell … The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God...” (arts. 1035 and 1056). While traditional Catholic art and thought, often drawing upon Biblical imagery of brimstone (see Gen 19:24, for example) and the poetic musings of Dante Alighieri in his classic late medieval work, The Inferno, has understood hell to be a place of fire, this is just a human attempt – and a mighty powerful one, in my mind! – to describe the pain of eternal loss.
Pope St. John Paul II often spoke of the intense loneliness of the soul in hell, forever separated from God, who alone can fulfill all our hopes and desires. This idea was taken up in the Catechism too, when it points out that “Hell’s principal punishment consists of eternal separation from God in whom alone man can have the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs” (art. 1057).
The late pope also emphasized that it is not God who condemns the sinner to hell: “more than a physical place, hell is the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God,” he taught. One who dies in a state of deliberately-chosen mortal sin triggers his or her own punishment by purposefully rejecting God’s grace. Realization of this immense and irrevocable mistake, ultimately, would be a source of unquenchable pain for the lost soul.
This is why the Church makes great efforts to encourage everyone not to choose mortal sin! To die unrepentant, having chosen to reject God and His merciful love, would mean remaining separated from Him for ever by our own free choice. As One who loves us perfectly, God can never act contrary to our free will and force us to pretend to love Him in return.