ON THE ETERNITY OF HELL – St. Alphonsus

” And his Lord, being angry, delivered him to the torture until he paid all the debt.” MATT, xviii. 34. 

IN this day’s gospel we find that a certain servant, having badly administered the affairs of his master, was found to owe him a debt of ten thousand talents. The master demanded payment; but the servant falling down said: ”Have patience and I will pay thee all.”

The master took pity on him, and forgave the entire debt. One of his fellow-servants who owed him a hundred pence, besought him to have patience, and promised to pay him the last farthing; but the wicked servant cast him into prison. Hearing of this act of cruelty to his fellow-servant, the master sent for him, and said to him: “Wicked servant, I have forgiven thee ten thousand talents, and for a debt of a hundred pence thou hast refused to show compassion to thy fellow-servant.

He then delivered him to the tortures till he paid all the debt. Behold, dearly beloved brethren, in these last words, a description of the sentence of the eternal death which is prepared for sinners. By dying in sin, they die debtors to God for all their iniquities; and being unable to make any satisfaction in the other life for their past sins, they remain for ever debtors to the divine justice, and must suffer for eternity in hell. Of this miserable eternity I will speak to-day: listen to me with attention.

1. The thought of eternity is a great thought: so it was called by St. Augustine: Magna cogitatio. According to the holy doctor, God has made us Christians, and instructed us in the maxims of faith, that we may think of eternity. ”We are Christians that we may always think of the world to come.” This thought has driven from the world so many of the nobles of the earth, has made them renounce all their riches, and shut themselves up in the cloister, there to live in poverty and penance.

This thought has sent so many young men into caves and deserts, and has animated so many martyrs to embrace torments and death, in order to save their souls for eternity. ”For,” exclaims St. Paul, ”we have not here a lasting city, but we seek one that is to come.” (Heb. xiii. 14.) This earth, dearly beloved Christians, is not our country; it is for us a place of passage, through which we must soon pass to the house of eternity. ”Man shall go into the house of his eternity.” (Eccl. xii. 5.)

In this eternity the house of the just, which is a palace of delights, is very different from the house of sinners, which is a dungeon of torments. Into one of these two houses each of us must certainly go. ”In hanc vel illam æternitatem,” says St. Ambrose, ”cadam necesse est.; (S. Amb., in Ps. cxviii.)”Into this or that eternity I must fall.”

2. And where the soul shall first go, there she shall remain for ever. ”If the tree fall to the south or to the north, in what place soever it shall fall there shall it lie.” (Eccl. xi. 3.) On what side does a tree fall when it is cut down? It falls on the side to which it inclines. On what side, brethren, will you fall, when death shall cut down the tree of your life?

You will fall on the side to which you incline. If you shall be found inclining to the south that is, in favour with God you shall be for ever happy; but if you will fall to the north, you must be for ever miserable. There is no middle place: you must be for ever happy in heaven, or overwhelmed with despair in hell. We must all die, says St. Bernard or some other author (de Quat. Noviss.), but we know not which of the two eternities shall be our lot after death. ”Necessi morem, post hæc autem dubia ceternitatis.”

3. This uncertainty about his lot for eternity was the constant subject of the thoughts of David: it deprived his eyes of sleep, and kept him always in terror. ”My eyes prevented the watches: I was troubled, and I spoke not: I thought upon the days of old, and I had in my mind the eternal years.” (Ps. Ixxvi. 5, 6.) What, says St. Cyprian, has encouraged the saints to lead a life, which, on account of their continual austerities, was an uninterrupted martyrdom? It was, he answers, the thought of eternity that inspired them with courage to submit to such unceasing rigours.

A certain monk shut himself in a cave, and did nothing else than constantly exclaim: ”eternity! eternity!” The famous sinner converted hy the Abbot Paphnutius, kept eternity always before her eyes, and was accustomed to say: ”Who can assure me of a happy eternity, and that I will not fall into a miserable eternity.” The same uncertainty kept St. Andrew Avellino in continual terrors and tears till his last breath. Hence he used to ask every one he met, ”What do you say? shall I be saved or damned for eternity ?”

4. 0! that we, too, had eternity always before our eyes! We certainly should not be so much attached to the world. ”Quisquis in æternitatis disiderio figitur, nee prosperitate attollitur, nee adversitate quassatur: et dum nihil habet in mundo quod appetat, nihil est quod de mundo pertimescat.” He who fixes his thoughts on eternity, is not elated by prosperity nor dejected by adversity; because, having nothing to desire in this world, he has nothing to fear: he desires only a happy eternity, and fears only a miserable eternity.

A certain lady, who was greatly attached to the world, went one day to confession to Father M. D Avila. He bid her go home, and reflect on these two words always and never. She obeyed, took away her affections from the world, and consecrated them to God. St. Augustine says that the man who thinks on eternity, and is not converted to God, either has no faith, or has lot his reason. “O æternitas! qui te cogitat, nec pœnitet, aut certo fidem non habet, aut si habet, cor non habet.” (In soliloq.)

O eternity! he who thinks on thee, and does not repent, has certainly no faith, or has lost his heart. Hence St. Chrysostom relates, that the pagans upbraided the Christians with being liars or fools: liars, if they said they believed what they did not believe; fools, if they believed in eternity and committed sin. ”Exprobabant gentiles aut mendaces, aut stultos esse Christianos; mendaces si non crederent quod credere dicebant; stultos si credebant et peccabant.”

5. Woe to sinners, says St. Cesarius of Arles; they enter into eternity without having known it; but their woes shall be doubled when they shall have entered into eternity, and shall never be able to leave. ”Væ peccatoribus, ineognitam ingrediuntur.” To those who enter hell, the door opens for their admission, but never opens for their departure. ”I have the keys of death and of hell.” (Apoc. i. 18.)

God himself keeps the keys of hell, to show us that whosoever enters has no hope of ever escaping from it. St. John Chrysostom writes, that the condemnation of the reprobate is engraved on the pillar of eternity, so that it never shall be revoked. In hell there is no calendar; there the years are not counted.

St. Antonine says, that if a damned soul heard that she was to be released from hell after so many millions of years as there are drops of water in the sea, or grains of sand in the earth, she would feel a greater joy than a criminal condemned to death would experience at hearing that he was reprieved, and was to be made the monarch of the whole world! But, no! as many millions of years shall pass away as there are drops of water in the ocean, or grains of dust in the earth, and the hell of the damned shall be at its commencement.

All these millions of years shall be multiplied an infinite number of times, and hell will begin again. But of what use is it, says St. Hilary, to count years in eternity? Where you expect the end, there it commences. ”Ubi putas finem invenire, ibi incipit.” And St. Augustine says, ”that things which have an end cannot be compared with eternity.” (In Ps. xxxvi.)

Each of the damned would be content to make this compact with God – Lord, increase my torments as much as thou pleasest; assign a term for them as distant as thou pleasest; provided thou fix a time at which they shall cease, I am satisfied. But, no! this time shall never arrive. “My end,” the damned shall say, ”is perished.” (Lamen. iii. 18.) Then, is there no end to the torments of the damned? No! the trumpet of divine justice sounds in the caverns of hell, and continually reminds the reprobate that their hell shall be eternal, and shall never have an end.

6. If hell were not eternal, it would not be so frightful a chastisement. Thomas a Kempis says, that “everything which passes with time is trifling and short.” Any pain which has an end is not very appalling. The man who labours under an imposthume or a cancer, must submit to the knife or the cautery: the pain is severe; but because it is soon over it can be borne. But a tooth-ache which lasts for three months without interruption is insupportable. Were a person obliged to lie in the same posture for six months on a soft bed, or even to hear the same music, or the same comedy, night and day for one year, he would fall into melancholy and despondency.

Poor blind sinners! When threatened with hell they say: ”If I go there I must have patience.” But they shall not say so when they will have entered that region of woes, where they must suffer, not by listening to the same music or the same comedy, nor by lying in the same posture, or by tooth -ache, but by enduring all torments and all evils. ”I will heap evils upon them.” (Deut. xxxiii. 23.) And all these torments shall never end.

7. They shall never end, and shall never be diminished in the smallest degree. The damned must for ever suffer the same fire, the same privation of God, the same sadness, the same despair. Yes, says St. Cyprian, in eternity there is no change, because the decree is immutable. This thought shall immensely increase their sufferings, by making them feel beforehand, and at each moment, all that they shall have to suffer for eternity.

In this description of the happiness of the saints, and the misery of the reprobate, the Prophet Daniel says: ”They shall wake some unto life everlasting, and some unto reproach to see it always.” (Dan. xii. 2.) They shall always see their unhappy eternity. Ut videant semper. Thus eternity tortures each of the damned not only by his present pains, but with all his future sufferings, which are eternal.

8. These are not opinions controverted among theologians; they are dogmas of faith clearly revealed in the sacred Scriptures. ”Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire.” (Matt. xxv. 41.) Some will say: The fire, but not the punishment of the damned is everlasting. Such the language of the incredulous, but it is folly.

For what other purpose would God make this fire eternal, than to chastise the reprobate, who are immortal? But, to take away every shadow of doubt, the Scriptures, in many other places, say, that not only the fire, but the punishment, of the damned is eternal. ”And these, ”says Jesus Christ, “shall go into ever lasting punishment.” (Matt. xxv. 46.)

Again we read in St. Mark, ”Where the worm dieth not, and the fire is not extinguished.” (ix. 43.) St. John says: ”And the smoke of their torments shall ascend up for ever and ever.” (Apoc. xvi. 11.) “Who,” says St. Paul, ”shall suffer eternal punishment in destruction.” (2 Thess. i. 9.)

9. Another infidel will ask: How can God justly punish with eternal torments a sin that lasts but a moment? I answer, that the grievousness of a crime is measured not by its duration, but by the enormity of its malice. The malice of mortal sin is, as St. Thomas says, infinite. (1, 2, q. 87, art. 4.) Hence, the damned deserve infinite punishment; and, because a creature is not capable of suffering pains infinite in point of intensity, God, as the holy doctor says, renders the punishment of the damned infinite in extension by making it eternal.

Moreover, it is just, that as long as the sinner remains in his sin, the punishment which he deserves should continue. And, therefore, as the virtue of the saints is rewarded in Heaven, because it lasts for ever, so also the guilt of the damned in Hell, because it is everlasting, shall be chastised with everlasting torments. ”Quia non recipit causæ remedium,” says Eusebius Emissenus, “carebit fine supplicium.” The cause of their perverse will continues: therefore, their chastisement will never have an end. The damned are so obstinate in their sins, that even if God offered pardon, their hatred for him would make them refuse it.

The Prophet Jeremias, speaking in the name of the reprobate, says: “Why is my sorrow become perpetual and my wound desperate, so as to refuse to be healed?” (Jer. xv. 18.) My wound, they say, is incurable, because I do not wish it to be healed. Now, how can God heal the wound of their perverse will, when they would refuse the remedy, were it offered to them?

Hence, the punishment of the reprobate is called a sword, a vengeance which is irrevocable. ”I, the Lord, have drawn my sword out of its sheath, not to be turned back.” (Ezech. xxi. 5.)

10. Death, which is so terrible in this life, is desired in hell by the damned; but they never shall find it. ”And in these days men shall seek death, and shall not find it: and they shall desire to die, and death shall fly from them.” (Apoc. xi. 6.) They would wish, as a remedy for their eternal ruin, to be exterminated and destroyed. But”there is no poison of destruction in them.” (Wis. i. 14.)

If a man, condemned to die, be not deprived of life by the first stroke of the axe, his torture moves the people to pity. Miserable damned souls! They live in continual death in the midst of the pains of hell: death excites in them all the agony of death, but does not give them a remedy by taking away life. “Prima mors,” says St. Augustine, ”animam nolentem pellit de corpore, secunda mors nolentem tenet in corpore. ” The first death expels from the body the soul of a sinner who is unwilling to die: but the second death that is, eternal death retains in the body a soul that wishes to die. ”They are laid in hell like sheep; death shall feed upon them.” (Ps. xlviii. 15.)

In feeding, sheep eat the blades of grass, but leave the root untouched; hence the grass dies not, but grows up again. It is thus that death treats the damned; it torments them with pain, but spares their life, which may be called the root of suffering.

11. But, if these miserable souls have no chance of release from hell, perhaps they can at least deceive or flatter themselves with the hope, that God may one day be moved to pity, and free them from their torments?

No: in hell there is no delusion, no flattery, no perhaps; the damned are as certain as they are of God’s existence that their hell shall have no end. ”Thou thoughtest unjustly that I shall be like to thee; but I will reprove thee, and set before thy face.” (Ps. xlix. 21.) They shall for ever see before their eyes their sins and the sentence of their eternal condemnation. ”And I will set before thy face.”

12. Let us conclude. Thus, most beloved brethren, the affair of our eternal salvation should be the sole object of all our concerns. ”The business for which we struggle, ” says St. Eucharius, ”is eternity.” There is question of eternity: there is question whether we will be saved, and be for ever happy in a city of delights, or be damned, and confined for eternity in a pit of fire. This is not an affair of little importance; it is of the utmost and of eternal importance to us.

When Thomas More was condemned to death by Henry the Eighth, his wife Louisa went to him for the purpose of tempting him to obey the royal command. Tell me, Lousia, replied the holy man, how many years can I, who am now so old, expect to live? You might, said she, live for twenty years. O foolish woman! he exclaimed, do you want me to condemn my soul to an eternity of torments for twenty years of life?

13. O God! Christians believe in the existence of hell, and commit sin! Dearly beloved brethren, let not us also be fools, like so many who are now weeping in hell. Miserable beings! What benefit do they now derive from all the pleasures which they enjoyed in this life? Speaking of the rich and of the poor, St. John Chrysostom said: ”unhappy felicity, which has drawn the rich into eternal infelicity! O happy infelicity, which has brought the poor to the felicity of eternity!”

The saints have buried themselves alive in this life, that after death they may not find themselves buried in hell for all eternity. If eternity were a doubtful matter, we ought even then make every effort in our power to escape an eternity of torments; but no, it is not a matter of doubt; it is a truth of faith, that after this life each of us must go into eternity, to be for ever in glory or for ever in despair. St. Teresa says, that it is through a want of faith that so many Christians are lost.

As often as we say the words of the Creed, life everlasting, let us enliven our faith, and remember that there is another life, which never ends; and let us adopt all the means necessary to secure a happy eternity. Let us do all, and give up all; if necessary, let us leave the world, in order to secure eternal happiness. When eternity is at stake no security can be too great. ”Nulla nimia securitas,” says St. Bernard, ”ubi periclitatur æternitas.”

Traditional Catholic with a wife, 10 kids, 5 cats and 2 dogs. To learn why this lay person is running this blog rather than a priest, go here.