” Gather up first the cockle, and bind into bundles to burn.” MATT. xiii. 30.
I shall first speak of the fire, which is the principal pain that torments the senses of the damned, and afterwards of the other pains of hell.
1. BEHOLD! the final doom of sinners who abuse the divine mercy is, to burn in the fire of hell. God threatens hell, not to send us there, but to deliver us from that place of torments. ”Minatur Deus gehennem, ”says St. Chrysostom, ”ut a gehenna liberet, et ut firmi ac stabiles evitemus minas.” (Hom. v. de Pœnit.) Remember, then, brethren, that God gives you Today the opportunity of hearing this sermon, that you may be preserved from hell, and that you may give up sin, which alone can lead you to hell.
2. My brethren, it is certain and of faith that there is a hell. After judgment the just shall enjoy the eternal glory of Paradise, and sinners shall be condemned to suffer the everlasting chastisement reserved for them in hell. “And these shall go into everlasting punishment, but the just into life everlasting.” (Matt. xxv. 46.) Let us examine in what hell consists. It is what the rich glutton called it a place of torments. “In hunc locum tormentorum.” (Luc. xvi. 28.) It is a place of suffering, where each of the senses and powers of the damned has its proper torment, and in which the torments of each person will be increased in proportion to the forbidden pleasures in which he indulged. “As much as she hath glorified herself and lived in delicacies, so much torment and sorrow give ye to her.” (Apoc. xviii. 7.)
3. In offending God the sinner does two evils: he abandons God, the sovereign good, who is able to make him happy, and turns to creatures, who are incapable of giving any real happiness to the soul. Of this injury which men commit against him, the Lord complains by his prophet Jeremiah: “For my people have done two evils. They have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and have digged to themselves cisterns broken cisterns that can hold no water.” (Jer. ii. 13.) Since, then, the sinner turns his back on God, he shall be tormented in hell, by the pain arising from the loss of God, of which I shall speak on another occasion [see the Sermon for the nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost], and since, in offending God, he turns to creatures, he shall be justly tormented by the same creatures, and principally by fire.
4. ”The vengeance on the flesh of the ungodly is fire and worms.” (Eccl vii. 19.) Fire and the remorse of conscience are the principal means by which God takes vengeance on the flesh of the wicked. Hence, in condemning the reprobate to hell, Jesus Christ commands them to go into eternal fire. : ”Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire.” (Matt. xxv. 41.) This fire, then, shall be one of the most cruel executioners of the damned.
5. Even in this life the pain of fire is the most terrible of all torments. But St. Augustine says, that in comparison of the fire of hell, the fire of this earth is no more than a picture compared with the reality, “In cuius comparatione noster hie ignus depictus est. ” Anselm teaches, that the fire of hell as far surpasses the fire of this world, as the fire of the real exceeds that of painted fire. The pain, then, produced by the fire of hell is far greater than that which is produced by our fire because God has made the fire of this earth for the use of man, but he has created the fire of hell purposely for the chastisement of sinners; and therefore, as Tertullian says, he has made it a minister of his justice. ”Longe alius est ignis, qui usui humano, alms qui Dei justitiæ deservit.” This avenging fire is always kept alive by the wrath of God. ”A fire is kindled in my rage. ” (Jer. xv 14)
6 “And the rich man also died, and he was buried in hell.” (Luke xvi. 22.) The damned are buried in the fire of hell; hence they have an abyss of fire below, an abyss of fire above, and an abyss of fire on every side. As a fish in the sea is surrounded by water, so the unhappy reprobate are encompassed by fire on every side. The sharpness of the pain of fire may be inferred from the circumstance, that the rich glutton complained of no other torment. ”I am tormented in this flame.” (Ibid, v 23.)
7 The Prophet Isaias says that the Lord will punish the guilt of sinners with the spirit of fire. “If the Lord shall wash away the filth of the daughters of Sion by the spirit of burning” (iv. 4). ”The spirit of burning” is the pure essence of fire. All spirits or essences, though taken from simple herbs or flowers, are so penetrating, that they reach the very bones. Such is the fire of hell. Its activity is so great, that a single spark of it would be sufficient to melt a mountain of bronze. The disciple relates, that a damned person, who appeared to a religious, dipped his hand into a vessel of water; the religious placed in the vessel a candlestick of bronze, which was instantly dissolved.
8. This fire shall torment the damned not only externally, but also internally. It will burn the bowels, the heart, the brains, the blood within the veins, and the marrow within the bones. The skin of the damned shall be like a caldron, in which their bowels, their flesh, and their bones shall be burned. David says, that the bodies of the damned shall be like so many furnaces of fire. ”Thou shalt make them as an oven of fire in the time of thy anger.” (Ps. xx. 10.)
9. O God! certain sinners cannot bear to walk under a strong sun, or to remain before a large fire in a close room; they cannot endure a spark from a candle; and they fear not the fire of hell, which, according to the Prophet Isaias, not only burns, but devours the unhappy damned. ”Which of you can dwell with devouring fire. ”(Isaias xxxiii. 14.) As a lion devours a lamb, so the fire of hell devours the reprobate; but it devours without destroying life, and thus tortures them with a continual death. Continue, says St. Peter Damian to the sinner who indulges in impurity, continue to satisfy your flesh; a day will come, or rather an eternal night, when your impurities, like pitch, shall nourish a fire within your very bowels. “Venit dies, imo nox, quando libido tua vertetur in picem qua se nutriet perpetuus ignis in visceribus tuis.” (Epist. 6.) And according to St. Cyprian, the impurities of the wicked shall boil in the very fat which will issue from their accursed bodies.
10, St. Jerome teaches, that in this fire sinners shall suffer not only the pain of the fire, but also all the pains which men endure on this earth. “In uno igne omnia supplicia sentient in inferno peccatores.” (Ep. ad Pam.) How manifold are the pains to which men are subject in this life. Pains in the sides, pains in the head, pains in the loins, pains in the bowels. All these together torture the damned.
11. The fire itself will bring with it the pain of darkness; for, by its smoke it will, according to St. John, produce a storm of darkness which shall blind the damned. ”To whom the storm of darkness is reserved for ever.” (St. Jude 13.) Hence, hell is called a land of darkness covered with the shadow of death. ”A land that is dark and covered with the mist of death a land of misery and darkness, where the shadow of death, and no order but everlasting horror dwelleth.” (Job x. 21, 22.) To hear that a criminal is shut up in a dungeon for ten or twenty years excites our compassion. Hell is a dungeon closed on every side, into which a ray of the sun or the light of a candle never enters. Thus the damned”shall never see light.” (Ps xlviii. 20.) The fire of this world gives light, but the fire of hell is utter darkness. In explaining the words of David, ”the voice of the Lord divideth the flame of fire,” (Ps. xxviii. 7,)
St. Basil says, that in hell the Lord separates the fire that burns from the flame which illuminates, and therefore this fire burns, but gives no light. B. Albertus Magnus explains this passage more concisely by saying that God”divides the heat from the light.” St. Thomas teaches, that in hell there is only so much light as is necessary to torment the damned by the sight of their associates and of the devils: “Quantum sufficit ad videndum ilia quæ torquere possunt.” (3 p., q. 97, art. 5.) And according to St. Augustine, the bare sight of these infernal monsters excites sufficient terror to cause the death of all the damned, if they were capable of dying. “Videbunt monstra, quorum visio postet illos occidere.”
12. To suffer a parching thirst, without having a drop of water to quench it, is intolerably painful. It has sometimes happened, that travellers who could procure no refreshment after a long journey, have fainted from the pain produced by thirst. So great is the thirst of the damned, that if one of them were offered all the water on this earth, he would exclaim: All this water is not sufficient to extinguish the burning thirst which I endure. But, alas! the unhappy damned shall never have a single drop of water to refresh their tongues. “He cried out and said: Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, to cool my tongue, for I am tormented in this flame. ” (St. Luke xvi. 24.) The rich glutton has not obtained, and shall never obtain, this drop of water, as long as God shall be God.
13. The reprobate shall be likewise tormented by the stench which pervades hell. The stench shall arise from the very bodies of the damned. “Out of their carcasses shall arise a stink.” (Isaiah xxxiv. 3.) The bodies of the damned are called carcasses, not because they are dead (for they are living, and shall be forever alive to pain), but on account of the stench which they exhale. Would it not be very painful to be shut up in a close room with a fetid corpse? St. Bonaventure says, that if the body of one of the damned were placed in the earth, it would, by its stench, be sufficient to cause the death of all men. How intolerable, then, must it be to live for ever in the dungeons of hell in the midst of the immense multitudes of the damned! Some foolish worldlings say: If I go to hell, I shall not be there alone.
Miserable fools! do you not see that the greater the number of your companions, the more insufferable shall be your torments? “There,” says St. Thomas, ”the society of the reprobate shall cause an increase and not a diminution of misery.” (Suppl., q. 86, art. 1.) The society of the reprobate augments their misery, because each of the damned is a source of suffering to all the others. Hence, the greater their number, the more they shall mutually torment each other. ”And the people,” says the prophet Isaias, “shall be ashes after a fire, as a bundle of thorns they shall be burnt with fire.” (Isa. xxxiii. 12.) Placed in the midst of the furnace of hell, the damned are like so many grains reduced to ashes by that abyss of fire, and like so many thorns tied together and wounding each other.
14. They are tormented not only by the stench of their companions, but also by their shrieks and lamentations. How painful it is to a person longing for sleep to hear the groans of a sick man, the barking of a dog, or the screams of an infant. The damned must listen incessantly to the wailing and howling of their associates, not for a night, nor for a thousand nights, but for all eternity, without the interruption of a single moment.
15. The damned are also tormented by the narrowness of the place in which they are confined; for, although the dungeon of hell is large, it will be too small for so many millions of the reprobate, who like sheep shall be heaped one over the other. “They are,” says David, “laid in hell like sheep.” (Ps. xlviii. 15.) We learn from the Scriptures that they shall be pressed together like grapes in the winepress, by the vengeance of an angry God. ”The winepress of the fierceness of the wrath of God the Almighty.” (Apoc. xix. 15.) From this pressure shall arise the pain of immobility. “Let them become unmoveable as a stone.” (Exod. xvi. 16.)
In whatever position the damned shall fall into hell after the general judgment, whether on the side, or on the back, or with the head downwards, in that they must remain for eternity, without being ever able to move foot or hand or finger, as long as God shall be God. In a word, St. Chrysostom says, that all the pains of this life, however great they may be, are scarcely a shadow of the torments of the damned. ”Hæc omnia ludicra sunt et risus ad ilia supplicia: pone ignem, ferrum, et bestias, attamen vix umbra sunt ad ilia tormenta.” (Hom, xxxix. ad pop. Ant.)
16. The reprobate, then, shall be tormented in all the senses of the body. They shall also be tormented in all the powers of the soul. Their memory shall be tormented by the remembrance of the years which they had received from God for the salvation of their souls, and which they spent in labouring for their own damnation; by the remembrance of so many graces and so many divine lights which they abused. Their understanding shall be tormented by the knowledge of the great happiness which they forfeited in losing their souls, heaven, and God; and by a conviction that this loss is irreparable.
Their will shall be tormented by seeing that whatsoever they ask or desire shall be refused. “The desire of the wicked shall perish.” (Ps. cxi. 10.) They shall never have any of those things for which they wish, and must for ever suffer all that is repugnant to their will. They would wish to escape from these torments and to find peace; but in these torments they must for ever remain, and peace they shall never enjoy.
17. Perhaps they may sometimes receive a little comfort, or at least enjoy occasional repose? No, says Cyprian: ”Nullum ibi refrigerium, nullum remedium, atque ita omni tormento atrocius desperatio.” (Serm. de Ascens.) In this life, how great soever may be the tribulations which we suffer, there is always some relief or interruption. The damned must remain for ever in a pit of fire, always in torture, always weeping, without ever enjoying a moments repose. But perhaps there is some one to pity their sufferings?
At the very time that they are so much afflicted the devils continually reproach them with the sins for which they are tormented, saying: Suffer, burn, live for ever in despair: you yourselves have been the cause of your destruction. And do not the saints, the divine mother, and God, who is called the Father of Mercies, take compassion on their miseries? No;”the sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven.” (Matt. xxvi. 29.)
The saints, represented by the stars, not only do not pity the damned, but they even rejoice in the vengeance inflicted on the injuries offered to their God. Neither can the divine mother pity them, because they hate her Son. And Jesus Christ, who died for the love of them, cannot pity them, because they have despised his love, and have voluntarily brought themselves to perdition.