‘Why do we hear so little these days about [Hell]? Why is Hell for most people nothing more than a wearisome profanity? If it truly exists, our lives should be thoroughly shaped by the implications of that reality.” Paul Thigpen writes this early in his new book, Saints Who Saw Hell: And Other Catholic Witnesses to the Fate of the Damned, and talks a little about the importance of seeing Hell as real.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: “The soul in Hell . . . is the soul that is so self-absorbed that it has selfishly rejected everything that is not itself. It has tried to turn everything and everyone around it into a mere extension of itself. In Hell, such a soul is finally granted its fundamental desire to live only in itself. And what it finds there, in total isolation and degradation, is Hell.” Does anyone really live that way? Rejecting everything that is not itself?
Paul Thigpen: First, I should note that, as my footnote for this passage indicates, here I am echoing C. S. Lewis’s thoughts in the chapter on Hell in his book The Problem of Pain.
We need to distinguish the soul already in Hell from the soul tending in that direction while still on earth. These words describe the soul that, after growing deeper and deeper in self-absorption for a lifetime on earth, is now confined to Hell, “confirmed in its fundamental desire to live only in itself.”
In this life, we might be hard pressed to find a soul that rejects everything that is not itself. That’s one reason why we can have hope for each soul still in this life at any moment. But if, in this life, a self-absorbed soul continues more and more stubbornly on its way into the abyss of selfishness, and arrives finally in Hell after death, its state there will be one of horrific “total isolation and degradation.”
Lopez: One of your chapter titles is “Despair, Like a Vulture, Gnaws Every Human Heart.” How can meditating on Hell help with despair?
Thigpen: The title is a quote from Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich’s vision of Hell, which she sees as a crowded city where “discord and misery reign everywhere.” But in the same account, she also describes the Heavenly Jerusalem, beautiful abode of the blessed who are filled with glory, living among magnificent palaces and gardens. I think the contrast she presents is typical of these visions, hinting at their redemptive potential.
To appreciate better the reality of Hell is to appreciate better the reality of Heaven. The more horrible we understand Hell to be, the more marvelous we understand Heaven to be. The more deeply we fathom what God wants to save us from, the more grateful we are that He desires to save us.
Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska’s disturbing vision of Hell is reported in her diary about the Divine Mercy. Why? Because the message of God’s perfect mercy is incomplete without reference to His perfect justice. If we are tempted to despair, the joyous proclamation that, by His grace, Hell has a glorious alternative should fill us with a lively hope that leads to repentance.
Lopez: There are some very dark things in our world and culture and lives today. Why add to that with visions of Hell?
Thigpen: The dark things in our world and culture and lives today are in fact foretastes of damnation, the beachheads of Hell. How can we truly understand “this present darkness” (Ephesians 6:12) and turn from it if we don’t recognize the final reality toward which these dark things seek to press us?
Even so, our culture studiously avoids the subject. So it seems to me that the time is right to talk about Hell. If Hell doesn’t exist, then all roads lead to the same destination, and if all roads lead to the same place, it ultimately makes no difference which road we take. On the other hand, if our choices will lead us ultimately to one of two utterly different destinies, then our choices have crucially different consequences. Hell is the final guarantee that what we do here and now really matters.
So we must speak of Hell — just as Jesus Christ did, repeatedly.
Lopez: Hell is what everyone knows about Christians. The no’s! The thou–shalt-nots. Is there a danger of perpetuating a stereotype by adding a book title like this to the world?
Thigpen: These days, I’m convinced, the greater danger is to present a domesticated, even mutilated version of the Christian faith as nothing more than a “Gospel of Nice.” I think of the British convert Father Frederick Faber, who lamented 150 years ago that, even then, Hell was being dismissed from polite society as a proper subject of preaching: In these “polished days,” he asked, is religion to be allowed no function except to soothe us?
Lopez: If God is so gratuitously generous that he died for our sins, why doesn’t he forgive them anyway? Is it a cruelty for Him not to?
Thigpen: Forgiveness is a gift, and for sin to be forgiven, there must be an acceptance of the gift, or it will have no consequences. Those who admit no guilt refuse to accept forgiveness. So the Catholic Church teaches that to refuse God’s forgiveness — to say to Him, “I don’t need or want your forgiveness” — is in fact the unforgivable sin of which Jesus speaks in the gospels. (See the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1864.)
For God to overcome the separation of a rebellious creature with free will, He must have the consent and cooperation of the creature. If the creature refuses, the separation remains; the offer of forgiveness is fruitless. And the final consequence is Hell.
Lopez: Why would God show a person Hell? Couldn’t that be considered cruel, too?
Thigpen: On the contrary, it’s an act of mercy. The visionaries described here (not all of whom were living saintly lives at the time of the vision) typically fall into one of three categories.
First are the hardened sinners permitted to see Hell so that they might repent. Second are the hardened sinners who fail to repent; their chilling testimony before they die leads others to repentance. Third are holy people who receive a glimpse of Hell that steels their resolve to grow in holiness, to warn others, and to pray fervently for the salvation of all they meet. In all three situations, God is mercifully steering souls toward eternal friendship with Himself in Heaven.
Lopez: How do you know these saints weren’t all disturbed?
Thigpen: If you look closely at those saints in the book whose lives are well documented, you don’t find portraits of disturbed minds. You find instead indicators of healthy souls: the tireless compassion of Saint John Bosco; the wise counsel of Saint Catherine of Siena; the reasoned brilliance of Pope Saint Gregory the Great; the lively sense of humor of Saint Teresa of Ávila; the innocent simplicity of the children of Fátima.
Lopez: You note that sin makes us stupid. You also note that “the damned soul cannot bear the divine light, just as a diseased eye cannot bear the brilliant sunlight.” To what extent is sin a disease? Ought we be better in the healing department? For ourselves and for others? How can we be?
Thigpen: Sin causes, and is caused by, disorder in the soul — disordered loves, as Saint Augustine spoke of them: loving things more than we love persons, loving anything or anyone more than we love God. Such disorder in the soul shackles our wills and darkens our intellects.
The parallels to bodily disorders should be clear. Our souls, like our bodies, need healing — a restoration of their integrity, of their wholeness as an image of God. We need a Physician, and we must accept His diagnosis and cooperate with His prescribed remedy, for ourselves and for others.
One necessary factor in that process is to take seriously the Physician’s prognosis as well. In revealing Hell to us, He has made clear that the disorder is progressive and fatal; it is “a sickness unto death,” the “second death” (Revelation 20:14–15). Such a prognosis should help motivate us to cooperate with the Physician.
As the book of Sirach affirms: “In all you do, remember the end of your life, and then you will never sin” (7:36). Referring to this biblical insight, Saint Thomas More spoke of meditation on the next life — Hell as well as Heaven — as “a sure medicine” for the soul.
Lopez: This isn’t your first book with Hell, Satan, or spiritual warfare. Why do you keep coming back to these themes?
Thigpen: I return to these themes because they are an essential aspect of the gospel, yet they are often obscured or even denied in our culture. These realities must be affirmed and clarified. I hear from many readers who thank me for the books on these topics and ask for more. My Manual for Spiritual Warfare (2014) quickly became a Catholic bestseller, for perhaps some of the same reasons that the demand for Catholic exorcists has risen sharply in recent years — and not just in the U.S. The battle rages.
Lopez: Why do you close with Saint Ignatius Loyola?
Thigpen: This saint’s “vision” of Hell is what might be called an intellectual vison — one of the components of his popular Spiritual Exercises, in which we use the imagination to reflect on spiritual subjects by vividly picturing the persons, events, places, and other realities described. His “Spiritual Exercise on Hell” spurs us to ponder more deeply the horror of eternal damnation, stirs up a healthy fear of losing God’s friendship for eternity, and sends us running to God to embrace His mercy and renew our commitment to live according to His will.
The words of Ignatius summarize many of the insights provided by the other visions of Hell included in the book, and instructs us how best to respond to God in prayer in light of our reflections on these visions. They offer a fitting conclusion, ending with a focus, not on damnation, but on thanksgiving for God’s “immense goodness and infinite mercy.”