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Eschatology or the Catholic Doctrine of the Last Things
A Dogmatic Treatise
Rev. Joseph Pohle Ph.D. D.D

1. DEFINITION.—Our English word “Hell” comes from the Anglo-Saxon hel, which originally signified “a hidden place.” According to present-day usage Hell means the abode of evil spirits and the place or state of punishment of the wicked after death. The Hebrew term sheol is sometimes used in the same sense, though its proper meaning is “cave,” “nether world,” or “abode of the departed.” The Latin infernus (Greek, ᾅδης) more definitely signifies the place where the wicked are tormented. The Hebrew name for this place is gehenna, which originally meant “valley of the Hinnom.” This valley was near Jerusalem and once belonged to the sons of Hinnom (Ennom). Later it became the scene of cruel sacrifices to Moloch and finally served as a garbage dump. The term gehenna in the sense of infernus was in common use among the Jews at the time of our Lord.

Besides these more or less technical terms, Holy Scripture employs a number of metaphorical expressions to describe the abode of the damned, e. g., “exterior darkness,” accompanied by “weeping and gnashing of teeth;” “everlasting fire;” “the second death,” etc. Though all these phrases, with the exception of the last, may connote a place, the emphasis is upon the state of eternal damnation and torment. Very truly, therefore, has it been said that the damned carry Hell around with them.

2. THE EXISTENCE OF HELL PROVED FROM SACRED SCRIPTURE AND TRADITION.—The existence of Hell was denied by the Jewish sect of the Sadducees, by the followers of the Gnostic heretic Valentinus, and, generally, by unbelievers of all ages. The Catholic Church, on the contrary, has repeatedly and solemnly defined that “the wicked [will receive] eternal punishment together with the devil.”

a) Sacred Scripture inculcates this truth so frequently and unmistakably that it has been justly said that no other Catholic dogma has such a solid Biblical basis. St. Jude designates Hell as “the punishment of eternal fire.” St. Paul calls it “eternal punishment in destruction.” Our Lord Himself describes it as an “unquenchable fire,” a place “where the worm dieth not and the fire is not extinguished,” a “furnace of fire,” etc. St. John in the Apocalypse refers to Hell as “a pool burning with fire and brimstone.” Many other texts could be cited, but it is unnecessary to multiply proofs in view of our Lord’s own declaration that the wicked will be cast into an “everlasting fire, which was prepared for the devil and his angels.”

b) The Fathers faithfully echo this teaching of Scripture. Thus St. Ignatius of Antioch writes to the Ephesians: “Do not err, my brethren; … if a man by false teaching corrupt the faith of God, for the sake of which Jesus Christ was crucified, such a one shall go in his foulness to the unquenchable fire, as also shall he who listens to him.” Not content with testifying to the teaching of Scripture on the subject, the Fathers proved it from reason. Thus they argue that God in His justice cannot possibly allow criminals to go unpunished. “I will briefly reply,” says St. Justin Martyr, “that if the matter be not thus, either there is no God, or if there is, He does not concern Himself with men, virtue and vice mean nothing, and they who transgress important laws are unjustly punished by the lawgivers.” St. Chrysostom writes: “All of us,—Greeks and Jews, heretics and Christians,—acknowledge that God is just. Now many who sinned have passed away without being punished, while many others, who led virtuous lives, did not die until they had suffered innumerable tribulations. If God is just, how will He reward the latter and punish the former, unless there be a Hell and a Resurrection?”

c) A cogent philosophical argument for the existence of Hell can be drawn from the consensus of mankind that there must be a place where criminals receive their just punishment in the next world. This belief is so general, so definite, and so clearly demanded by reason that it must be true.

Society and the moral order could not exist without belief in Hell, and it is probably on this account that all nations have clung to this belief despite its terrors. Those individuals who deny the existence of Hell are mostly atheists or libertines, distinguished neither for learning nor purity of life. Wherever conscience is allowed to speak, it voices the firm conviction that God will punish the wicked and reward the just in the world beyond. St. Chrysostom aptly observes: “If those who argue against Hell would embrace virtue, they would soon be convinced of its existence.”

3. THE LOCATION OF HELL.—The Fathers and Scholastics believed Hell to be somewhere under the earth or near its centre, which latter view is immortalized in Dante’s Inferno. This ancient belief was based on such Biblical passages as Numb. 16:31 sqq.: “Immediately as he had made an end of speaking, the earth broke asunder under their feet, and opening her mouth, devoured them with their tents and all their substance, and they went down alive into hell.” Ps. 54:16: “Let death come upon them, and let them go down alive into hell.” Isaias 5:14: “Therefore hath hell … opened her mouth, and their strong ones … shall go down into it.” Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself “descended into hell.”

a) But these texts no more prove that Hell is beneath or in the earth than the ancient conception of Heaven as “above” proves that the abode of the Blessed is located somewhere beyond the firmament. The ancients had a geocentric conception of the universe, which found its scientific expression in the Ptolemaic system. To them the earth was the centre of the universe, surrounded in great circles, called deferents, by the revolving centers of smaller circles, called epicycles, on whose circumferences the planets were supposed to move. Beyond the last and highest sphere was an imaginary region of light, the empyreum, to which fire and other tenuous bodies were believed to tend as to their natural goal. This conception of the universe led the Scholastics to locate Heaven in the empyreum and Hell in the centre of the earth, with Purgatory and the Limbo somewhere in the outer strata of our planet. Those who, like Cosmas Indicopleustes, conceived the earth as a rectangular plane encircled by steep walls, placed Hell underneath this plane.

b) It is easy to ridicule these naïve ideas from the advanced standpoint of modern science, as Draper and Flammarion have done. But no sane philosopher will argue that Hell does not exist because “there is no place for it in the heliocentric system.” We readily admit that modern astronomy has corrected many erroneous notions and that the progress of geography and physics has exercised a wholesome influence on Eschatology. To-day “above” and “below” are recognized as purely relative terms, and we know that the heavens constantly change their position towards us as the earth revolves around its own axis and around the sun. Holy Scripture and the Fathers speak the language of the common people, and such phrases as take the geocentric system for granted, must not be interpreted literally. The unfortunate Galileo case is a warning to theologians. The Church has never defined that Hell is a place, though the dogma of the Resurrection seems to entail this conclusion. Still less has she defined where Hell is. That is a question lying entirely outside the sphere of dogma. St. Gregory the Great says: “I dare not define anything on this subject, for some believed Hell to be situated somewhere within the earth, whereas others look for it under the earth.” In point of fact we know nothing at all about the location of Hell, and instead of prying into the unknowable, we should heed the warning of St. Chrysostom: “Do not inquire where Hell is, but how to escape it.”








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