I was raised in a very strict Catholic family, attended Catholic school and was an altar boy. Quite the typical upbringing for a young Catholic boy. As I grew up I developed a strong fear of Hell and at the same time a very strong fear of God. I can remember many times laying awake at night thinking about Hell and wondering to myself how God could torture so many souls. I never could really figure out how a supposedly loving God could inflict so much torture on a person. As I became a teenager and started to read more about Catholicism and delve deeper into the Doctrine of Hell, my fears intensified, and at the same time, I began to develop a deep rooted feeling of anger towards God. I would look around at people and wonder to myself , " How can God burn and torture a soul for missing Mass one time. How can God torture and torment a kid my age if he looks at a bad magazine one time?"
By the time I reached the age of 17, I was more than just angry at God. I was enraged at Him and no longer loved Him. I quit attending Mass and completely withdrew from the Catholic Church. As I have gotten older my anger at God and my fear of Hell has persisted.
About a year and a half ago, shortly before my 28th birthday, I started working with a new coworker who was a very devout Catholic. One day we were talking about growing up and stuff and the subject of religion came up. I shared my views and ever since he began to nag me incessantly to come back to the Church. As a result of his nagging, I decided to take another look at the Church and the Doctrine of Hell. I began a very exhaustive study that included reading information from numerous sources. I looked into the writings of many Saints and visionaries, the writings of the Church Fathers, the Catechism, the Bible and I have scoured the Internet reading anything I could find on Hell. I tried to take the most open minded approach as I could, so I even reviewed many Protestant sources as well.
The conclusions I have reached have caused me not only to be angry at God, but also have caused me to view life in a fundamentally different way. Scriptures speaks of a vengeful and angry God. Hebrews 10:30-31 warns: "For we know him who said, `Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,' And again, `The Lord will judge His people.' "Who understands the power of Thine anger?" (Psalm 90:11).Matthew 13:47-50 states,"So it will be at the end of the age; the angels shall come forth, and take out the wicked from among the righteous, and will cast them into the furnace of fire; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth." The Bible is filled with countless references to Gods wrath and hatred of man, yet, ironically very few references are made that support the idea of a loving God, as is so often portrayed today. I was particularly struck with the writings of Sister Faustina. In her book entitled, Divine Mercy In My Soul, she describes a vision of Hell as showed to her by God. She states that the fires of Hell are lit by God's anger. She also goes on to describe the various tortures and torments of Hell. One of the most striking things contained in her description was her assertion that God designs special tortures for certain chosen souls. Now I ask you, "What kind of loving God specially plans torments and tortures for a soul?" If you would like to reference the passage I am referring to, you will find it located on pages 297 and 298.
The following passage by Jonathan Edwards eloquently sums up Hell: "Nor will they ever be able to find anything to relieve them in hell. They will never find any resting place there; any secret corner, which will be cooler than the rest, where they may have a little respite, a small abatement of the extremity of their torment. They never will be able to find any cooling stream or fountain, in any part of that world of torment; no, nor so much as a drop of water to cool their tongues. They will find no company to give them any comfort, or do them the least good. They will find no place, where they can remain, and rest, and take breath for one minute: for they will be tormented with fire and brimstone; and they will have no rest day nor night forever and ever." I could go on and on about the descriptions of Hell and the tortures that accompany it, but I think you get my point.
Now I come to my dilemma. How does a Catholic reconcile the Doctrine of Hell with a loving God? How is a Catholic supposed to love a God that could create a place like Hell? How is a Catholic to approach God when he is terrified of Him? I have sought answers to these questions my whole life and the more I investigate and the more I study, the more God appears to me as a vengeful and hateful Deity. I know the Church likes to view God as our Father and we as His adopted children, yet, if He is our Father then He must be a Father that can never be pleased. Nothing we do appears good enough for Him or is sufficient to placate His anger. I could be like many people and just say the Church his wrong and that Hell does not exist and go about sinning with impunity. But I do not do that. I believe with my whole heart that Hell exists and I try to treat people with kindness and dignity and to live my life in a good way. Yet, I know that will not be enough to save me from eternal perdition. No matter how well I live my life I will never be able to go to heaven because I cannot love God as long as Hell remains. It is so weird. I believe with my whole heart that the Church was founded by Christ, that He is present Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity in the Eucharist and I also believe in all of the Church's moral teachings.
However, because of the Doctrine of Hell and it's profound impact it has had in my life, I am not able to ever be a practicing member of that Church. Because of Hell I have chosen to remain single and never have children. I cannot imagine the thought of bringing an innocent little child into this world only to know that they will one day have to burn for eternity. I see people smile and I wonder how can they smile knowing that Hell awaits them? How can anyone find any joy in life knowing Hell awaits? If you could explain the Church's teachings on this subject as you see it I would greatly appreciate it. It is very hard to explain, but deep within my heart the words of Jesus echo in my mind," It would have been better for that man to never have been born." If you could email me back I would greatly appreciate it.
Sorry I have been so slow responding to your letter. I probably cannot add that much to your research on hell. I assume you have read the Catechism, especially #1033-1037. The key word is self-exclusion. "To die in mortal sin without repent and accepting God's merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called 'hell.'" (#1033) In subsequent paragraph it states that "God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary and persistence in it until the end." (#1037)
You are right, Chris, to fear hell. The worse tortures of the Inquisition or Dauchau would be like a pinprick in comparison to eternal separation from God. That is the meaning behind the vivid imagery you mention. It is not that God tortures us but that we torture ourselves by clinging to our sirupy soft drinks rather than going to the spring that can really satisfy our thirst. God in a sense is "angry" at our obstinance and pride, but yet he has given us our freedom. He cannot turn us into robots without utterly destroying us.
Having said that I ask you, Chis, to consider that God cannot be anything but goodness and love. The problem with hell is how to reconcile Jesus' clear teaching with the Father's love which he reveals. The answer is to be found in the mystery of human freedom. God could have made a world of puppies and kittens. It would have been lovely. But God wanted sons. That is what he wants you to become by the transforming grace of the Spirit.
Have you read C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce? I just finished it, I think about my tenth time reading it. It makes so much sense the way he describes souls refusing the invitation to come into Heaven. A while back I gave a homily on Jesus' teaching concerning Hell. Let me know what you think.
Please feel free to write more. I will try to be more speedy in responding. Prayers.
Fr. Phil Bloom
P.S. It is true there is nothing you can do to earn your way into heaven. It has already been done by Jesus on the Cross. Salvation is not a question of being right or even doing right, but of humbly accepting the forgiveness Jesus extends to us. As Catholics we experience this mercy especially in the Sacrament of confession