The Hell There Is by Fulton L Sheen
All the passages below are taken from Fulton L. Sheen’s book “You,” republished in 1998 by the Society of St Paul.
This is going to be a very unpopular broadcast. It is about a subject the modern mind does not want to hear, namely, hell. Why do our modern minds deny hell? Very simply because they deny sin. If you deny human guilt, then you must deny the right of a state to judge a criminal, or to sentence him to prison. Once you deny the sovereignty of God, you must deny hell.The existence of hell is God’s eternal guarantee of the inviolability of human freedom. You can disbelieve in hell, but you must also disbelieve in freedom; you can disbelieve in Sing Sing, but you must also disbelieve in responsibility. You can no more make a free nation without judges and prisons than you can make a free world without judgement and Hell. No State constitution could exist for six months on the basis of a Liberal Christianity which denies that Christ meant what He said: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41).
What is the nature of the punishment of hell? It is twofold because it corresponds to the double character of sin. Every mortal sin consists in (a) a turning away from God and (b) a turning to creatures. Because we turn away from God, we feel the absence of His Love, His Beauty, His Truth—and this is called the Pain of Loss. Because we turned to creatures and perverted them to our sinful purpose, we are punished in some way by the very creatures which we abused. This is called the Pain of Sense, one of its aspects being the fire of hell.
The Pain of Sense is based on the principle that the punishment should fit the crime. If you disobey one of nature’s laws, you suffer a corresponding retribution. If you become intoxicated some night and put yourself in a state of amiable incandescence, you do not necessarily wake up the next morning with an overdrawn bank account. But you do feel the effects of abusing your God-given thirst by something vaguely described as a “hangover”. In almost so many words, the alcohol says to you: “I was made by God to be used by you as a reasonable creature. You perverted me from the purpose God intended. Now since I am on God’s side, not yours, I shall abuse you, because you abused me.” In hell, in like manner, we shall suffer from the very creatures we perverted. Hence there will be different kinds of punishment in hell. The fiercer the grip sinful pleasures have on a soul in this life, the more fiercely will the fires torment it in eternity. As the Scriptures tell us: “Punishment for sin takes the same form as the sin itself” (Wisdom 11:16). And do not try to escape this logic or blind yourself to Divine Authority by arguing that hell could not be as you have heard some preachers picture it. I am only saying, do not reject the truth of the book because the pictures are bad.
Now, what is the Pain of Loss? That is best understood as the loss of Divine Love, and from three distinct points of view, we shall describe it.
1) Hell is the hatred of the things you love. A sailor lost on a raft at sea loves water. He was made for it, and water was made for him. He knows that he ought not drink the water from the sea, but he violates the dictates of his reason. The result is, he is now more thirsty than before, even thirsty when he is the most filled. He hates water as poison; at the same time he is mad with the thirst for it. In like manner, the soul was made to live on the love of God, but if it perverts that love by salting it with sin, then as the sailor hates the very water he drinks, so the soul hates the very thing it desires, namely, the love of God. As the insane hate most the very persons whom in their saner moments they really love the most, so the damned in hell hate God whom they were really meant to love above all things.
The wicked do not want hell because they enjoy its torments; they want hell because they do not want God. They need God, but they do not want Him. Hell is eternal suicide for hating love. Hell is the hatred of the God you love.
2) Hell is the mind eternally mad at itself for wounding Love. How often during life you have said: “I hate myself.” No one who ever condemned you could add to the consciousness of your guilt. You knew it a thousand times better than they. When did you hate yourself most? Certainly not when you failed to act on a tip on the stock market. You hated yourself most when you hurt someone you loved. You even said: “I can never forgive myself for doing that.” The souls in hell hate themselves most for wounding Perfect Love. They can never forgive themselves. Hence their hell is eternal: eternal self-imposed unforgiveness. It is not that God would not forgive them. It is rather that they will not forgive themselves. How often in this world the sight of moral goodness arouses indignation. The evil person incessantly wants a recasting of all values. Put one good boy in a gang of boys which spends its time in petty thievery or breaking school windows, and the chances are the gang will turn against that good boy, ridicule his moral principles, tell him he is a coward or old-fashioned. Exactly that same mentality is present in adult life. Whenever a professor attacks morality and makes fun of religion before his pupils, you can be sure nine times out of ten that his life is rotten. Goodness is a reproach to such professors: they want everyone to be like themselves, so no one can reproach their conscience. This revolt against goodness and truth is the basic cause of the persecution and mockery of religion today. Now if such things are possible to corrupt souls on earth, why should they not be possible in eternity? These wicked souls will still hate Love because hate is the essence of their souls. They reject the one remedy that could have helped them, the love of Someone besides themselves, and for that reason hell is the house of incurables who hate themselves for hating Love.
3) Hell is submission to Love under Justice. We are free in this world; we can no more be forced to love God than we can be forced to love classical music, antiques, swing bands, olives, or Bach. Force and love are contraries. Love and freedom are correlatives.
When you came into this world, God said: “I ask you to love me freely, that you may be perfect.” Suppose we freely say: “I refuse to love Truth and justice and Beauty or my neighbour. I shall love error, and graft, and ugliness.” Later on you die in that state. But you do not escape that Divine Love which you abused, any more than the traitor escapes the country whose love he despised. Either you possess love, or love possesses you. In marriage a man and woman were meant to possess love. But that love can be perverted so that in the end, love possesses them. How often a husband, for example, tied to a woman by marriage, is possessed by her, by her wants, her selfishness, and her jealousies. Often, too, many a wife is tied to a drunkard or worthless husband until death do them part. They do not freely love one another; they are forced in virtue of the justice of their contracts to love one another until death do them part. And to be forced to love anyone is hell.
The lost souls could have loved God freely. But they chose to rebel against that love, and in doing so came under Divine Justice, as the criminal falls from the love of a country to its justice. The souls in hell do not possess love, love possesses them. Justice forces them to love God, that is, to submit to the Divine Order, but to be forced to love is the very negation of love. It is hell!
Think not that hell ever ends, or that some day souls in hell will go to heaven. If a soul in hell went to heaven, heaven to it would be a hell. Suppose you hated higher mathematics; suppose your morning paper had nothing in it but logarithms, everyone you met talked to you about Space-Time differentials, every broadcast you heard was on the theory of relativity, every book you read was on the subject of pointer-readings. After a while mathematics would drive you mad. Now the souls in hell hate Perfect Life, Perfect Truth and Perfect Love—which is God—and if they had to live with that which they hated more than you hate mathematics, then God would be their great punishment as mathematics would be yours. Heaven would be hell.
Hell must be eternal. What is the one thing that life can never forgive? Death, because death is the negation of life. What is the one thing that truth can never forgive? Error, for error is its contradiction. What is the one thing that love can never forgive? It is the refusal to love; that is why hell is eternal. Everything does not come out right in the end, for we cannot at one moment believe that we are saved by doing God’s will, and the next moment believe that it has no significance. Hell means that the consequences of your good and bad acts are not indifferent. It makes a tremendous amount of difference to your body if you drink tea or TNT, and it makes a greater difference if your soul drinks virtue or vice. Where the tree falls, there it lies.
You ask: “How can a good God be so wrathful as to sentence souls to hell?” Remember that God does not sentence us to hell, as much as we sentence ourselves. When the cage is opened the bird flies out to the air which it loved; when our body dies, the good soul flies out to its eternity of love of God. But a soul in the state of sin at the moment of death casts itself into hell just as naturally as a stone released from my hand falls to the ground.
God has not a different mood for those who go to hell, and for those who go to heaven. The difference is in us, not in Him. The sun which shines on wax softens it; the sun which shines on mud hardens it. There is no difference in the sun, but only in that upon which it shines. So there is no difference in the God of love when He judges the wicked and the just; the difference is in those whom He judges.
Hell is at the foot of the hill of Calvary, and no one of us can go down to hell without first passing over the hill where there is a God-man enthroned with arms outstretched to embrace, head bent to kiss, and heart open to love. I do not find it hard to understand God preparing a hell for those who want to hate themselves eternally for having hated Him. But I do find it hard to understand why that same God should die upon a Cross to save unworthy me from a hell which my sins so rightly deserve. Hell is a place where there is no love. That there may be no hell in our final destinies, one final word: God loves you! (74-80)
ADDRESS DELIVERED ON FEBRUARY 1, 1945