This is something of a novelty, and one which WordPress does not seem to provide for, and that is a joint post. Dave Smith is the author of most of it, and I have topped, tailed and added some things from the Catechism. My parts are italicised for ease (and to exculpate my friend Dave from any errors of mine: C451).
Jessica’s post today offers us a pre-Christmas brain stretcher. She is not alone in what she speculates here, and she offers good reasons for her views, as ever. But there are reasons to hesitate before accepting them. The universal teaching of the Western Church (and the Eastern, although it is expressed differently) is not lightly to be put aside. Paul certainly can be read the way Jessica and others have suggested, but if we place him into a wider setting, we see how the Church comes to its conclusion.
Let us first remind ourselves of what the Church teaches here:
“Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire.” The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs. (CCC 1035)”
We get an illustration of this here:
Luke 16:19-31 (NRSVCE)
The Rich Man and Lazarus
19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.[a] The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.[b] 24 He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ 27 He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29 Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30 He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
My personal understanding from this parable is that there was a permanent division in hell (hades, sheol) operable until Christ was raised from the dead and that the hell of Abraham and the saints of the OT was that of sleep – where Christ went (during the 3 days) to awaken and spread the Good News; they were not in torment but dormant, so to speak. It is to that hell then (the hell in the creed), that Christ visited and emptied of its inhabitants (1 Pet. 3:19). Such a place has no need of inhabitants now as the gates to heaven have been opened. However, he did not go across the divide (the chasm) that separates Abraham and the just (the ‘us’) from the tormented damned. As stated: there is no way for ‘us’ to pass from here to there or for those there to pass to us. Or is this parable pure fantasy?
It is possible (for human reason) to suppose that after opening the gates to heaven that the hell at the other side of the chasm became a place now emptied as well but by utter annihilation. But I see no evidence of this thought. It seems to be a nice hypothesis but what of the eviternal nature of the spirit soul; spoken into existence out of nothingness to live a life eternal. God did not make souls to send them back into non-being: for I think it is against His Will to do so or to undo that which He Himself has Willed. Otherwise, why have the bad angels swept out of heaven into the realm where the ‘children” of God were to live? It seems cruel not to have annihilated them except that it is God Who puts us to the test: and we best not put God to the test by thinking ‘if I were God, I would do such and such . . . ‘ Why, also, would Christ say that it would be better if Judas had never been born if the result of his sin was annihilation and non-being; the same state he and we came from.
Matthew 13:42 has Our Lord saying that angels would gather up the people and some would be cast into a fiery furnace. If we want to know the origin of the idea, that would really be it.
We say we believe in hell; but it seems to me that what Jessica is describing is an empty hell without suffering souls. Then is there really a hell if it is not a place made for something and for someone? Is it an empty threat to cajole us in a dishonest effort to avoid evil and embrace good? If Satan is mortally wounded and will dissolve into nothingness as will the souls of the damned then the atheists should not fear death (and most don’t) . . . as it is simply a state (state of nothingness) that we possessed (in potentiality) before birth. As such, Christians that believe in Christ can sin without despair or danger. Their sins can be like scarlet and yet all they need do was done the moment they accepted Christ as the atonement for their sins without regard of their own freewill to avoid these sins rather than heap them on the agony of Christ some 2000 years ago. All will be well.
But alas, I am afraid that what we were given in freewill is a chance to share this burden with Christ by constant effort to live without sin. At least the effort (if not the reality) will be enough if sincere and our love for God and contrition for our sins are of some merit which makes us suitable, in the Merciful eyes of God, to receive forgiveness and Divine Mercy: not to mention the Mercy to receive His Body and Blood which He gave for us and which He now gives to us at the Holy Altar. I would, that I wouldn’t fear and tremble that I am no better than the rich man in the parable: what is it that I might have done in this life that I didn’t do? For his sin was a sin of omission rather than one of commission. My Church is a penitential Church that asks not only for forgiveness but asks us to do penance for those sins committed against God. So my faith and hope resides in those things which the wretched rich man did not have: Christ, the Church, Confession, Penance, the Eucharist and the prayers of Our Lady, the Saints and my friends and family. If I did not have these, I feel that I would despair of the life I have led. So I say with the father of the child: “I believe, help my unbelief.” I hope that Christ will give me what he gave that man.