John Lennon didn’t like the sound of it, and no one with any sanity does. Hell is not something to be smugg about. Neither, however, is it something to imagine doesn’t exist. If it doesn’t exist then there is no justice, and if there is no justice there is no mercy. So when it comes to the topic of Hell what does the Baltimore Catechism give us as food for contemplation?
Before getting into this one a few points are needed. Emotional reactions to truths and lies are not the measure of their veracity. Facts are what they are – no matter what someone feels about them. Divinely revealed truths are facts. The fact that Catholics today are not taught the truth about life as a choice for or against God is a tragedy with eternal consequences. Souls are being lost because of bad teaching. Think about Hell and do something to avoid it.
Does the Baltimore Catechism ask the question, ‘What is Hell?’ No. That would surprise most Catholics educated after the abandonment of this catechetical tool since the common myth is that before these so-called enlightened times Catholics only learned about mortal sin and Hell. Maybe that was the case in some places but one does not find that to be the case in this particular teaching tool.
What does it say about Hell? The first mention is found when the Apostles Creed is introduced. This Creed is described in Question 6 as the place where one finds ‘the chief truths (necessary for salvation) taught by Jesus Christ (through the Catholic Church).’ Later, in Question 95 the Creed’s use of the word ‘hell’ is explained as being ‘that place or state of rest called the Bosom of Abraham….’ This is where ‘the soul of Christ descended…’ at the moment of His death to liberate ‘the souls of the just who were waiting for Him.’ Today Catholics can hear this truth in the longer Creed (Nicene-Constanipolitan) where it says: ‘He descended to the dead.’
An editor’s note in some versions of the BC says: ‘The word “hell” simply means the place of the dead. Usually it refers to the place of the damned souls,….’ That takes most people to the other truth that is more contentious today. Hell and the damned – surely not?
Catholics are called to use both their reason and their faith when thinking – the former is enlightened by the later; while the later needs the former to give it the tools for expressing itself. Hell? This truth points to the questions of right and wrong, justice and punishment, merit and demerit. It also takes one more closely to the truth about God. Some have claimed that it makes God into a vicious dictator, who is merciless and indifferent to man’s sufferings. Such ideas are not addressed in the BC since it is not an apologetics work. What it does say, however, gives the principles upon which to respond to such errors.
BC first deals with Hell – as the place of the damned – when it speaks about ‘those angels who did not remain faithful to God.’ These are known as ‘the bad angels, or devils.’ Such creatures, who try to tempt us to sin (cf. Question 45), ‘were cast into hell’ due to their injustices. Angels are not some New Age invention or pets, instead they are ‘created spirits, without bodies, having understanding and will.’ Their punishment (as all punishments must) fits their crime. They, with full knowledge and consent, rejected God’s infinite Goodness. Such an act, like that of mortal sin, was deserving of eternal punishment. The nature of sin – an infinite offence against infinite Goodness – was rightly punished by God in His Justice. Note, however, that even this just act was filled with God’s Mercy because the punishment could have been even more severe – they could have been annihilated. Their being held in existence still reflects God’s glory, while the just can see God’s perfect Justice manifested in His dealings with those who hate Him. There is no vindictiveness in God’s dealings with those who refused to repent.
When it comes to speaking of the loss of souls to the punishments of Hell, BC frames it within the context of Resurrection and eternal life. The elect – those who by God’s grace know, love, and serve Him in this life – are rewarded with a share in God’s own Happiness (His own life). The damned, those who die in a state of mortal sin due to their refusal to live by God’s grace, ‘are punished in Hell.’ What does this mean? It means that they are ‘deprived of the vision of God, and suffer dreadful torments, especially that of fire…’ The Sacred Scriptures and the witness of the Saints teach that this is ‘for all eternity.’
Hell announces the Justice of God, for it gives to the reprobate what he or she deserves for a life lived against truth and love. How does this happen? How does one become one of the damned for all eternity? The answer is really quite simple. In the same way that one becomes a friend of God for all eternity by willing it in union with His grace; so one becomes an enemy of God by willing it in opposition to His grace.
Is this too harsh to hear? What then of Our Lord’s words: “Away from me you accursed into the everlasting fire prepared for the devils and his angels” (Mt 25: 41)? BC puts the reason for Christ’s suffering and death firmly before us: it is our sins that caused His agony. Yet, it is not a cruel teaching because it states elsewhere (Question 94) that from ‘the sufferings and death of Christ we learn of God’s love for man and the evil of sin.’ The fuller answer, in an extended version, continues by saying that it due to this sin that God ‘…who is all-just, demands such great satisfaction.’ Christ alone is able to give this satisfaction and He does so by His suffering and death. From this act the just receive the source of their good works. Christ saves them from this life giving Sacrifice. The damned refuse to accept this gift. Such a refusal is an infinite offence against the infinite generosity of God, and is fittingly punished in Hell.
Is this doctrine an invention to frighten people into the Church? No. It could be used to frighten people – and people have probably been scared of it – but that is not why God has revealed it. As part of the fide depositum (all that has been divinely revealed and is necessary for union with God) this doctrine leads one to see the horror of sin and the Goodness of God. Seeing what one deserves (i.e. Hell), and then seeing what God is giving (i.e. Heaven, eternal union with and in Him) brings one to one’s knees. The repentant sinner cries out with the Centurion: Domine, no sum dignus ut intres sub tectum meum.
Who is going to Hell? The simple answer is: ‘Those who die…in mortal sin.’ Who are they? I don’t have a list of names. Only God knows. Advice? Leave it to God but don’t presume no one is going to Hell, nor presume that everyone is going to Heaven. To avoid Hell one has to die in a state of friendship, union, with God. This is known as being in a state of grace. Who’s in a state of grace? Those who know Him, love Him, and serve Him in this life. Who are they? Only God knows absolutely. Remember St. Joan of Arc – those who unjustly condemned her asked her if she was in a state of grace. Her answer is Catholic to the core: ‘If I am not, I pray that He will put me there; but if I am, I pray that He will keep me there.’ Saints have the answers, they don’t imagine things.