Four last things (3)

Michael A. Hayes

Undoubtedly it is true to say that one of the greatest works of literature to emerge in Europe in the late middle ages was Dante?s Divine Comedy, recounting the travels of the narrator in Heaven and Hell and Purgatory. Equally true is to say that it is the Inferno ? the account of Hell ? that has had far and away the most readers, it is the most quoted, and has had the most impact on European culture. Hell is a topic that fascinates human beings!

?Through me you go to the grief wracked city; Through me you go to everlasting pain; Through me you go a pass among lost souls. Justice inspired my exalted Creator: I am a creature of the Holiest Power, of Wisdom in the Highest and of Primal Love. Nothing till I was made was made, only eternal beings. And I endure eternally. Abandon all hope ? Ye Who Enter Here.?

(Canto III: The Gate of Hell)

Christian theology has always taught that Hell ? like Heaven ? is not so much a place as a state of being. Hell is an entirely negative state of being, in that it cannot include any positives ? such as companionship or respect. In Dante?s Inferno there is a constant theme of how much the souls in Hell despise and hate one another ? it is a gruesome picture, but one which perhaps can have an important insight for those on life?s pilgrimage. In spite of Sartre?s pithy: ?L?enfer, c?est les autres? (Hell is other people) the Christian truth is that others ? and our relationship with them ? is an utter essential of proper human living. While the song from the musical based on Victor Hugo?s historical novel Les Mis?rables ? ?to love another person is to see the face of God? ? may be somewhat simplistic, it does point to the truth that how one lives on earth regarding others does indicate an ultimate destiny. As St John states: ?let us love one another since love comes from God? (1Jn. 4.7) and ?A man who does not love his brother whom he can see, cannot love God, whom he has never seen.? (1Jn. 4.20) Loving others is not something that can exist in Hell. As St John of the Cross wrote: ?At the evening of life we will be judged on our love? (Dichos 64).

It is important to state that, whilst the existence of Hell has always been a teaching of the Church, there has never been any formal teaching about who ? if anyone ? is there. The existence of Hell can never be a teaching which clashes with a far more important and solemn teaching ? the mercy and love of God. The Church?s teaching is that Hell is not a place to which God condemns people ? it is a choice that the individual makes in some way. (cf. CCC 1033-37).

There are numerous references in the bible to images and metaphors about the awfulness of Hell, such as that in Luke?s account of the rich man and Lazarus who cries out ?Father Abraham, pity 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? (Lk.16.19-31). There will always be the tendency to focus on what Hell might be like for the individual, whereas the Christian tradition encourages the attention on Hell to be another reminder of the mercy of God and its endless possibilities.

This is why Pope Francis can clearly assert ?God?s mercy can make even the driest land become a garden, can restore life to dry bones? (cf. Ez. 37.1-14). He encourages all to allow themselves to be renewed by God?s mercy: ?let us be loved by Jesus, let us enable the power of his love to transform our lives too; and let us become agents of this mercy, channels through which God can water the earth, protect all creation and make justice and peace flourish? (Easter Urbi et Orbi message on March 31, 2013).

Christ has broken the barrier of death for all ? this is the true meaning of salvation. For as St Paul concludes at the end of his first letter to the Corinthians: ?When this perishable nature has put on imperishability, and when this mortal nature has put on immortality, then the words of scripture will come true: Death is swallowed up in victory, Death, where is your victory? Death, where is your sting? ? Keep on working at the Lord?s work always, knowing that, in the Lord, you cannot be labouring in vain? (1Cor. 15.54-58).??