How to go to Hell…..The Angels and Us

02-07-2021Weekly Reflection

#1022 Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death,(emphasis added) in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven-through a purification or immediately, -or immediate and everlasting damnation.
—Catechism of the Catholic Church

You ought love the Lord Your God with all your heart, all your mind and all your strength. Matt 22:37 If you love Me, you will keep my commandments.
—John 14:15

At the end you will be judged on your love, learn to love God as He desires to be loved and abandon your present state.
—St. John of the Cross Dichos de Luz y Amor #59

Placed between God and some created reality forbidden by God, some would not like to be forced to choose. But he does choose and he chooses a love put in the place of God. It’s not that he does not love God, he may, but he loves Him less than the created reality he has chosen to serve.
—A Companion to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius

Where your treasure is that’s where your heart will be.
—Matt 6:21

The title above is from an essay by a brilliant Catholic philosopher, Edward Feser, who always enlightens in his explaining the Faith using the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas: more from him below. Since we are in the pre-Lenten preparation period, a meditation on Hell is not a bad thing. We should have a healthy fear of Hell but not remain in fear. The Catechism teaches that imperfect contrition, being sorry for sin because you fear Hell is sufficient for absolution in Confession but this is not the desired-goal. The desired-goal is perfect contrition, being sorry for sin because of the obstacle it has placed in God’s love for us and our love for Him. The Scriptures tell us perfect love casts out fear. 1 John 4:18

People fear COVID and take all kinds of steps to avoid it. Hell is infinitely worse than COVID and permanent. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us, #1033 We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves… To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from Him forever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called “hell.”

Here are some bullet points based on Feser’s explanation about Hell using St. Thomas:

It is useful to begin with the way in which, on Aquinas’s analysis, an angel is damned. Here, as with the images of devils with pitchforks, the unsympathetic reader is asked to put out of his mind common crude images, e.g. of creatures with white robes, long golden hair, and harps. That is not what an angel is. An angel is purely spiritual, a creature of pure intellect and will.

Angels, like us, necessarily choose what they choose under the guise of the good, that is, because they take it to be good in some way. And as with us, an angel’s ultimate good is in fact God. But, again like us, they can come to be mistaken about what that ultimate good is. That is to say, like us, an angel can erroneously take something other than God to be its ultimate good.

However, the nature of this error in the case of an angel is somewhat different from the nature of the error we might commit. In us, a sudden and fleeting passion might distract us from what is truly good for us and lead us to pursue something else instead. Angels do not have bodies, so passions play no role in leading them into error.

A second way we can be led into error is through the influence of a bad habit, which pulls us away from what is truly good for us in a more serious way than a fleeting passion might in us. Angels are not like this, because they are spiritual. They have only a single desire – the will as directed toward what the intellect takes to be good. There is no competing appetite that can pull the angel away from this end once the will is directed toward it. Once the will is so directed, habituation follows immediately and unchangeably, because of the lack of any other appetite that might pull an angel is some different direction.

A third way we can be led into error is intellectually, by virtue of simply being factually mistaken about what is in fact good for us. Aquinas points out that an angel knows at once. It doesn’t reason from first principles to conclusions, but knows the first principles and what follows from them all at once, in a single act. Now, because there is no cognitive process by which an angel knows (as there is in us), there is no correction of a cognitive process that has gone wrong, either by gathering new information, resisting passions, or overcoming bad habits. If an angel goes wrong at all, it is not (as we are) merely moving in an erroneous direction where this trajectory might be reversed. It simply is wrong and stays wrong.

Aquinas teaches that an angel’s basic orientation is set immediately after its creation. It either rightly takes God for its ultimate end and love, or wrongly takes something less than God for its ultimate end and love. If the former, then it is forever “locked on” to eternal happiness, and if the latter, it is forever “locked on” to the lesser love chosen which equal eternal unhappiness. There is no contrary appetite that can move it away from what it is habituated to, and no cognitive process that can be redirected. The angel that chooses wrongly is thus fallen or damned, and not even God will change that any more than he can make a round square, for such change is simply metaphysically impossible insofar as it is contrary to the very nature of an angel as God created it.

Human beings are different, because they have bodies. They have a body and soul with intelligence and free will. Prior to death, it is always possible for the human will to correct course. A passion inclining one to evil can be overcome; a bad habit can be counteracted by a contrary appetite; new knowledge might be acquired by which an erroneous judgment can be revised. Hence, at any time before death, there is at least some hope that damnation can be avoided. It can be avoided with God’s grace won for us by the Lord in His Passion and Resurrection. Original sin darkened the human intelligence so that it is prone to error and weakened the human will so that it is moved easily by bodily wants and desires. We should pray daily for perseverance in the Faith and final perseverance.

But after death things are different. At death the soul is separated from the body, a separation which involves the intellect and will carrying on without the bodily faculties that influenced their operation during life. In effect, the soul now operates, in all relevant respects, the way an angel does. Just as an angel, immediately after its creation, either takes God as its ultimate end or something less than God as its ultimate end, so too does the human soul at the moment of death make the same choice revealed upon death in the particular judgment.

Just as the angel’s choice is irreversible because there are no bodily desires interfering, so too is the soul’s choice upon the death of the body. Bodily desires can no longer interfere. Hence the soul which opts for God as its ultimate goal and love is “locked on” to that love forever, and the soul which opts instead for something less than God is “locked on” to that forever. The former therefore enjoys eternal beatitude, the latter eternal separation from God or damnation. Beatitude can be delayed if the soul needs purification of its love for God which is purgatory but all whose love for God is being purified in Purgatory go to Heaven.

After death the soul apart from the body lacks any passions that could sway it away from its true love. It lacks any competing desire which might pull its choice away from the love it has chosen. Thus it is immediately habituated to aiming toward whatever, following death, it opted for as its highest love or good – whether God or something less than God. Nor is there any new knowledge which might change its course, since, now lacking sensation and imagination and everything that goes with them, it does not know by thinking things out but rather in an all-at-once way, as an angel does. There is no longer any cognitive process whose direction might be corrected.

Now, what choice is a soul likely to make? Obviously, the passions and appetites that dominated it in life are bound to push it very strongly in one direction or another. A person strongly habituated to loving God above all is very unlikely, upon death to regard something other than God as his ultimate love. A person strongly habituated to love God less or not at all is very unlikely, upon death, to regard God as his ultimate good or love. In any event, the strength of the passions/appetites disordered by original sin is one reason why the sins attached to them are so dangerous, even when they are not as such the worst of sins. To become deeply habituated to a certain sin associated with a particular appetite or passion is to run grave risk of making of that sin one’s ultimate end, and thus damning oneself. This is why the seven deadly sins are deadly.

The passions and appetites are like heat applied to wet clay. The longer the soul is pushed (or not pushed) by a passion or appetite in a certain direction, the more difficult it is to reorient the soul, just as it is more difficult to alter the shape of wet clay the longer heat is applied and the drier the clay gets. This is difficult but not impossible. All things are possible with God’s grace and sacraments. St. Augustine struggled with lust and overcame it with God’s grace and sacraments to become one of the greatest saints of the Church. The choice upon death is that carried over into eternity from life in the body. The criminal on the Cross next to the Lord chose Christ and was promised Paradise. Hence there is a call to repentance and reform on a daily basis.