What Does Hell Really Mean?

04-04-2021Weekly Reflection

Our contemporaries, including sadly many Christians, reject the notion of hell as something incompatible with God’s love and mercy. In fact there have been those who maintain that, at the end, even Satan will be reconciled to God, a false-teaching called apocatastasis, meaning a restoration to the original state. The Church has rejected this as contrary to the teachings of the Faith.

There is no contradiction between hell and God’s mercy because God will not force mercy on anyone Satan included. The doctrine on hell ultimately is a meditation on the mystery of freedom, whether the freedom of men and women or the angels. Hell is the state of definitive self-exclusion (!) from communion with God and the blessed, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states. We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love Him. But we do not love God if we sin mortally against Him, against our neighbor, or against ourselves.

To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means separation from Him by our own free choice. Jesus often spoke of the reality of hell: “Gehenna, “the unquenchable fire” reserved for those who will lose body and soul. Hell is part of the teachings of the Catholic Faith: Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend to hell where they suffer eternal punishment.

The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, the Source of all life and happiness and love. The teachings of the Lord and His Church are a call to human beings to use their freedom with their eternal destiny in mind: Man was created to praise, reverence, and adore God and thereby save his soul. Earthly life is a time of conversion from sin and coming to God, which is not easy.

In fact the Scriptures warn us to enter by the narrow gate: for wide is the way and easy the way that leads to destruction but narrow is the gate and hard the way that leads to life and how few there are who find it. God predestines no one to hell. For this there has to be a free turning-away from God as one’s final choice by persisting in mortal sin to the end of one’s life. Imploring the mercy of God means that He will give us the grace to live the narrow way and never use our freedom to reject Him in the end. For this grace we must all pray.

What About the Devil and Exorcisms? Father Pedro Barrajón, a professor of theological anthropology, explained to a group of young people, who gathered Monday in an Irish pub near the Piazza Venezia, how an exorcism is carried out. He recommended that one should not be afraid of the devil.

"The devil exists, but we must not be afraid," said the Legionary priest who lectures in the course on exorcism and the Prayer of Deliverance at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum. "The devil first tries to tempt us and takes advantage of our weak points," he warned. "So then, it is important that we know ourselves well and that we know what our weak points are."

"The action of evil can be present in life from the beginning until the latter's end," said Father Barrajón. He recalled that in some saintly lives, such as Mother Teresa of Calcutta or Padre Pio, there was an action of the devil on several occasions. "We live in a very complicated culture, and at times the devil's presence is manifested through ideas," the theologian said.

Father Barrajón asked the young people who were listening to him and holding beers in their hands how one can protect oneself from the devil. The first answer heard was "through the sacraments." "Yes, the sacraments, faith, prayer, and sacrifice are the defense against the devil," he noted.

One of the possible, though exceptional, actions of the devil is possession, said Father Barrajón. "Possession can be induced through cases of magic or Black Masses." Exorcists also mention tarot-cards, the occult, ouija-boards as opening oneself up to diabolic influence.

"Exorcism is a kind of struggle," he added. It "begins invoking the name of the Trinity. The people attending the exorcism pray, although this does not mean that the devil goes away." "A sort of dialogue is established between the priest authorized to carry out an exorcism -- and the possessed person, who emits strange sounds," the priest added. "The devil tries to provoke the priest and shows aversion to the cross, to prayers and the rosary and to other sacred objects," continued Father Barrajón.

"One of the devil's names is Asmodeus; this is a devil who acts against marriage and the family," he pointed out. "Other names are Son of Darkness, Satan or Beelzebub, names of biblical origin." Finally, Father Barrajón said that in a case of possession, biological, psychological and spiritual elements intervene and that it is not easy at all to establish the boundary between psychological illness and possession.

Pope Paul VI in a famous address at a General Audience on November 15, 1972 pointed out that we can assume the sinister activity of the Evil One:-where denial of God becomes radical, subtle and absurd;-where hypocritical and blatant lies assert themselves against evident truth;-where love is extinguished by cold, cruel selfishness; -where the name of Christ is impugned with willful and rebellious hatred -where the spirit of the Gospel is watered down and denied -where despair has the last word…

The Pope also reminds us that everything that defends us from sin, shelters us for that very reason from the invisible enemy. Grace is the decisive defense. The Christian must be militant, vigilant, and strong and sometimes must have recourse to ascetic exercises (fasting, self-denial) to stave off certain diabolical attacks. The Blessed Virgin (especially the Rosary) and St. Michael the Archangel are strong allies in the fight against Satan.

St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians lists the spiritual weapons of the Christian in the fight against the “principalities and powers:” 10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.