Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Gift Of Hell

Satan in Hell From Dante's Inferno
Why would hell be a gift? You need to understand contrition. Contrition is just a big word for being sorry. When you feel sincere remorse for the choices you have made. It can come from two sources. One is perfect contrition. That is when you feel sorry because you have offended God or at least some understanding of God. You might feel you have sinned against justice or against human dignity or against love. You get that you have offended some greater good. You might not understand that great good as God but it is God.

The other source of contrition is self-centered. You have done wrong and you are afraid that wrong will turn out bad for you. You might have already experienced some bad consequences of your actions or you might just sense something bad will result. Still it is not the badness of the act that has you remorseful but the possibility that it might be bad for you. This is called imperfect contrition.

So why is hell a gift? Hell allows us to experience imperfect contrition. That is easier for us self-centered people to grasp. We can grow into an understanding of the great good we have offended but that is not likely to happen until after we have repented and grown in our faith for a while. Especially when we have offended the sacred. Often part of our fallen state is that we don't understand the sacred very well. We can sin against the Eucharist or we can commit a sexual sin and really not grasp the significance of what we have done wrong.

But then there is hell. We can know that we will be judged for our actions one day. We can get that all our rationalizations will be swept aside and the true depravity of what we are doing will be laid bare. That God will look in our heart and judge us. That this judgement can land us in hell forever. In that light we can see how avoiding sin can be in our self-interest. It can turn us around. We don't want that to remain our primary motivation. We want to grow out of fear and into love. Still fear can motivate us at times when we are not able to love.

Look a the parable of the prodigal son. He runs away from his father and blows his money. What motivates him to come back?
When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ So he got up and went to his father. Luke 15:17-20
Ultimately it was his hunger and the chance to eat better in his father's house that caused him to go back. It was not love for his father. That is imperfect contrition. God will take us back on that basis. He is that merciful. We go back expecting to be God's slave. We end up being restored to our status as sons. He is that merciful.

So what role does hell play? Christians tend to feel uncomfortable with it. They want to apologize on God's behalf for going there. But it is a good thing God did go there. We need hell for the same reason we need imperfect contrition. Sometimes we just get wrapped up in ourselves and cannot do the loving thing. We need a selfish reason to do the right thing.

God does not mind playing bad cop. The sinful soul is full of fear. It focuses on pleasure and power and prestige. Those things are not secure so it lives in constant fear of losing them. God speaks the language of fear to reach the fearful.

St Thomas Aquinas says God never gets angry for His own sake. He only gets angry for our sake. Like a father gets angry with a son. God presents Himself as angry not because anger is His nature but to motivate us. Yet we tend to avoid presenting God as angry. Like we have grown beyond the stage of being belligerent children that need to be scolded once in a while. 


  1. Where exactly does Thomas say that God only gets angry for His sake? I can't find it anywhere in the Summa although I heard it quoted in a Robert Barron talk.

    1. I got it from Fr Barron as well. You could ask him. Maybe it is his reflection on St Thomas and I should give him credit.