Say the words “afterlife” and “fire”, and I’d bet that ninety-nine out of a hundred will automatically think, “Hell”.
Consider the vision of the prophet Daniel (7:9-10):
As I watched, thrones were set up and the Ancient of Days took his throne.
His clothing was white as snow, the hair on his head like pure wool; His throne was flames of fire, with wheels of burning fire. A river of fire surged forth, flowing from where he sat; Thousands upon thousands were ministering to him, and myriads upon myriads stood before him.
Consider also a small portion of the inaugural vision of the prophet Ezekiel (1:26-28) as well:
Above the firmament over [the] heads [of the four living creatures] was the likeness of a throne that looked like sapphire; and upon this likeness of a throne was seated, up above, a figure that looked like a human being. And I saw something like polished metal, like the appearance of fire enclosed on all sides, from what looked like the waist up; and from what looked like the waist down, I saw something like the appearance of fire and brilliant light surrounding him. Just like the appearance of the rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day so was the appearance of brilliance that surrounded him. Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. And when I saw it, I fell on my face and heard a voice speak.
The Seraphim, the highest of the nine choirs of angels, are known as “the burning ones” for their proximity to God’s presence – for good reason.
There is fire in Heaven, just as assuredly as there is fire in Hell. In fact, the Letter to the Hebrews is explicit about the fact that God Himself is “a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29).
And, of course, 1 Corinthians 3:11-15 notes that the work of every human being will be judged by a fire of some kind one day; and those whose works are less than fully pure will suffer as those actions are purified by that fire.
Is it possible that the under-recognized fires of blessedness that flow throughout Heaven, the purifying fire of Purgatory, and the tormenting fires of Hell are all one and the same set of flames?
Omnipresent or Not?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1033) has this to say about eternal damnation:
Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren. 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.”
Clearly, Hell is separation/distance from God in some way. But given one of God’s most well-known attributes – His omnipresence – what are we to make of this separation? If God is not in some way present in Hell, just like Purgatory and Heaven, then He simply isn’t omnipresent. God can’t be everywhere and not be everywhere at the same time.
It stands to reason, therefore, that the nature of one’s separation from God in Hell is something other than “spatial” or “geographical”. After all, as Psalm 139:7-8 points out, “Where can I go from your spirit? From your presence, where can I flee? If I ascend to the heavens, you are there; if I lie down in Sheol, there you are.”
There simply is nowhere that God is not – including Hell. So, what could the “separation from God” the Catechism refers to entail?
Does God Punish?
Scripture says some things about God that, on their face, are difficult for some to reconcile. On the one hand, it says things like, “For I, the Lord, your God, am a jealous God, bringing punishment for their parents’ wickedness on the children of those who hate me, down to the third and fourth generation” (Deuteronomy 5:9). Jesus Himself encourages us to “be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna” (Matthew 10:28).
We might suppose, from verses like these, that God has no problem actively “scourging” people who deserve it when it’s necessary.
On the other hand, the Bible also says, “I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:43-45), and “God is light and in Him, there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). Further, Romans 5:6 teaches an awe-inspiring truth: “For Christ, while we were still helpless, yet died at the appointed time for the ungodly.” Jesus became incarnate in order to seek out and save what was lost, not to condemn or forsake it – no matter how just it might be for Him to do so (cf. Luke 19:10).
What are we to make then of this superficial contradiction? Is God good to all people all the time, apart from their conduct? Or is He benevolent to those who deserve it and malevolent to those who deserve His opposition?
Psalm 18:26-27 does say, “Toward the faithful you are faithful; to the honest man you are honest; toward the pure, you are pure; but to the perverse you are devious.” But of course, this is a human way of speaking. And the Catechism is clear about the limitations of human speech when talking about Divinity:
God transcends all creatures. We must therefore continually purify our language of everything in it that is limited, image-bound or imperfect, if we are not to confuse our image of God – “the inexpressible, the incomprehensible, the invisible, the ungraspable” – with our human representations. Our human words always fall short of the mystery of God. (42)
This having been duly noted, the Catechism goes on to say in its next paragraph, “Admittedly, in speaking about God like this, our language is using human modes of expression; nevertheless it really does attain to God himself, though unable to express him in his infinite simplicity.”
Infinite simplicity. Key words. To my uneducated mind, what they mean is that God is one: exactly the same – always and everywhere. God is good. God is light. God is love. All the time. In all places – including Hell.
Disposition Is the Critical Difference
But how could this be? If God showers His goodness on those in Heaven, showers nothing but goodness on the souls in purgation and showers nothing but goodness even on the souls in Hell, how is it that we can possibly suppose that the souls in Purgatory or those in Hell suffer in any way?
The answer to this question may be best illustrated by a simple but powerful metaphor.
It’s been wisely suggested that Heaven and Hell are the same exact lush, beautiful banquet, arranged at a very long table, at which everyone who is seated has no elbows. In Heaven, everyone at the banquet is quite happy while everyone at the same banquet in Hell is miserable.
Why the contrast? It is for the simple reason that while those in Hell are fixated on not being able to bend their own arms and, therefore, are unable to put any of the food or drink into their own mouths, those at the table in Heaven are focused on feeding the person across from them at the table. Thus, all in Heaven receive plenty to sate their hunger and thirst and are more than satisfied.
Note carefully that there is no difference between both settings other than the disposition of those gathered at the table. The food and drink in Hell are not rotten or poisoned in some way. Its provisions are as rich and tasty and life-giving as the libations in Heaven. The people in Hell just can’t be bothered to think of anyone but themselves and, precisely within this worldview, are miserable in the presence of what otherwise would be a sumptuous reward.
Sirach 6:20-21 says,“[Wisdom] seems very harsh to the uninstructed; a weakling will not remain with her. She will weigh him down like a heavy testing stone, and he will not be slow to cast her off.”
But what if the weakling has died and has, therefore, inescapably entered the unadulterated presence of Wisdom for all eternity? What if he or she is no longer able to “cast Wisdom off”?
“Godliness is an abomination to a sinner,” says Sirach 1:25. As difficult as it is for a soul in a state of grace to fathom, the essence of God (charity) is actually repulsive to some people. And charity is not merely a lovely concept, it’s a substance.
I submit to you that the fact that damned souls are tormented by God is not a manifestation of God’s “bloodthirst” and active “scourging” of these souls – it’s just the opposite. It is precisely a manifestation of His being nothing but love and pure goodness. Being tormented by their fundamental opposition to that goodness is what hurts those souls so badly.
Invite God To Set You Ablaze!
If God is an all-consuming fire, what should we all be as individual Christians?
“I have come to set the earth on fire,” Jesus said in Luke 12:49, “and how I wish it were already blazing!” He is not talking about the fire of judgment. He is talking about the fire of love – which, as it turns out, are actually one and the same fire.
This concept of the “fire of love” is quite beautiful. But as the month dedicated to the Last Things continues, it is worth pondering carefully whether or not we, individually, are ready yet to receive those powerful flames.