Saturday, May 19, 2007


Views of Hell

[This post is indebted to an article by C. A. Patrides, published in Harvard Theological Review in 1964.*]

There are two punishments associated with hell, poena damni, pain of loss, and poena sensus, pain of sense. The latter is the one most people associate with hell, i.e., torment in a lake of fire, but the former also has an ancient pedigree.

Despite my love of Dante, I will be surveying thoughts on poena damni, since I do not conceive of hell as a "literal" lake of fire. Although, before I begin, I quote Bishop Thomas Bilson, who brought a smile to my face with his admonition that:

They that go thither shall find it [i.e., hell] no metaphor.

Origen wrote: seems to be indicated that every sinner kindles for himself the flame of his own fire...Of this fire the fuel and food are our sins, which are called by the Apostle Paul "wood, and hay, and stubble."

...when the soul shall be found to be beyond the order, and connection, and harmony in which it was created by God for the purposes of good and useful action and observation, and not to harmonize with itself in the connection of its rational movements, it must be deemed to bear the chastisement and torture of its own dissension, and to feel the punishments of its own disordered condition.

Robert Bolton, a Puritan, described poena damni as follows:

I. The Pain of loss. Privation of GOD’S glorious presence, and eternal separation from those everlasting joys, felicities and bliss above, is the more horrible part of hell, as Divines affirm. There are two parts (say they) of hellish torments; I. Pain of loss; and 2. Pain of sense: but a sensible and serious contemplation of that inestimable and unrecoverable loss, doth incomparably more afflict an understanding soul indeed, than all those punishments, tortures, and extremest sufferings of sense.
It is the constant and concurrent judgment of the ancient Fathers, that the torments and miseries of many hells, come far short, are nothing, to the kingdom of heaven, and unhappy banishment from the beatific vision of the most sovereign, only, and chiefest Good...The far greatest, and (indeed) unconceivable grief would be, to be severed for ever from the highest and supreme Good…

John Donne, a priest and poet, wrote:

when all is done, the hell of hells, the torment of torments, is the everlasting absence of God, and the everlasting impossibility of returning to his presence; Horrendum est, says the Apostle, It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God...but to fall out of the hands of the living God, is a horror beyond our expression, beyond our imagination...What Tophet is not Paradise, what Brimstone is not Amber, what mashing is not a comfort, what gnawing of the worm is not a tickling, what torment is not a marriage bed to this damnation, to be secluded eternally, eternally, eternally from the sight of God?

Richard Sibbes, another Puritan, wrote:

when God the Fountain of all good shall hide his face altogether
from the creature, that is Hell: The place where God shines not
outwardly with comforts nor inwardly, nor there shall be no hope of
neither, but a place of horror and despair, that is hell, as the hell of this life is when God shines not on our souls.

Ralph Cudworth, one of the Cambridge Platonists, wrote:

We have dreadful apprehensions, of the Flames of Hell without us; we tremble and are afraid, when we hear of Fire and Brimstone, whilst in the mean time, we securely nourish within our own hearts,
a true and living Hell,

---Et caeco carpimur igni:

the dark fire of our Lusts, consumeth our bowels within, and miserably scorcheth our souls, and we are not troubled at it. We do not perceive, how Hell steals upon us, whilest we live here. And as for Heaven, we only gaze abroad, expecting that it should come in to us from without, but never look for the beginning of it to arise within, in our own hearts.**

The preceding excerpts describe the sort of hell I envision, i.e., privation of God's presence and everlasting despair. I guess you can say I occupy the middle ground between "atavistic" literalists and namby-pamby liberals. (Although, I identify more with the former than the latter.)

*All the quotations, with the exception of Origen, are taken from Patrides article.

**Although I agree with this statement, I also agree with Alexander Ross, who wrote:

Though it be true, that where God’s presence is, there is Heaven; yet we must not therefore think, that there is not a peculiar ubi of bliss and happiness beyond the tenth Sphere, wherein God doth more manifestly shew his glory and presence, than anywhere else.

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