The Thomistic Problem of the Sufferings of Hell

In my university days, I found C.S. Lewis’s notion of Hell compelling. And although I hold to some form of apokatastasis now, I still find Lewis’s understanding of Hell persuasive, at least as temporary punishment. In my Thomistic phase I had to let go of this understanding of Hell. The problem of the pains of Hell became more acute for me after devoting myself to the Thomistic tradition. 

Lewis held that man resisting his natural, final good (i.e. God) will suffer the deprivation of that good until he repents. To know God is his deepest desire. Man being the image of God cannot be himself without knowing God face to face and all other desires are but a derivative of this primordial desire. The suffering of Hell consist in the deprivation of the final, natural good who is God. 

The Thomistic tradition rejects this presupposition. God being infinitely beyond man’s capacities is beyond man’s natural desire. This tradition concedes that man is naturally curious about the nature of God (see Feingold’s The Natural Desire for God) only after deducing his existence. But this curiosity is not the innate inclination to know God. It is more like that natural curiosity one might have about aliens subsequent to the sightings of a UFO. We would naturally be curious about them and their nature. So also man’s desire for God. Upon learning that God exists we naturally want to know more about God. But, and this is the crucial point, man’s being does not cry out to know God face to face. 

According to the Thomistic tradition God must draw a man before this desire can exist at all. More to the point, God must grant him an external help to create a desire which is beyond human nature. The desire for God is outside of human nature, it is not constitutive but additional to it. This principle holds for all rational created natures for that matter. Not even the lofty angels naturally desire to see God face to face. 

Lewis’ understanding of Hell makes no sense through this Thomistic lens of human nature. If man’s essential being does not cry out for Heaven, then the loss of Heaven would be no loss at all, and, thus, no torment. Tantum quod desideramus amittere dolemus. We suffer loss only so far as we desire. 

The torment of Hell becomes a real problem for Thomists. Lewis’s understanding of deprivation cannot explain the pains of Hell within their paradigm of human nature. The infernal fire is not the loss of Heaven because Heaven was never what man desired. And just as the logic of Thomism makes Heaven and grace foreign to man, so also must the torments of Hell be foreign to man. We can follow the logic of this in two areas.

First, Thomists in later centuries explained the torments of Hell by way of literal torment from God. God externally inflicts punishments on the damned. Even in the moderate speculations of Scheeben we find strange speculations about the nature of the infernal fire and flesh so that this torment might continue forever (sine fine). Scheeben explains that God is able to rejuvenate the flesh so that the dark flames will never cease to have a direct object for its task of punishment. Punishment must be inflicted lest the damned forget that they should have chosen God. They cannot suffer through the natural desire for God so they must suffer the external pains of God. They do not naturally suffer, they supernaturally suffer. 

The second area wherein we can follow the logic of the Thomistic anthropology in relation to God is the doctrine of Limbo. Because man’s nature does not cry out for the Beatific Vision man may find his natural beatitude in the upper chambers of Hell. We see this especially with the innocent infants. They live a life of utter bliss without the Vision of God. They do not need Heaven to be happy; man was not made for Heaven. 

In the future, I hope to tease out the implications of this externalism found in the Thomistic tradition, a tradition which seems to carry the torch of Augustine’s principles. 


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