The images of hell presented to us in the Bible are haunting. Matthew 13 describes it as a “fiery furnace” where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Mark 9 combines the image of “unquenchable fire” with that of worms that never cease to gnaw away at the body while Revelation 20 ominously refers to a “pool of fire and brimstone.”
In one of his Wednesday audiences, Blessed Pope John Paul II suggests that such images are not meant to be taken literally: “They show the complete frustration and emptiness of life without God,” he said. “Rather than a place, hell indicates the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy.”
One image of hell that captures this state of total isolation is in The Great Divorce. One of the characters portrays hell as a place where people spend eternity becoming increasingly isolated from each other:
They’ve been moving on and on. Getting further apart. They’re so far off now that they could never think of coming to the bus stop at all. Astronomical distances. There’s a bit of rising ground near where I live and a chap has a telescope. You can see the lights of the inhabited houses, where those old ones live, millions of miles away. Millions of miles from us and from one another. Every now and then they move further still.
In this vignette, Lewis has grasped one of the fundamental implications of separation from God. Without a relationship with God, it logically follows that mankind would become estranged from each other. If heaven is the perfect realization of the Greatest Commandment—to love God and love neighbor—then hell must be the inverse. This is a fundamental truth of our faith: our relationship to each other is inextricably bound up in our relationship with God. (Or as Lewis puts it: “You cannot love a fellow-creature fully till you love God.”)
What is conspicuously absent from Lewis’ vision is the suffering that such separation must entail. But his depiction nonetheless performs a valuable service in correcting one of the great misconceptions of hell. Atheists may comfort themselves that hell will be one heck of a party. But hell will be no party in any sense of the word. “That’s one of the disappointments,” says one of Lewis’ bus passengers. “I thought you’d meet interesting historical characters. But you don’t: they’re too far away.”
Limbo—Separation without Suffering: Contrary to what you might have heard, limbo is not dead. True, a Vatican theological commission in 2007 seemed to cast aspersion on the concept of limbo—but that’s only when their final report was selectively read by those in the news media who were all too eager to discredit theological tradition. In fact, the commission—which was not speaking with the authority of the Magisterium anyway—left the concept of limbo intact: neither rejecting it, nor recommending its acceptance as an article of faith.
Limbo is the classic solution to the theological dilemma of what happens to unbaptized infants who die: the suffering of hell seems too cruel a fate for such babies, but the Church’s dogma on the necessity of the sacraments for salvation has closed the doors of heaven to them. Limbo comes from the Latin word limbus, meaning edge or border. Technically speaking, limbo has always been understood to be the very edge of hell, which is fitting, since, as we saw above, hell is fundamentally a “place” of separation from God.
What infants actually experience in limbo is a subject of endless debate and discussion among theologians. Some follow Aquinas in believing that the infants enjoy “perfect natural happiness”—blissfully unaware of the beatific vision of which they have been deprived and equally removed from the suffering of sinners in hell. But others believe that the infants experience merely “tranquility.” Yet others argue that they experience some kind of sadness in knowing what they have missed. Dante, for instance, depicts the infants as sighing with “untormented grief.”