Catholic sci-fi/fantasy author Tim Powers (who gave permission to use his name) writes:
What if there’s a sort of Anti-Purgatory at the entry to Hell? I know I always reflexively feel that I couldn’t ever really be in danger of damnation just because I’m … such a nice guy. In terms of Hell as Lewis fictionally described it in The Great Divorce, for instance, I wouldn’t fit into it. There’s just too much of good in me — amiability, mild generosity, occasional unstressful moral stands — for me to be able to picture myself damned. But —
Purgatory burns out all the last bits of sin and self-love and inclination-toward-evil in saved souls before they enter Heaven, so that what enters is a streamlined, sanctified soul that can sustain the Beatific Vision. What if there’s an Anti-Purgatory before entry into Hell, that strips away all the (never securely attached) bits of sanctity that might cling to a definitively lost soul? — so that what enters Hell is a strripped-down soul that simply no longer has the "nice guy" qualities which the living person had randomly and ad-hoc-ly accumulated?
This may already have been proposed by Origen or Augustine or somebody, or even be dogma, but it never occurred to me before, and I find it a usefully-scary idea!
It’s not a dogma, nor is it a speculation that I recall reading in a theologian’s writings before, but there may be something to this idea. Certainly there’s enough to it that one might want to base a scary story on it (and, apropos of that, I hereby grant Tim Powers license to use anything at all that he wants from this post or based on it, just to clear up any potential copyright concerns in advance).
Lemme talk about hell for a minute, since it’s the state that an anti-purgatory would configure you for.
Folks who haven’t read The Great Divorce should be aware that in this book C. S. Lewis depicts hell as a grey town in which the inhabitants view themselves as good people (certainly not damned people) who are better than the unpleasant environment in which they find themselves. Since they don’t really "fit in" with each other, they keep moving farther apart.
Frankly, unlike Tim, that actually sounds a little appealling to me. I mean, who wouldn’t want a chance to get away from it all after the hustle and bustle of life and have a chance to really relax? Didn’t God say something about "entering into his rest"? Maybe that’s what he had in mind. It’s a hopeful thought, anyway. Perhaps the city might even have a bus line or something to help people get even further away. I’m sure that there would be demand for a public transit system. Every major metropolitan area needs one of those.
This depiction of hell by Lewis is notable for how different it is from the biblical and traditional images of hell. Those images go like this:
- Hell is like being excluded from a party that you really wanted to go to and left outside in the darkness.
- Hell is like being burned alive.
- Hell is like being sentenced to torture by a king or judge.
These images have been developed in different ways by subsequent Catholic thought.
The first of them, in conjunction with other passages that talk about what heaven is like, has been understood as the mirror image of the Beatific Vision. Those who get into heaven get to be with and behold God (the Beatific Vision), being transformed to be like him. Those who go to hell are deprived of this vision, which is like being shut out of a party that you really, really wanted to go to bad. Theologians have called this the poena damni or "pain of loss."
The second two images (burning and torturing) correspond to what theologians have called the poena sensus or "pain of sense." The precise nature of the poena sensus has been disputed, with many theologians (especially in former days) holding that hell contained fire that was in some sense literal and somehow able to afflict the immaterial souls of the damned even before they reacquire their bodies at the Resurrection.
One thing that all of these images have in common is that they depict the punishments–both the poena damni and the poena sensus–as being inflicted on a person against his will by God, who is represented in parabolic form as a powerful person (a king, a judge, the rich head of a household) with the right to do these things.
Something else that they all have in common is that there is a tension between them and the idea that Deus caritas est. I mean, how do you square the idea that God is love with the idea that he’s going to torture people forever against their will? Many of the sins we commit on earth don’t seem to us to deserve eternal punishment, and many people have such an impoverished knowledge of God through no fault of their own that it seems really hard to imagine that it would be just to burn them alive for all eternity.
Corresponding to this, some have speculated that perhaps only a very tiny, tiny number of people go to hell, but then why are the biblical warnings against hell so strong?
Perhaps just to warn us against it in the strongest possible terms. But perhaps there is another possibility. After all, Jesus tells us that "many" go the road that leads to destruction, while "few" (adults, at least in his pre-Christian day) find the way to life. Maybe there’s another explanation.
Some have said, "Y’know: Scripture is a set of Middle Eastern documents that often use vivid imagery to gesture at spiritual realities. These images don’t necessarily correspond to the spiritual realities in a one-to-one manner. They contain elements that aren’t literal, and they correspond to the spiritual realities in a more general way that operates on a deeper-than-the-surface-of-the-imagery level."
This has led a lot of folks to try and offer an account of hell that retains the underlying principles of the biblical images but that makes it easier to square hell with the idea of a God who is infinitely loving.
The fulcrum of this new interpretation consists in saying that the image of God imposing hell on people against their will is non-literal.
The Middle Eastern environment in which Scripture was written was one in which justice was dispensed by kings and judges who imposed harsh penalties on offenders at the drop of a hat (or turban, as the case may be). In that context, it was natural when thinking of the divine administration of justice, to picture God in a similar manner.
But on some level–these theologians would argue–isn’t hell really a matter of our own choice? I mean, we chose to sin, right? God wouldn’t be sending us to hell if we hadn’t made that choice. So perhaps the images of God imposing punishments from without is really just part of the Middle Eastern framework in which these images were developed. The essential thing is that we have made a choice not to go to heaven, not to be with God–to reject him fundamentally.
Hell thus gets reconceptualized as just the natural outworking of our own choice. We have chosen not to be with God, and he lets us make that choice, though it is not a pleasant one for those who make it.
The poena damni, which everyone already regarded as the essential pain of hell, is thus further accentuated, and the poena sensus gets re-interpreted as the natural consequences of the choice to abandon God (perhaps as some kind of inner, psychic torment the damned impose on themselves)–as some in Church history have always interpreted it. (For example, some historically have interpreted the image of burning as being the torments of a guilty conscience, though this has not been the majority position.)
There is considerable room for speculation on hell and what it is like. The Church really hasn’t determined much in this area. But it has in recent times emphasized hell as self-exclusion from heaven. The Catechism states: "To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s
merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free
choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the
blessed is called ‘hell’" (CCC 1033).
Now let’s talk about anti-purgatory.
The Church has also determined that hell begins immediately upon death in mortal sin. The Catechism states: "Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin
descend into hell" (CCC 1035).
At first glance, this might seem to preclude the possibility of an anti-purgatory, but not necessarily. The point is that people who die in mortal sin begin suffering the consequences of separation from God immediately, not that they reach their final state of punishment in an instant. In other words, they don’t get a respite from suffering until the Last Day. They start experiencing the consequences of being excluded from God’s presence immediately, but there could be a process involved in what happens to them.
Those in purgatory are already linked to God by dying in his friendship, and many have held that they already experience tremendous joy through their union with God, even though there is a process that must take place for them to enter the full glory of heaven.
If this is true of those rising into heaven, it might be true of those sinking into hell: Though they already suffer from the loss of God’s presence, there is a process that must take place before they experience the full consequences of their sins.
And just as those who are heaven-bound are losing the last bits of evil clinging to their souls, those who are hell-bent may be losing the last bits of good clinging to them.
The difference might be that the Church–with its focus on heaven and how to get there–has devoted more attention to fleshing out the theology of the former rather than the latter.
In talks on purgatory, I’ve sometimes said that purgatory is the cloak room of heaven–the place where you get spiffed up before you’re ushered into the throne room. Anti-purgatory might then be conceived of as the cloak room of hell–the place where all that nasty good is brushed or scrubbed (or amputated) off of you before you’re brought in to meet the Lord of the Pit.
I’d like to mention another possibility here as well: Suppose that the re-conceptualization of hell in terms of self-exclusion isn’t the only way of looking at the matter. Suppose that there is an element by which God is active rather than passive in bringing about the state of damnation for those who have chosen it. It seems to me that an anti-purgatorial process could play a useful role here.
One of the things that we’re given to understand is that, when we get our just deserts, it will be obvious that the deserts are just (at least if we’re among the right-thinking at that point). This is something about which we might be confused in this life since everyone we meet seems to be a mixture of good and evil and it’s hard to tell under all that mixture what fundamental choice a person has made.
There are people who outwardly seem to have made a fundamental choice to sin, but they have really inwardly chosen redemption. (A number of such folks showed up at Jesus’ dinner parties.) Similarly, there are folks who outwardly seem to have chosen holiness but who are inwardly evil. (Jesus had a few things to say about them, too.)
Part of God’s judgment will be publicly clarifying where everyone stands, and purgatory and anti-purgatory may play a role in that. Purgatory burns away all the schmutz on a person who has a heart of gold, while anti-purgatory burns away all the glitter on a person with a heart of obsidian.
Once all the masks and all of the clutter have been cleared away from someone so that we can see what he really is on the inside–a being of gold or a being of obsidian–it will be a lot clearer why the person deserves the fate he does, and why it’s fair for the person to experience that fate permanently. Golden beings remain golden beings and so deserve eternal light. Obsidian beings remain obsidian beings and so deserve eternal darkness. These two kinds of beings deserve to experience what they fundamentally are (or, rather, what they fundamentally chose to make themselves), and the great purification has made that obvious.
A question that remains is, if there is an anti-purgatory, specifically what is the nature of the good that it removes from one?
There are two kinds of good: supernatural good and natural good. The first consists of good that is oriented toward God in some way–specifically things like faith, hope, and charity. The second consists of every other kind of good–not just justice, temperance, fortitude, and prudence, but also things like being strong, being smart, and being beautiful.
The one thing that anti-purgatory can’t burn out of you is true charity (supernatural love of God). If you had that when you died then you would have died in a state of grace (charity is biconditional with the state of grace) and so you would have gone to heaven (or at least to true purgatory). Charity is the one thing that anti-purgatory couldn’t remove from you.
But any other form of good it could remove. If you died with faith (but not charity) then anti-purgatory could remove faith (belief in what God says because God says it) from you. If you died with hope (but not charity) then anti-purgatory could remove hope (trust in God for the means of salvation) from you. If you died with some measure of the cardinal virtues (justice, prudence, temperance, fortitude), then anti-purgatory could remove those from you. If you died with other good qualities (intelligence, strength, beauty) then anti-purgatory could remove them.
This is not to say that anti-purgatory might not perversely strengthen certain aspects of you. For example, suppose that you were intelligent and strong but also gentle and compassionate. If you die in mortal sin then anti-purgatory might strip you of the gentlenesss and compassion and leave you wicked smart and wicked strong–a better machine of evil than you ever were in life.
Or it might just strip you of the compassion, leaving you smart and strong and able to be gentle when the situation calls for it (so as better to hoodwink others). That’d make you an even better servant of evil.
The more good you have in you (the more virtues you have except charity) the more potentially destructive you can be.
You might even have a form of natural love that just isn’t the supernatural love of God. For example, in the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (which has classically been understood such that the Rich Man is in hell; and if I remember correctly the Catechism understands it this way also), the Rich Man has natural love for his brothers who are on earth and not yet in a state of damnation; he just doesn’t have the supernatural love of God that would have saved him. He wants his brothers on earth to be saved for some natural reason–because he doesn’t want them to suffer, for example.
St. Thomas also envisions a kind of preparatory love that proceeds true charity. One thus might have a kind of natural love for God that hasn’t been elevated by grace into the concern for pleasing God for his own sake (e.g. just a desire to please God to get goodies from him).
Any or all of these might hypothetically be present in the damned, and thus might be left in one experiencing anti-purgatory, leading to all kinds of dramatic possibilities for stories.
Perhaps under the right circumstances people at different stages in the loss-of-good process might be allowed to act externally, leading to interesting dramatic complications in situations involving people who have experienced different good-ectomy surgeries. Some might still have relatively high amounts of good in them, while others have been configured more closely to His Satanic Majesty’s image.
A person with relatively more good left in them might even betray–for a non-true-charity reason–someone with less good in them.
Incidentally, if you’re looking for a nice, Latin-sounding name for anti-purgatory, you might consider perditory or perditorium (from perditor = that which destroys or ruins), though if that’s too close to "perdition" (a standard reference to hell) then you might consider putresory or putresorium (from putor = rot) or putrefactory or putrefactorium (from putrefactor = that which causes rot/putresence).
BTW, for those not familiar with Tim Powers,