Father Fortea, why does hell need to be eternal?
Repentance can be born only of grace. If God does not send grace to a spirit, making it understand the perpetrated evil, then there can be no supernatural repentance. Without grace, a demon can understand that it was a foolish decision to have rebelled, a decision that has caused it suffering. But true repentance is qualitatively different from just mere awareness. It is not simply an act of the understanding; rather, it is a gift from God so that we might bend our knees before Him and humbly ask for His forgiveness. Without this grace, one may feel pain for making a wrong decision, but true repentance is beyond him. Demons can admit that their choice led to suffering, but this does not stop them from hating God.
The eternity of hell, then, is not due to some arbitrary divine decision. Rather, its eternal duration is a necessary consequence of rebellion against God. It is they who have drifted far away from Him and do not want to return. Many Christians think that God is excessively severe in imposing an eternal condemnation on sinners, but He is just giving those who hate Him what they want – eternal separation from Him (see Catechism of the Catholic Church 1033-1037).
Some people think: “Well, no matter how much I sin, I do not want to go to hell and be separated from God. I will always want to ask for forgiveness.” With this kind of reasoning, they calmly go on sinning. To these people we need to say that many who are condemned to hell never thought that they would be. If one continues to sin, this will lead to increasingly more serious sins and eventually one will end up being confirmed in sin, making repentance all the more difficult. We can see this in the lives of those who abuse drugs. In the beginning, they were normal people who started to use drugs socially and in moderation. When they saw the pathetic state of drug addicts, they asked themselves how such people could be so weak and let drugs take over their lives so completely. Soon, though, the social users begin to use more and more, and eventually their state becomes as bad as those they condemned. It is the same with sin: those condemned to hell believed that they would not pass certain limits, that they would keep their sin “under control.” But, as we have said, sin breeds more and greater sin, leading one further down the path to destruction.
But what about the devil? If he repented right now, couldn’t the devil do an intense penance for millions of years to be purified from his sins? This seems like a reasonable question since we know that there is no sin that cannot be forgiven. But the condemnation of the devil (and that of the other demons as well) is not primarily a problem of sin per se; it is a problem of the will. The devil’s condemnation is eternal because his choice is, in the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “irrevocable” and not due to a “defect in the infinite divine mercy” (CCC 393).
Thus, it is impossible for the devil to do penance and return to God. He (and the other demons) possessed the power of an angelic intellect. Unlike us, he did not suffer from a weakened will or a darkened intellect. He knew full well the consequences of his rebellion against the divine will.
It is the devil’s own will that impedes his repentance, and it is certain that no demon or condemned soul has ever repented. Without grace, repentance is impossible. The condemned will not receive this grace since they have already made their definitive decision: non serviam (“I will not serve”). Thus, the circle has been closed around hell for all eternity.
Editor’s Note: To learn more about spiritual warfare and demonology, Catholic Spiritual Direction recommends Fr. Fortea’s excellent book, Interview With An Exorcist – An Insider’s Look at the Devil, Demonic Possession, and the Path to Deliverance.
Art: “El Infierno” [Hell], padre Hernando de la Cruz [Father Hernando de la Cruz], siglo XVII [17th century], PD, Wikimedia Commons.