In theological discourse hellfire signifies the concept of physical punishment (poena sensus ) that scholastic theology elaborated, in addition to the concept of punishment of loss (damnation), to interpret the punishment of the demons and the damned. The theological distinction between hellfire and damnation interprets the Church's teaching about the punishment of sin (Enchiridion symbolorum, 780). But the nature of the objective reality expressed by the concept of physical punishment has not been clarified by the Church.
The analysis of sin in relation to the last end reveals not only the loss of the last end (aversio ), which is God, but also, in the same context of the last end, the inordinate estimation of other things (conversio ). The punishment for this aspect of sin is expressed by the concept of physical punishment (C. gent. 3.145). And from the understanding of the relation of sin and punishment to the will (Comp. theol. 121), the objective reality interpreted by this concept is seen to be material things (C. gent. 4.90).
How material things can inflict punishment on the demons and the damned has been variously understood; the reading of scriptural statements about this punishment and the available scientific knowledge have been reflected. Much of this speculation is now discarded. Aquinas approaches the problem from the metaphysical angle of the relation between spirit and matter (C. gent. 4.90) and resolves it in the sense of demons and damned souls being subjected to or constricted by material things (Comp. theol. 180). This constrictive action of matter on the damned supposes a special intervention of divine power, so that only analogously can natural knowledge be used to understand it. By this analogous use of natural knowledge, Aquinas justifies the literal reading of scriptural statements about hellfire (Comp. theol. 179). Theologians differ about the form of causality involved in the constrictive action of matter on the damned; for some it is physical causality, for others, objective causality. Aquinas understands it as physical and objective (Comp. theol. 180).
Theological opinion about what matter constricts the damned has developed considerably. Where earlier views understood this matter as some material things, the trend now is to interpret it as the whole material universe. By this constrictive action the relationship of the damned to the universe and its parts is restricted. This situation of the damned within the universe is understood in terms of the cosmic role of the Holy Spirit manifested in the resurrection of jesus; it expresses their humiliated situation within the kingdom of god. The material restriction of the demons and the damned, signified by hellfire, articulates their spiritual restriction, signified by damnation. The meaning of the punishment of the demons and the damned in personal terms is that they are the unfree.
See Also: gehenna; fire of judgment; hell (theology of); sanction; sanction, divine; eschatology, articles on.
Bibliography: a. michel, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 1903–50; Tables générales 1951) 5.2:2196–2239. a. winklhofer, The Coming of His Kingdom, tr. a. v. littledale (New York 1963) 77–98.
[e. g. hardwick]
"Hellfire." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/hellfire
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