The Materiality of Hell

The Materiality of Hell April 16, 2015

As recorded in the supplement to the Summa, Thomas Aquinas teaches that the damned will rise again with bodies and will be tormented in hell corporeally.

This leaves open questions about the materiality of the various biblical descriptions of those torments, and in question 97 of the supplement, Thomas addresses those.

Jesus refers to a “worm that dies not” when talking about the damned, and Thomas wonders whether these are corporeal worms. His answer is that the worm is metaphorical. This is because “no animal or mixed body will remain in the renewed world except only the body of man, because the former are not directed to incorruption. Since no corporeal worms will exist, the worm must be a metaphor of something spiritual, which Thomas identifies as “remorse of conscience, which is called a worm because it originates from the corruption of sin, and torments the soul, as a corporeal worm born of corruption torments by gnawing” (article 2).

Jesus says there will be weeping in hell, and Thomas wonders whether this is corporeal. The answer is again No, since weeping would deplete the body and nothing could be restored to the bodies of the damned by food and drink. “Everything finite is consumed if something is continually taken from it.” Though there will be no physical tears, the damned will experience the “commotion and disturbance of the head and eyes” that is associated with weeping: “for the bodies of the damned will be tormented not only from without, but also from within, according as the body is affected at the instance of the soul’s passion towards good or evil” (article 3).

The argument moves in the other direction with regard to fire, which Thomas takes as corporeal. After a long discussion of Avicenna’s view that souls cannot be tormented with corporeal fire, he concludes that “whatever we may say of the fire that torments the separated souls, we must admit that the fire which will torment the bodies of the damned after the resurrection is corporeal, since one cannot fittingly apply a punishment to a body unless that punishment itself be bodily” (article 5). It is, in fact, the “same species as every other fire” (article 6).

For Thomas, hell is a complex of corporeal and spiritual torments, suitable to the enfleshed souls that are sent there.


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