A hundred years ago today, on 13 July 1917, Our Lady is said to have revealed a vision of hell to three little Portuguese shepherds. According to the eldest, Lucia dos Santos’ later reminiscence, “The vision lasted but an instant. […] Otherwise, I think we would have died of fear and terror.”
Mary, it appears, doesn’t really go in for doctrinal soft-peddling, even when dealing with primary school-age children. And to be fair to her, she has a good track record raising kids.
Nevertheless, hell isn’t as popular as it used to be. Surveys consistently show that while lots of people still believe in Heaven, rather fewer believe in “the other place”. And that trend is as true of Catholics as it is for everybody else.
In such a climate, the message of Fátima does not necessarily sit easily. But then, neither – and this really ought to give us pause – does the message of Jesus of Nazareth.
Jesus talks about hell, gehenna in New Testament Greek, an awful lot. True enough, it is not a subject he ever dwells on in detail: there is no suite of parables which intimate various aspects of hell, as there are for the Kingdom (see Mark 4; Matthew 13). But Jesus refers to it in all main strands of the gospel tradition. And what he does say, though brief, is often graphically to-the-point. “Fires of hell”, the phrase used in the Fátima decade prayer – which was also, I might add, revealed one hundred years ago today – Is a thoroughly Jesuanic image (Mark 9.43; Matthew 13.42, 50; 25.41).
This recognition explains the urgency we find in the gospels. From his emergence from the wilderness (“repent, and believe in the good news”; Mark 1.15) to his post-resurrection farewell tour (“repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed… to all nations”; Luke 24.47), Jesus is, in the most literal of senses, a Godman on a mission. We see the same sense of zeal, of course, in many of the great saints (not excluding St Jacinta Marto).
We noted above Jesus’ own use of “fire” as a description of what precisely he has come to call sinners away from. It is important to point out that Jesus’ images are not always to be understood in a literal way.
For instance, the kingdom of God probably isn’t, in all its details, exactly like a housewife baking an absurdly large amount of bread (Matthew 13.33). The primary focus of Judgement Day will not be on actual farm animals (Matthew 25.31-3). And Jesus did not really sprout grapes from his body (John 15.1).
But we ignore the stark, deliberately scary images with which Jesus chooses to illustrate hell at our, and others’, peril. There might not really be a genuine “immortal underground worm” (see Mark 9.48; Isaiah 66.24) accompanying the unhappy souls. But if it is indeed a metaphor, then it scarcely bodes well concerning what does await them.
The very same Lady who appeared at Fátima once told the steward of the wedding at Cana in Galilee, “do whatever he tells you” (John 2.5). It remains sound advice. And it would certainly include a prudent concern for others and oneself to not end up in “those hidden abodes, in which are detained the souls that have not obtained heavenly bliss”.