“One of Satan’s greatest works is to make people believe that he does not exist.”
No one knows who first made this observation. The exact wording changes from source to source. However, it is all too true.
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A Fatal Complacency
Many modern Catholics believe that Satan exists, but that the reality of Hell is uncertain. Bishop Robert Barron’s recent comment that “we are permitted to hope that all people might be saved” created a stir. Many might have been encouraged by his words. Such encouragement is a dangerous thing. If one can hope that Hitler, Stalin, and Mao may be saved, then the average person’s sins must be relatively insignificant.
Paul Thigpen’s recent book, Saints Who Saw Hell: And Other Catholic Witnesses to the Fate of the Damned, boldly refutes such comfortable assumptions.
This subject is familiar ground for Dr. Thigpen. His previous books include Saints Who Battled Satan, Blood of the Martyrs: Seed of the Church, and Last Words: Final Thoughts of Catholic Saints and Sinners, Stars and Strays. He also wrote the novel My Visit to Hell. He was raised as a Presbyterian, endured an atheist phase, and became a Pentecostal minister before his 1993 conversion. He served as a lay representative to the National Advisory Council of the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops. Currently, he is the director of Adult Faith Formation and Evangelization for St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church in Kennesaw, Georgia.
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The Connection Between Free Will and Hell
To introduce his subject, Dr. Thigpen explained the idea of Hell and its relationship to the doctrine of free will:
“[God] was a Father seeking sons and daughters to love, who could freely love Him in return. And to exhibit real love, they had to possess the ability to choose freely…. And if we have free will, then it is possible for us to say to God in the end, ‘No – I don’t want you.’ If we do, then the eternal separation from Him that we have freely chosen is Hell.”
Public and Private Revelation
The first chapter is about the nature of visions, which are divided into public and private revelation. Public revelation is scriptural, and the Church requires belief in it. Non-scriptural visions are part of private revelation. Belief in private revelations is not required. The Church has approved some private revelations, while others are not.
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This explanation helps the reader understand the structure of the book.
“Glimpses” of Hell from public revelation are found in both testaments. For instance, the tenth chapter of Job speaks of “a land that is dark and covered with the mist of death: A land of misery and darkness, where the shadow of death, and no order, but everlasting horror dwelleth.” Our Lord also speaks about Hell in the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus says, “So shall it be at the end of the world. The angels shall go out, and shall separate the wicked from among the just. And shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
These references are not just fables or metaphors, as the modernists claim. Failure to accept them means spending eternity experiencing their truth.
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The Testimony of the Saints
The book also explores private revelation by relating the more reliable visions first. The author gives priority to the visions of eight canonized saints.
The descriptions are terrifying. Saint John Bosco’s vivid descriptions of Hell were meant to teach his students to avoid evil. He relates that “Ahead of me I could see something like an immense cave which gradually disappeared into recesses sunk far into bowels of the mountains. They were all ablaze, but theirs was not an earthly fire with leaping tongues of flames. The entire cave – walls, ceiling, floor, iron, stones, wood, and coal – everything was glowing white at temperatures of thousands of degrees. Yet the fire did not incinerate, did not consume.”
A recent example includes the impressive testimony of the three shepherd children of Fatima, who saw Hell in July 1917. “Plunged in this fire were demons and souls in human form, like transparent burning embers, all blackened or burnished bronze, floating about in the conflagration, now raised into the air by the flames that issued from within themselves together with great clouds of smoke… amid shrieks and groans which horrified us and made us tremble with fear.”
Less Authoritative Accounts
The less authoritative accounts come from visions of others that were then reported by saints. The author cites Venerable Saint Bede, Saint Alfonsus Liguori, and Pope Saint Gregory the Great. The account of Pope Saint Gregory concerns a monk whose hypocrisy remained hidden until his death. The expiring monk’s last words were, “When you thought that I fasted with you, then I ate my meat in secret places. Look, now I am turned over to a dragon to be devoured, who with his tail has tied up my hands and my feet. His head he has thrust into my mouth, and in that position he lies sucking and drawing out my breath.” He then breathed his last without being able to do penance.
Descending in the level of certainty, the author includes two visions of Hell attributed to Saints Peter and Paul. These come from the apocryphal accounts ascribed by many early Christians to the two saints but were later excluded from the canon of scripture. The final least authoritative section reproduces literary versions of Hell like that of Dante’s Inferno.
A Wake-up Call
Belief in Hell is essential, and yet it is so forgotten in these times. Dr. Thigpen refers to a 2003 study conducted by the Barna Research Group, which found that “Most Americans do not expect to experience Hell first-hand: just one-half of 1% expect to go to Hell upon their death. Nearly two-thirds of Americans (64%) believe they will go to Heaven.”
Since that time, the numbers have only increased. Another famous study revealed that only twenty-eight percent of Catholics believe in the truth of transubstantiation. Thus, many people are both mistaken about the faith and complacent in their ignorance. They neglect the moral law since they do not believe that evil is punished.
Saints Who Saw Hell is an urgent wake-up call for those who go through life, closing their eyes to the reality of Hell. The best way to avoid Hell is to be convinced of its existence. This book helps those who read it to reform their lives and thus escape horrible and eternal damnation. It is a book that everyone needs to read.