Today's readings for Mass give us a passage from the Apocalypse (the Book of Revelation) in the New Testament. In that passage we read that the Saints in Heaven praise God for three things: 1) His saving power and glory; 2) His punishment of those who lead people into sin; and 3) the continuing remembrance of her punishment (Apoc 19:1-3). The second one is tough enough, but that last one seems almost impossible to fathom. It reads this way in the Douay:
Alleluia. And her smoke ascendeth for ever and ever.The Catholic edition of the Revised Standard Version reads similarly:
Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up forever and ever.
It is not just a recognition of the fact that the smoke of Hell exists. It is specifically giving praise to God that He does not let us forget it. Judgment is not a pleasant thing, of course. Yet, here we find that those who are perfectly redeemed in Heaven are thankful enough to express praise to the Lord that the "smoke" rises "forever". We should note that it is not saying that they can see the actual punishment itself (as though they were watching the tormented souls in agony), yet it does say that they see a reminder of it. Just as you can see smoke rising from a fire even though you do not see the fire itself, so this is a sign that reminds them that God brings, and has brought, judgment.
What bothers so many of us is that we feel uncomfortable with the idea of taking pleasure in someone's pain, and that is a good thing. We should never rejoice that someone is suffering (anyone). The reason why this is so, however, is because in our fallen state we do not yet have a perfectly redeemed heart and mind that can perceive things the way that God can. We are prone to feelings of selfish vindictiveness and revenge and those are sinful. No, I am not saying that there is a holy "gloating" going on in Heaven, but I am saying that the Saints can give praise to God for all His works (including His judgments). Consider this: we are told many times in Scripture to give thanks "in good times and bad" and to "praise God for all His mighty works". If we can achieve praising God for His judgments, then the rest is easy.
Imagine the holy Saints telling God, "I like all Your nicey, nicey works, but I really do not like that judgment and punishment stuff; could You hide it back in the corner of eternity so I don't have to look it at?" Yeah . . . probably not. If, however, it is a holy and saintly thing to praise God for His judgments, then why do we here on Earth still get uncomfortable about it? Because we are still on the path to holiness, but have not yet arrived. I admit that I cannot stand talking about Hell in a homily (did it a few weeks back and stressed the whole way through!). Yet, each of us needs to be moving further along that path.
I do not expect anyone to be running around tomorrow yelling "hooray, God sends people to Hell!" Once again, in our fallen state (and in the current theological confusion of our society) that would be the exact opposite of speaking the truth; it would come across as a hateful vendetta (the Book of Revelation was sent to the Churches to read, not the pagan world). We should, though, be working on being able to give our Lord praise for everything He does; not just for saving us, but for bringing justice where justice is needed. That is what eternal punishment is all about: justice. If God did not cast the wicked into Hell, then He would be unjust--and an unjust God cannot be trusted in anything (even salvation). Let us each seek to praise Him for His glorious works; each and every one of them.