IV. THE DENIAL OF HELL IS FOOLISH BRAVADO
There are some miserable men, let us rather say, fools, who, in the delirium of their iniquity, make bold to declare that they laugh at hell. They say so, but only with their lips; their consciences protest and give them the lie. Collot de Herbois, famous for his impiety as much as for is sanguinary ferocity, was the chief author of the massacres of Lyons, in 1793; he caused the destruction of 1,600 victims.
Six years after, in 1799, he was banished to Cayenne, and used to give vent to his infernal rage by blaspheming the holiest things. The least act of religion, became the subject of his jests. Having seen a soldier make the sign of the cross, “Imbecile!” he said to him. “You still believe in superstition! Do you not know that God, the Holy Virgin, Paradise, Hell, are the inventions of the accursed tribe of priests?” Shortly after he fell sick and was seized by violent pains. In an access of fever he swallowed, at a single draught, a bottle of liquor. His disease increased; he felt as if burned by a fire that was devouring his bowels. He uttered frightful shrieks, called upon God, the Holy Virgin, a priest, to come to his relief. “Well, indeed,” said the soldier to him, “you ask for a priest? You fear hell then? You used to curse the priests, make fun of hell! Alas!” He then answered: “My tongue was lying to my heart.” Pretty soon, he expired, vomiting blood and foam.
The following incident happened in 1837. A young under-lieutenant, being in Paris, entered the Church of the Assumption, near the Toilers, and saw a priest kneeling near a confessional. As he made religion the habitual subject of his jokes, he wished to go to confession to while away the time, and went into the confessional. “Monsieur l’abbé,” he said, “would you be good enough to hear my confession?” “Willingly my son; confess unrestrained.” “But I must first say that I am a rather unique kind of a sinner.” “No matter; the sacrament of penance has been instituted for all sinners.” “But I am not very much of a believer in religious matters.” “You believe more than you think.” “Believe? I? I am a regular scoffer.”
The confessor saw with whom he had to deal, and that there was some mystification. He replied, smiling: “You are a regular scoffer? Are you then making fun of me too?” The pretended penitent smiled in like manner. “Listen,” the priest went on, “what you have just done here is not serious. Let us leave confession aside; and, if you please, have a little chat. I like military people greatly; and, then, you have the appearance of a good, amiable youth. Tell me, what is your rank?” “Under-lieutenant.” “Will you remain an under-lieutenant long?” “Two, three, perhaps four years.” “And after?” “I shall hope to become a lieutenant?” “And after?” “I hope to become a captain.” “And after?” “Lieutenant-colonel?” “How old will you be then?” “Forty to forty-five years.” “And after that?” “I shall become a brigadier general.” “And after?” “If I rise higher, I shall be general of a division.” “And after?” “After! there is nothing more except the Marshal’s baton; but my pretensions do not reach so high.” “Well and good. But do you intend to get married?” “Yes, when I shall be a superior officer.” “Well! There you are married; a superior officer, a general, perhaps even a French marshal, who knows? And after?” “After? Upon my word, I do not know what will be after.”
“See, how strange it is!” said the abbé. Then, in a tone of voice that grew more sober: “You know all that shall happen up to that point, and you do not know what will be after. Well, I know, and I am going to tell you, After, you shall die, be judged, and, if you continue to live as you do, you shall be damned, you shall go and burn in hell; that is what will be after.”
As the under-lieutenant, dispirited at this conclusion, seemed anxious to steal away: “One moment, sir,” said the abbé. “You are a man of honor. So am I. Agree that you have offended me, and owe me an apology. It will be simple. For eight days, before retiring to rest, you will say: ‘One day I shall die; but I laugh at the idea. After my death I shall be judged; but I laugh at the idea. After my judgment, I shall be damned; but I laugh at the idea. I shall burn forever in hell; but I laugh at the idea!’ That is all. But you are going to give me your word of honor not to neglect it, eh?”
More and more wearied, and wishing, at any price, to extricate himself from this false step, the under-lieutenant made the promise. In the evening, his word being given, he began to carry out his promise. “I shall die,” he says. “I shall be judged.” He had not the courage to add: “I laugh at the idea.” The week had not passed before he returned to the Church of the Assumption, made his confession seriously, and came out of the confessional his face bathed with tears, and with joy in his heart.
A young person, who had become an unbeliever in consequence of his dissipation, kept incessantly shooting sarcasm at religion, and making jests of its most awful truths. “Juliette,” someone said to her one day, “this will end badly. God will be tired of your blasphemies and you shall be punished.” “Bah,” she answered insolently. “It gives me very little trouble. Who has returned from the other world to relate what passes there?”
Less than eight days after she was found in her room, giving no sign of life, and already cold. As there was no doubt that she was dead, she was put in a coffin and buried. The following day, the grave-digger, digging a new grave beside that of the unhappy Juliette, heard some noise; it seemed to him that there was a knocking in the adjoining coffin. At once, he puts his ear to the ground, and in fact hears a smothered voice, crying out: “Help! help!”
The authorities were summoned; by their orders, the grave was opened, the coffin taken up and unnailed. The shroud is removed; there is no further doubt, Juliette was buried alive. Her hair, her shroud was in disorder, and her face was streaming with blood.
While they are releasing her, and feeling her heart to be assured that it still beats, she heaves a sigh, like a person for a long time deprived of air; then she opens her eyes, makes an effort to lift herself up, and says: “My God, I thank thee.”
Afterward, when she had got her senses well back, and by the aid of some food, recovered her strength, she added: “When I regained consciousness in the grave and recognized the frightful reality of my burial, when after having uttered shrieks, I endeavored to break my coffin, and struck my forehead against the boards, I saw that all was useless; death appeared to me with all its horrors; it was less the bodily than the eternal death that frightened me. I saw I was going to be damned. My God, I had but too well deserved it! Then I prayed, I shouted for help, I lost consciousness again, until I awoke above ground. O, goodness of my God!” she said, again shedding tears, “I had despised the truths of faith; thou hast punished me, but in thy mercy, I am converted and repentant.”
They who deny hell will be forced to admit it soon; but alas! it will be too late. Father Nieremberg, in his work Difference between Time and Eternity, speaks of an unfortunate sinner, who, as the result of his evil ways, had lost the faith. His virtuous wife exhorted him to return to God, and reminded him of hell, but he would answer, obstinately: “There is no hell.” One day his wife found him dead and, strange circumstance, he held in his hand a mysterious paper, on which, in large characters, was traced this terrifying avowal: “I now know that there is a hell!”