I’m sure you’re all familiar with the video series Thomas the Tank Engine (based on the books by the Rev. W. Awdry). Thomas and his friends inhabit the island of Sodor. They are sentient, anthropomorphic combinations of train engine and various manifestations of people (like a literary concept of archetypes). In one of the episodes titled “Granpuff,” there is a story-within-the-story about an engine by the name of Smudger. Smudger is a very bad engine who doesn’t like to do work and frequently throws himself off the tracks. The station manager warns him to stop being bad, but Smudger ignores the warnings. So the station manager takes Smudger’s wheels off and turns him into a generator. As the narrator ominously concludes, “He’s still out there, behind our shed. He’ll never move again.” The camera pulls away from Smudgers face, encaged behind a brick wall, his eyes wide and looking terrified.
I know this cartoon series well because both of my sons really enjoyed it when they were a bit younger. But the episode I mention above was especially well-loved by my son Jasper, so I became very familiar with it. The look on Smudger’s face at the end of the show always sent a chill up my spine. At the time it reminded me of Edgar Allen Poe’s story, “The Cask of Amontillado.” I can almost hear Smudger’s Sodorian-equivalent cries of “For the love of God, Montresor!”
Ever since my wife (the theology student) took a class called “The Last Four Things” (Death, Judgment, Hell, Heaven), taught by Dr. Regis Martin, we have had frequent conversations about the various aspects of those 4 things, but especially about hell. The word invokes terrifying images of torments, searing fire, and pain. All of those associations with hell are popular notions and depictions, sort of like the Cinerama Technicolor version of eternal damnation.
The Church, in the Catechism, explains it thus: “Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom…. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of Hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1861).
And St. John of the Cross said, “In the evening of our lives, we shall be judged on love.”
Dr. Martin, along with a number of other theologians, elaborates a bit more on hell. Hell, as the Church explains, is the absence of God. Since God is pure love, hell is the absence of love: love of neighbor, love of self, love of anything or being loved by anyone. The absence of love is: loneliness. Not loneliness like missing your wife while she’s out shopping, or missing that turkey stuffing that your mom used to make. It’s the utter annihilation of any possibility of even knowing anything like love.
Now, a few years later, I reflect on how Smudger’s predicament is a form of hell: unable to move and entirely alone. The cartoon is a metaphor for hell, a child’s introduction to hell. The chill going up my spine is still there and growing stronger.