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What Is Hell?

Hell is real, hell is eternal, and the Bible is full of proof that it exists and that people are in it

In a past article, I talked about the error of then-Fr. (now Bishop) Robert Barron and Hans Urs von Balthasar in positing the real possibility that hell could be empty for all eternity. This post led to people asking more questions about the nature of hell itself. What is it? Is it really “eternal”? And more.

Below find my answers to some of those questions.

By definition, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), paragraph 1033, hell is “[the] state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed.” Some people cannot fathom how hell could be a reality if God is truly an “all-loving” and “merciful God.” Yet hell could be said to be both the definitive expression of God’s justice and of the lofty calling and dignity of man.

What do I mean by this? Let’s look at the latter statement first.

In his infinite wisdom, God deigned to create man with the immeasurable dignity of a free, rational, spiritual, and therefore immortal soul. He did not create us as robots that can “choose” only the good. Man has been gifted with the incredible gift of being free to either accept or reject God and God’s plan for him.

The ultimate reason for this is love. CCC 1861 says it well: “Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself.” Without freedom, there is no real love as we understand it. The Catechism goes on:

[Mortal sin] results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. 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.

God has given to man his entire lifetime on earth to make that irrevocable decision of which the Catechism speaks. Thus, the “time” for choosing is now in this life. Indeed, not only is this the “time” for choosing, but this is the only “time” there will be “time” at all. “Time” will be no more after we die. There will be some sense of sequentiality, but very different from “time” as we understand it now.

Our “eternity” is thus sealed at the time of our death! And think about this: our choices affect not only us, but others as well, and quite possibly for all eternity! Consider these two texts—one from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament:

If I say to the wicked, “You shall surely die,” and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked, and he does not turn from his wickedness, or from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but you will have saved your life (Ezek. 3:18-19).

In 1 Timothy 4:16, St. Paul says to St. Timothy:

Take heed to yourself and to your teaching; hold to that, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.

Ezekiel seems to indicate that if we choose not to evangelize someone God places in our life, it may well be that this will have been the last opportunity that person had to choose God! This is daunting, to be sure, but it also speaks of an incredibly lofty calling we all have as God’s faithful on earth. Some people, Calvinists in particular, simply cannot believe that God would give man this kind of responsibility. Yet, according to Scripture, this is the dignity and calling of man.

Now, I should note that it may well be, and I would think it would most often be the case, that if we choose not to evangelize someone, he will be given any number of other opportunities to come to God, but both Ezekiel and Paul remind us of another reason why we need to evangelize: we save our own souls as well. “Educating the ignorant” and “admonishing the sinner” are spiritual works of mercy by which we will be judged on the Last Day. It is precisely because of this spiritual and free component in man that he has the ability to ascend the heights of a St. Teresa or to descend to the depths of an Adolf Hitler. German shepherds have neither ability.

God considered this gift of freedom, and the ultimate fruit of that freedom—eternal life—as being worth all the evils that would eventually be brought about by the abuse of that freedom. As Paul said it, “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” in full at the end of time (Rom. 8:18).

To chase a rabbit here for a moment: When considering the massive amount of evil that exists in the world, we should also remember that God even permits it only inasmuch as he knows that he will bring ultimate good out of that evil. The crucifix is the ultimate example of this. The greatest evil ever perpetrated in the history of creation—the crucifix, where we killed God—results in the greatest good: the redemption of the world by the grace of Jesus Christ.

Answering Objections and Questions

1. The Bible does not teach “hell”—at least, not as an eternal hell!

The truth is that most of what we know of hell and its eternity comes from the lips of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. And he uses terms that are unequivocal. Pope St. John Paul II, in his book Crossing the Threshold of Hope, says it succinctly:

The words of Christ are unequivocal. In Matthew’s Gospel [Christ] speaks clearly of those who will go to eternal punishment (cf. Matt. 25:46).

The Catechism concurs:

The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity (1035).

Most importantly, Scripture could hardly be clearer.

In Revelation 20:10, St. John describes hell (“the lake of fire,” more specifically) in relation to the devil and the false prophet of the end times in terms difficult to misunderstand:

And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.

Then, in Revelation 20:14-15, John again mentions this same “lake of fire” and explicitly and specifically declares that humans will go to the same place—and that means “for ever and ever.”

This is the second death, the lake of fire; and if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown in the lake of fire.

Revelation 21:8 says it as well and includes all those who die in mortal sin:

But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, as for murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their lot shall be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.

In Matthew 25:41 and 46, Jesus says that just as heaven represents eternal life, hell represents eternal punishment:

Then he will say to those at his left hand, “Depart from me, you cursed, in to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. . . . And they [the unrighteous] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

Matthew 13:41-42, 47-50:

The son of man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth. . . .

So it will be at the close of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.

2. Catholic “dogma” misuses biblical terms for “hell”!

The truth is, the word hell, or I should say the words translated as hell (Hebrew: sheol, Greek: Hades, Tartarus, and Gehenna—which is a Greek word of Hebrew origin), have various meanings and usages in the different books of the Bible and extra-biblical sources, yet this does not justify a failure to use the term hell as understood in Catholic dogmatic teaching, in certain contexts, for these terms. In fact, Gehenna is always used for the “hell” of “Catholic dogma” in Scripture.

Let me explain what I mean. Sheol generally represents “the place of the dead” in the Old Testament. Both the righteous and the unrighteous go there. In ancient Hebrew thought, this “place of the dead” was divided into two sections: a place of suffering and a holding place for the righteous. We find this idea in the teaching of Jesus in Luke 16:19-31, where Jesus speaks of a wicked rich man and a righteous poor beggar named Lazarus. Upon their deaths, the wicked man, who had “everything in life,” goes to the place of torment, Hades, which is the closest thing to a Greek equivalent of the Hebrew sheol, whereas the poor man, Lazarus, goes to paradise. They are both in the same “place of the dead,” but separated by a “great chasm” as verse 26 calls it. The place of the righteous is called “the bosom of Abraham,” while the place of torment is called “Hades.”

The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried; and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus in his bosom (vv. 22-23).

“Hades,” though here used for hell, can, again, be used as “the place of the dead,” as is sheol in Hebrew. We see this in texts like Acts 2:27, 31 and Rev. 20:13-14. But the point is, it is, at times, used for the place of eternal torment we call hell.

Gehenna is a different story. As I mentioned above, it is always used for eternal “hell,” as we see, for example, in Mark 9:43:

If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go into Gehenna: into the unquenchable fire.

Of the twelve times “Gehenna” is used in the New Testament, eleven of the twelve come from our Lord and unequivocally refer to hell (see Matt. 5:22; Matt. 5:29-30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15; 33; Mark 9:43-47; Luke 12:5, etc.). James 3:6 is the only other place we find “Gehenna” used, and it clearly refers to “the fire of Gehenna” regarding the danger of an unruly tongue.

Perhaps more importantly, what we find in the New Testament are multiple terms and multiple ways in which the inspired text teaches about hell. We find phrases like “the lake of fire” (in Revelation 19:20, 20:10) and the “furnace of fire” (Matt. 13:42) used to represent hell. So it’s really not about misusing particular terms. The truth is, the biblical text is remarkably clear when it comes to the reality of an eternal hell.

Perhaps the plainest text of all concerning hell’s reality and eternity is found in Revelation 14:10-11. This text uses none of the above-mentioned terms; rather, it describes hell in such stark terms that there is no way of parsing words and claiming a different usage for “Hades” or “Gehenna.” This is not a matter of semantics:

If any one worships the beast and its image, and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also shall drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever; and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image and whoever receives the mark of the beast.

These words speak for themselves!

Tartarus is yet another term used in Scripture for the “hell of Catholic dogma.” In 2 Peter 2:4, we find this:

For if God did not spare the angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell (Greek: tartarosas) and committed them to pits of nether gloom to be kept until the judgment.

3. Are the “flames” of hell literal?

It should be understood that both the joy of heaven and the pains of hell are indescribable this side of eternity. And just as the Church warns against seeing heaven as a “worldly” sort of extension of life on this earth, so it is with hell. The inspired authors cannot describe hell adequately using human language; thus, the “flames of fire” are simply the most painful things we can imagine on this earth used to attempt to describe the indescribable to some degree.

So are the “flames of fire” of hell literal? No, they are not. In fact, it should be obvious that they are not literal right now because the souls in hell do not presently have bodies. You can’t “light up” a soul with a match.

If this is true, then, what is the nature of “the pains of hell”?

The Catechism answers this question succinctly:

These two punishments [the Catechism is here speaking of both purgatory and hell] must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin (1472).

Again, the Catechism emphasizes the fact that hell is primarily eternal separation from God. As CCC 1033 says: “The state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed.” It is absolute emptiness and isolation beyond anything we can fathom. The pains are quite real, quite literal, and consist of both the pain of loss and the pain of sense—i.e., they involve the body after the resurrection of the body. They “follow from the very nature of sin,” or they arise from the inside out, not from the outside in. 

What is mortal sin but the rejection of the love of God and neighbor? It is ultimate selfishness. Ultimately, the damned will simply get what they wanted—themselves for all eternity!

It is said that a man will go insane if he is kept in isolation for too long because human beings are ordered toward communion with God and others. Hell will be that isolation that would lead anyone to insanity, but the condemned will never be able to lose their faculties. They will be fully cognizant of the pain of their isolation.

Some may ask as a follow-up: “What about, for example, the private revelation of St. Faustina that speaks of ‘the company of the devil’ as being part of the pains of hell? How does that square with this ‘isolation’ that we are talking about?”

Answer: The “isolation” we are talking about here does not mean necessarily that there will be no other persons present. Think of it this way. Have you ever seen a person who is “all alone” in the middle of a party with people all around? For example, a person who is angry or having a pity party and wants nothing to do with anyone? In fact, the presence of people having fun can be an occasion for increased rage for someone like that!

That is an imperfect glimpse of hell.

4. Is hell a “place” or a “state of being”?

Hell is primarily a state of being, but inasmuch as the souls there will have bodies after the resurrection of the dead, they will have location as well. So, in that sense, we can say hell is a “place.” In fact, we could say the same of heaven. But both heaven and hell are not “places” in the sense that the people there could “leave” and “return.” Inasmuch as these are states of being, “heaven” and “hell” are present wherever the saints and damned are.

5. How could it be possible that the just in heaven will be able to rejoice for all eternity in God when they know that loved ones, for example, are in hell for all eternity?

In other words, it has been asked of me, how could the angels and saints rejoice in heaven, for example, in Revelation 21, knowing that the damned are suffering terribly, as we see in Revelation 20? Or even more, as we see in Revelation 14:11, the damned, “shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the lamb.”


Perhaps an analogy would work best in explaining this. Imagine that you are in a courtroom, and a man who you know is guilty of murder is standing before the judge and jurors. His fate is about to be determined. The foreman of the jury stands up and says, “Your honor, we find Tom Smith (insert your own name here) “not guilty” of all charges.

Your immediate reaction would most likely be to say, “That’s unjust!” At least, it should be. This would be an injustice, because this man is, in fact, guilty! You should feel outraged at an injustice like this.

On the flip side, if that same juror were to say, “We find Tom Smith guilty,” there would be a sense in which you could rejoice. We should not rejoice in the suffering that awaits this man. We should not allow ourselves to fall into a sense of vengeance for vengeance’s sake. But we can, and indeed we should, rejoice in the good that is justice. You could say in a joyful way, “Justice was served today! And that is a good thing!”

On Judgment Day, all will know that every person will have been judged rightly, and we will be able to see this with “God’s eyes,” so to speak. The blessed will be able to rejoice in God’s justice and mercy. In fact, only heaven will reveal in full the reality that justice and mercy are actually absolutely one in our infinitely just and infinitely merciful God!


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