Hell is not a pleasant topic. Today many preachers (Catholic and non-Catholic) seem to be silent about it. Some Catholics and other Christians—including entire Christian denominations—even deny that hell is real or, short of that, deny its eternal nature. Many ask, "Why would a good God create such place?" and "Would God really damn anyone forever?" An initial look at Scripture might seem to support the denial of such a place or the fact of its eternity.
In the Revised Standard Version of the Bible the word hell appears only thirteen times (Matt. 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5; Jas. 3:6; 2 Pet. 2:4). When we consider that three of those occurrences (Matt. 5:29, 30; Matt. 10:28) are arguably repeated in parallel passages within the synoptic gospels (Mark 9:47, 43; Luke 12:5), the word is used only ten times. Among those ten, multiple uses of the word within individual passages (Matt. 23; Mark 9) bring the total number of times the word occurs in separate instances down to seven. Hell would hardly seem, therefore, to be a major theme in Scripture.
As a result, many Christians today rationalize that teaching about hell is unimportant. But, if we take a closer look at the concept of hell in Scripture and trace its development through history, we find that it is indeed a major theme, which would be foolish to ignore.
Our Choice, Not God’s
Let’s start by defining what Catholics mean by hell. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) offers the following explanation:
We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves . . . To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him forever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called "hell." (CCC 1033)
This definition presumes what Christians—indeed, most anyone who believes in God—agree on: that the true life and happiness for which we were created can be found only in God’s presence. Separation from God means the loss of that life and happiness and thus results in suffering. This is one reason why hell is always depicted as a place of torment.
But we must understand that hell is a choice. To experience hell, one must die in the freely chosen state of mortal sin. The Catechism explains that mortal sin is "sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent" (CCC 1857). Such an act is contrary to the love we owe God so, in essence, the state of mortal sin is the freely chosen state of not loving God. If one dies in such a state, God honors that choice and allows such a soul to remain separated from him.
God did not create hell so much as he allowed for its possibility. By permitting us to love him freely—or not—he allows for the possibility that we will choose to separate ourselves from him. But God does not will this for anyone. The Catechism states,
God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end. In the Eucharistic liturgy and in the daily prayers of her faithful, the Church implores the mercy of God, who does not want any to perish, but all to come to repentance. (CCC 1037)
A final point before we continue: Hell is indeed eternal because the soul’s state at death determines its state for eternity. If person dies in the state of mortal sin, God honors that choice forever. The Catechism explains, "If it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, [mortal sin] causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices forever, with no turning back" (CCC 1861).
To sum up,
Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, "eternal fire." The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs. (CCC 1035)
Now that we’ve examined the Catholic understanding of hell, let’s take a look at how this understanding developed over time.
A Brief History of the Afterlife
Before Jesus’ time it seems that God had not yet clearly revealed much about hell.
Even so, evidence shows that at least some Jews believed in an eternal afterlife which was good for some, bad for others. For example, Daniel records, "Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt" (Dan. 12:2).
The Hebrew word Sheol and the Greek word Hades were often used by the Jews to refer in general to "the abode of the dead." These words are sometimes loosely translated into English as "hell" (e.g., in the King James Version of the Bible), however, in these instances, the word may refer to either the abode of the damned or the abode of the just, or it may broadly refer to both. Similarly, the Greek words Phulake and Paradaiso may be translated as "hell."
Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus helps us to understand this better as it gives us insight into the afterlife as it was understood in Jesus’ time:
There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, full of sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table; moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. 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. And he called out, "Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame." But Abraham said, "Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us." And he said, "Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment." But Abraham said, "They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them." And he said, "No, father Abraham; but if some one goes to them from the dead, they will repent." He said to him, "If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead." (Luke 16:19-31)
From this parable it seems that all who died prior to Jesus’ Resurrection went to "hell" (Hades); however, the just went to a particular part of hell referred to as "Abraham’s bosom" where they would be comforted until the gates of heaven were opened while the damned went to a place of torment. A great chasm separated these two parts of hell and no one in either part was in heaven.
The Catechism explains,
Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, "hell"— Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek—because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God. Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the Redeemer: which does not mean that their lot is identical. (CCC 633)
A good example of this general rendering of the word "hell" is found in the Apostles’ Creed which states that, after Jesus’ crucifixion and death, "he descended into hell." How are we to understand this?
He Descended into Hell
St. Peter tells us that Jesus "went and preached to the spirits in prison" (1 Pet. 3:19). "Prison" (Greek, Phulake) here refers to hell in the general sense of the place where departed souls rested prior to Jesus’ opening the gates of heaven. The Catechism explains that "he descended there as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there" (CCC 632).
After his death Jesus descended into hell to deliver the righteous who awaited him. The Catechism explains,
The frequent New Testament affirmations that Jesus was "raised from the dead" presuppose that the crucified one sojourned in the realm of the dead prior to his Resurrection. This was the first meaning given in the apostolic preaching to Christ’s descent into hell: that Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead. But he descended there as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there . . . It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Savior in Abraham’s bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell. Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him. (CCC 632-633)
I should also note here that "Abraham’s Bosom" was sometimes referred to by the Jews as "Paradise" (Greek, Paradaiso). This might explain why Jesus told St. Dismas, the good thief, "you will be with me in Paradise" (Luke 23:43). A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture explains, "‘Paradise’ . . . signified for the Jews the abode of the blessed. Here, if taken literally in its context, it signifies primarily the limbo of the just, to which Christ’s soul was presently to descend" (968).
So the word hell can be understood and used in a variety of senses. We also can see how our understanding of the concept of hell has developed over time. But what about hell as we commonly understand the term today: the eternal abode of the damned—the freely chosen state of eternal separation from God? Does Scripture support such an idea? We’ll look into this next time in Part II of our topic.