In Part I, we saw that Catholics believe hell is the freely chosen state of eternal separation from God after death. We then looked into the historical development of the concept of hell up to Jesus’ time and saw how the word “hell” can be understood and used in a variety of senses. This time we’ll look at what the New Testament has to say about hell, specifically as it underscores the Catholic understanding of it.
Eternal Abode of the Damned
Unlike the terms we discussed last time, Hebrew Sheol and Greek Hades, Phulake, and Paradaiso, which are sometimes translated as “hell,” the Greek words Gehenna and Tartarosas —also translated as “hell”—mean strictly “the abode of the damned.” Of the thirteen times the word “hell” is mentioned in the Bible, twelve of these are translated from Gehenna. Eleven of these instances are quotations from Jesus himself.
Jesus taught about the possibility of damnation in no uncertain terms:
- You have heard that it was said to the men of old, “You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, “You fool!” shall be liable to the hell of fire. (Matt. 5:21-22)
- And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matt. 10:28; see also Luke 12:5)
- Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you traverse sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves. (Matt. 23:15)
- Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, saying, “If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” Thus you witness against yourselves, that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? (Matt. 23:29-33)
Clearly, Jesus warned his followers that hell was very real. He also taught them that hell was forever:
[I]f your hand causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched. (Mark 9:43-48; see also Matt. 5:29-30; 18:8-9)
The New Testament includes two other uses of the word hell. James mentions hell (Gehenna) when warning of the destruction our words can cause: “The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell” (Jas. 3:6).
And finally, Peter calls God’s punishment of the fallen angels hell (Tartarus): “[I]f God did not spare the angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell . . .” (2 Pet. 2:4).
Better Never to Have Been Born
We see where the word hell is found in the New Testament—but is that all Scripture has to say about it? Hardly! The concept of hell—separation from God, eternal punishment— is taught again and again.
First, let’s look at what Jesus taught:
Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And then will I declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.” (Matt. 7:21-23)
So not everyone will enter heaven: Some will be separated from God (“depart from me”). What is to become of them? Nothing good. This is what Jesus said about the fate of his betrayer: “The Son of man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born” (Matt. 26:24).
What could be worse than never having been born?
- Destruction: Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few. (Matt. 7:13-14; see also Luke 13:23-24)
- Suffering: I tell you, many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth. (Matt. 8:11-12)
- 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. (Matt. 13:42)
- Wrath: He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him. (John 3:36)
But even destruction, suffering, and wrath would be not be worse than never having been born if, after suffering such maladies, one could enter heaven. Hell is eternal. Jesus indicated this when he taught about his Second Coming:
When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”. . . Then he will say to those at his left hand, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”. . . And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. (Matt. 25:31-46)
Yes, Jesus Really Meant It
So Jesus clearly taught of the reality and eternity of hell. How did his apostles and disciples understand these teachings?
Paul taught that not everyone will enter heaven:
- Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Cor. 6:9-10)
- Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. (Gal. 5:19-21)
So what becomes of these people? Paul reiterates Jesus’ words: destruction, wrath, and so on:
- For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction. (Phil. 3:18-19)
- For he will render to every man according to his works: To those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. (Rom. 2:6-8)
In this next passage, Paul indicates that hell is both eternal and involves separation from God:
[Those who do not know God and those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus] shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might. (2 Thess. 1:8-9)
St. Paul wasn’t the only one of Jesus’ followers to caution disciples about hell. Before Jesus appeared on the scene, John the Baptist described the eternity of hell as “unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:17). After Christ’s Ascension, Peter called hell “the nether gloom of darkness” (2 Pet. 2:17). Jude used the same phrase (Jude 13) and he also described hell as “undergoing a punishment of eternal fire” (Jude 7).
Finally, in the book of Revelation we find more clear references to hell and the eternal punishment there:
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 its name. Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus. (Rev. 14:11-12; see also 19:1-3)
Saints are Called to Persevere
Those final words are a call for perseverance. We cannot deny the reality and eternity of hell. But hell is a choice, and we do not have to choose it. To this end the Catechism exhorts us to live responsibly:
The affirmations of Sacred Scripture and the teachings of the Church on the subject of hell are a call to the responsibility incumbent upon man to make use of his freedom in view of his eternal destiny. They are at the same time an urgent call to conversion . . . Since we know neither the day nor the hour, we should follow the advice of the Lord and watch constantly so that, when the single course of our earthly life is completed, we may merit to enter with him into the marriage feast and be numbered among the blessed, and not, like the wicked and slothful servants, be ordered to depart into the eternal fire, into the outer darkness where men will weep and gnash their teeth. (CCC 1036)