Who wants to talk about Hell? Just about nobody, and we can hardly blame them – why dwell on something as, well, hellish, as eternal torment? Many people, both inside and outside the Church, only mention the Abode of the Damned at all in order to discount it. At the same time, we don’t have the luxury of ignoring it. Hell and eternal damnation are spoken of often and explicitly in Scripture, very often by Jesus Himself. He tells us in Matthew’s Gospel, for example: “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.” (Matthew 13:41-42) This is not an isolated statement, neither on the part of Jesus himself, nor elsewhere in the New Testament. The most vivid description outside of the words of Christ is in the Book of Revelation, which on four separate occasions refers to the “Lake of Fire” into which the Devil, his angels, and other evildoers are cast.
It’s difficult for us to balance the idea of a Hell of eternal torment with the image of a God who “is Love” (1 John 4:8), especially in our world today where sentiment is king: Hell “feels” wrong. In fact, I recently had a reader of my discussion of Pascal’s Wager who accused me of believing in a “monster” God who “would torture you forever” if you didn’t believe in him. I answered that neither I nor the Catholic Church believe in a God who “tortures” people “forever”, and I cited the Catechism:“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). I added that fire is an image used to describe the pains of Hell, but is not taught as doctrine.
My interlocutor was not mollified, suggesting that I was “playing a little loose with christian/biblical teaching”, and that I “Prob don’t accept the lake of fire from revelation either.” Ouch. At the same time, I can understand how it might look that way: this is a big and difficult topic, and it’s hard to do it justice in a few off the cuff comments. In order to understand we really need to make important distinctions: qui bene distinguit, bene docet. What follows, then, is an attempt, at least within the limits of a brief blog post, to give Hell its due.
First of all, there is simply no way for a believing Christian to get around the reality of Hell. Jesus Christ himself is quite explicit about it, as we saw above, and the Church has taught it as a foundational doctrine from the very beginning. The Catechism of the Catholic Church confirms that “The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity.” (CCC 1035) Aside from the fact of its existence, the Church doesn’t give us much in the way of definitive detail other than this:
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)
That’s all the description we get. As I pointed out to my correspondent, the “fires of Hell” is put into quotes because it is an image of the torments of Hell; we are not required to take the fire literally, although we’re free to do so if we wish. Here’s the thing, though: it doesn’t really matter if Hell contains literal fire or not because no fire, not even a lake of fire, can compare to the torment of eternal separation from God.
So how, then, does the traditional teaching on Hell differ from the description of God as a “monster” who “tortures” people simply because they “don’t believe”? To begin with, there are a a lot of suppositions in that loaded description. The entry ticket to Hell is not simply lack of “belief”, it is a conscious rejection of God. Yet again, Jesus himself makes this distinction:
“Woe to you, Chorazin! woe to you, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.” (Matthew 11:21-24)
“But I tell you that it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.” -Matthew 11:24
Sodom and Gomorrah Afire, by Jacob De Wett, 1680
The Catechism cites this passage specifically in its explanation that “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.” (CCC 1037)
Not only that, Scripture assures that the Lord does not want anyone to go to Hell: “As I live, says the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways.” (Ezekiel 33:11) We see the same idea picked up in the New Testament again and again (see 1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9; John 3:16-17) No, God is not a monster, nor is he a tyrant who imposes Heaven on us: he has given us the gift of free will, which we can freely use to reject his offer of salvation.
Our freedom to choose is an important aspect of our understanding of Hell. Not only is it something we freely choose for ourselves, it has always been understood that there is a sense in which we create Hell for ourselves, because Hell is the direct and logical consequence of our own actions. St. Paul tells the Christians in Rome:
But then what return did you get from the things of which you are now ashamed? The end of those things is death . . . For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:21;23)
The term “wages” is not accidental: sin “earns” us death, eternal death, by its very nature, but Jesus is offering to free us from its consequences. The God St. Paul and the other scriptural authors describe is not a sadist, and the torments of Hell are not “a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin.” (CCC 1472)
Part of the punishment is simply having to spend eternity in the presence of others who are equally given over to hatred of the Good. Throughout the history of the Church any “tormenters” we see depicted in Hell are not God or his angels, but the fallen angels, fellow sufferers among the condemned. The mystic St. Faustina, from whose experiences we derive the Divine Mercy devotion, numbers the “constant company of Satan” among the torments of Hell. The self-worshipping denizens of Hell, it seems, all curvati in se (turned in on themselves), torment each other by their very presence.
We often find formal teachings reflected in the arts. When Dante composed his Divine Comedy over eight hundred years ago, for instance, he very vividly depicted the experiences of the residents of Hell as a direct consequence, an embodiment, of each person’s individual sin as well: flatterers are immersed in manure (because in life they were full of, well, you know . . . ), Fortune Tellers, who pretended to look ahead to the future, literally have their heads screwed on backwards, etc. The last and most striking image of the sinner as author of his own torment is Satan himself, the embodiment of futile pride and self-love. He is frozen forever in ice, forever beating his wings in an attempt to free himself, but with the cold wind generated by the beating of his wings forever freezing the ice that keeps him imprisoned.
Scripture and tradition is also very clear that God does not just have a mild preference that everyone come to Heaven if they can swing it, he really, really wants everyone to repent and join him. As Jesus says in Luke’s Gospel:
“What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it? . . . Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. (Luke 15:4;7)
From Scripture passages such as this there arose a tradition (not a formal doctrine of the Church, but a very widely held pious tradition of the faithful) that God gives us all a last chance in our final moments of life (after death it’s too late) to repent and save our souls.This too is reflected in art, for instance in Mozarts Don Giovanni. In one of the greatest scenes in the history of the stage, the old rake Don Giovanni (Don Juan) is asked to repent by the ghost of the Commendatore, whom he had murdered earlier in the opera. In his pride Giovanni refuses, and is dragged off to Hell. I’m posting a clip below, but I recommend watching the entire opera if you can (and what’s stopping you, after all?).
That’s not to say that everyone does go to Heaven: it’s always been understood that many of us use our gift of free will as Don Giovanni does and reject God, even in the final moment. Again, the warnings about the dangers of Hell, especially but not limited to those from Christ himself, are too emphatic to disregard. That’s why Universalism (the belief that everyone goes to Heaven) is a heresy.
There is, of course, much more that can (and really should) be said on the topic of Hell, particularly in the light of God’s justice (after all, what kind of monstrous God would allow unrepentant tormenters of their fellow people to enjoy eternal bliss along with their victims?). Maybe we can get to that another day.
I do want to offer one last thought: the doctrine of Hell can’t be considered apart from the entire Christian revelation; fear of Hellfire alone is not a solid basis for a life of faith, and nobody is suggesting otherwise. It might be helpful to think about the experience of alcoholics who go into AA after “hitting rock bottom”. The realization that their current path can bring them only more suffering is not recovery, but it does provide the necessary impetus to turn around and take a different path. In the same way, the fear of Hell can turn us around and put us on the first step in the journey of faith, but unless the steps that follow lead us to embrace the Lord as our loving Savior, and to turn our lives and our wills over to him, we’ll end up sliding back the same old way.
Featured image above: “Lake of Everlasting Fire, Sandwich Islands” by Frederick Schafer