It’s a reality that is not often preached, yet so important to understand. The Bible, the Lord Jesus, and many saints speak about hell. It’s more than a concept, an idea, or a scare tactic. It’s a real place where real people go and spend eternity. However, we need to understand what hell truly is and who goes there.
Saint Pope John Paul II acknowledged there was neglect in teaching this truth in his 1994 book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope. He says, “preachers, catechists, teachers….no longer have the courage to preach the threat of hell.” (pg. 183) “In point of fact, the ancient councils rejected the theory …according to which the world would be regenerated after destruction, and every creature would be saved; a theory which abolished hell” but he continues by saying these ideas and councils were wrong. “The words of Christ are unequivocal. In Matthew’s Gospel he speaks clearly of those who will go to eternal punishment (Matthew 25:46). [But] who will these be? The Church has never made any pronouncement in this regard.” (pg. 185-186)
What Is Hell?
First we must acknowledge hell is a real place. The New Testament is filled with references to hell and its existence.
“It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, where the worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.” (Mark 9:47-48)
“And the smoke of their torment goes up forever 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.” (Rev. 14:11)
“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)
Hell is an eternal place. There is no relief from the torments and torture of hell and there is no exit sign. There is no “end date” or “expiration date”. Once one enters hell, they never leave. In the Bible we see that Jesus is the person who speaks most often of hell than anyone else in the Bible. He is constantly teaching about the existence and dangers of hell. Why? God does not desire anyone to go to hell, but yet he doesn’t force heaven on anyone as well.
Bishop Robert Barron explains the truth of Biblical teachings on hell.“Time and again in the Gospels, Jesus warns about ‘Gehenna’ and its everlasting fire; he also tells the parable of Dives and Lazarus in which the rich man is forever separated from the bosom of Abraham; and, in Matthew 25, he warns that those who neglect the needs of the poor will go off ‘to eternal punishment’”, says Bishop Barron.
Hell is a place of eternal anguish and punishment. It’s a place of unquenchable fire and misery. The greatest punishment of hell is the absence of God’s love. It is the absence of being in the presence of God’s love that makes hell what it is…hell.
Who goes to hell?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, “The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. 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)
We know that those who die in a state of mortal sin go to hell. What is a mortal sin? The Church teaches that in order for a sin to be mortal it must meet three conditions: the sin must be of grave matter, must be committed with full knowledge of the person committing the sin (the person must know it is a sin), and must be committed with deliberate consent of the sinner (one must chose to commit the sin). Mortal sins are not accidents and are not the result of someone making you do something. They are a rejection of God’s law and, therefore, a rejection of God’s love. For example, a violation of any of the 10 Commandments is a mortal sin, not attending Mass on Sunday is a mortal sin. Anger, envy, hatred, heresy, blasphemy, not being charitable are all examples of mortal sin. (though this is not at all a complete list) It is those who voluntarily choose to reject God that are sent to hell because they choose hell rather than the presence and love of God. Therefore, it is not God who sends a person to hell but it is the sinner themselves who choose hell. God is just granting their choice.
“If we do the will of Christ, we shall obtain rest; but if not, if we neglect his commandments, nothing will rescue us from eternal punishment.” (Second Clement 5:5 [A.D. 150] “But when we see how those who have sinned and who have denied Jesus by their words or by their deeds are punished with terrible torture in unquenchable fire, the righteous, who have done good, and who have endured tortures and have hated the luxuries of life, will give glory to their God saying, ‘There shall be hope for him that has served God with all his heart.’”
“We have been taught that only they may aim at immortality who have lived a holy and virtuous life near to God. We believe that they who live wickedly and do not repent will be punished in everlasting fire.” (St. Justin Martyr)
The Church does not look at an individual and pronounce that they are in hell or are going to hell. The Church acknowledges it is not for us to judge who goes to hell but it is for God alone to judge where one is to spend eternity. The Church and its Sacraments are the portal through which one enters into eternal life with God rather than descending into hell.
Hell is real. It’s eternal. For this very truth we must be conscious to utilize the sacrament of reconciliation regularly and to urge those we know to do the same. We need to pray for those in mortal sin and pray for those away from the church. We shall seek to evangelize and teach all who come in our path, by word and example, that it is heaven to be desired and not hell to be chosen.