In this article, I want to talk about an unpleasant subject: hell. It’s not something we should think about too much more than we really have to, but it’s also not something we should just ignore. It’s a legitimate part of our faith, so we need to recognize it as such. Plus, it’s an important reminder that our conduct and our faith really do matter. If we’re not careful, we just might miss out on eternal bliss and end up in “the other place” instead.
So what do I want to say about this very uncomfortable belief? I want to look at the main punishment of hell. When most of us think about it, we usually imagine a place of fiery torment, and understandably so. That’s the way that Scripture most often describes it (for example, Matthew 25:41, Revelation 20:15), so it makes sense that we would think about it that way too.
However, that’s not what hell is primarily about. According to the Catechism, “the chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God” (CCC 1035). The idea is that we’re made for love, and specifically for an eternity of loving communion with God, so separation from him and exclusion from his presence can’t be anything but hell. Failure to reach the very goal of our existence is the worst thing that could possibly happen to us, so even if hell also involves literal fire, that's not its chief punishment.
Now, this should raise a really obvious question: where does this idea come from? If the Bible describes hell as a place of fiery torment, where do we get the idea that it’s primarily about separation from God?
The Biblical Basis
Somewhat unexpectedly, it actually comes right out of Scripture. It’s admittedly not a common biblical theme, so it’s not surprising that a lot of people don’t know about it, but there is one key text that explicitly teaches it:
“God deems it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant rest with us to you who are afflicted, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know God and upon those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” (2 Thessalonians 1:6-9)
In this passage, St. Paul is talking about the eternal punishment that the Thessalonian Church’s persecutors will face, and significantly, he doesn’t use the imagery of fire at all. Instead, he simply describes it as “eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.”
And this is the biblical basis for what the Catechism teaches about hell. It confirms that hell really is a place of separation from God and exclusion from his presence, not just fire and brimstone. It’s about failing to reach the goal we were made for and never, ever being able to regain it.
Why It Matters
So why is this important? Why would I dedicate a whole article to this one depressing idea? Well, there are a couple of reasons. For one, it shows us that the Catechism is right, and that helps us to trust it as a reliable summary of the Catholic faith. Secondly (and probably more importantly), when we talk to people who don’t believe in hell, the big problem they usually have with it is that they can’t imagine how a loving God could possibly send people to a place of fiery torture for all eternity. As a result, it often helps to explain that God gave us free will to accept or reject him, and if we reject him, he honors that choice and leaves us.
However, this can often seem like a very ad hoc explanation. It can seem like we’re simply making it up to reconcile the existence of hell with an all-good and all-loving God without having a good reason to actually believe it. But once we bring in this key passage from Paul, we can see that it’s not just a made-up theory. We’re not just desperately trying to salvage an ultimately irrational belief. Scripture itself tells us that hell is about separation from God and exclusion from his presence, so this is in fact the correct Christian view of eternal damnation.