The Catholic Teaching on Hell

By Virginia G. Manzo, MD

Do you ever wonder where you will end up someday? What happens to your immortal soul after you die? Death is not a pleasant subject to talk about but it is an inescapable reality we have to face. This life is a time of testing and trial; it is a proving ground for our love for God. Eventually, we all come to one end. We all die sooner or later, in one way or another. The last things that happen to a human being are: death, judgment, heaven or hell.

Death is the separation of the soul from the body. The body eventually corrupts but the immortal soul immediately finds itself before the judgment seat of God. This is called the particular judgment. Here the soul will give an account of his entire life, of all his thoughts, words, deeds and omissions. How did he live his life? Did he die in the state of sanctifying grace or in mortal sin? Christ passes his verdict to the immortal soul – either heaven, or purgatory first for purification before heaven, . . . or hell!

From the words of Jesus himself, there surely is hell. Our Lord talks of hell, of “Gehenna,” of the “unquenchable fire” in several incidents of the gospels (Mk 9:43, Mt 5:22, 29; 10:28). “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evil doers and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.” (Mt 13: 41-42).

Hell exists and is eternal. And it is really a dreadful place. There is where many souls are condemned forever – those who refused to love God during their earthly existence, who rejected reconciliation with God, who did not allow their hearts to feel any sincere contrition, remorse or sorrow for all their wrongdoings up to the very end, who depart this world in a state of mortal sin.

What is hell like? No one knows exactly because no one has ever come back from hell to describe it. But we know that hell is a place of everlasting fire because Jesus himself said so. It is a state where the condemned soul suffers an agony beyond compare. The punishment in hell is two-fold: the pain of sense and the pain of loss.

The pain of sense is due to the “unquenchable fire” but it is not the kind of fire we know. It is not the same fire we see in our stoves or furnaces, not even the kind of fire burning a row of houses, nor the fire consuming a wide area of a forest. We call it “fire” because our human language has no other word for it. One priest tried to compare the fire we know as a “cool breeze” compared to hell fire.

Sister Lucia, the eldest (she was 10 at that time) of the three children to whom the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared in Fatima, Portugal in the last century described a vision of hell which our Lady allowed the three young children to glimpse:

The rays of light that came from the lady’s lovely hands seemed to penetrate into the earth and we saw a sea of fire. Plunged into this fire were the demons and the souls as if they were red-hot coals, transparent and black or bronze-colored with human forms which floated about in the conflagration . . . . among shrieks and groans of sorrow and despair that horrified and shook us with terror. The devils were distinguished by horrible, loathsome forms of animals, frightful and unknown but transparent like black coals that have turned red-hot.

Perhaps because the audience of this vision were three young children, ages 7, 8 and 10, hell was depicted in its most subdued form yet the horror and ugliness of hell could not pass a GP rating that is fit for young minds.

St Teresa of Avila, who was also allowed a vision of hell by our Lord, described it in more graphic terms.

One day, as I was in prayer, I was suddenly plunged into hell. The entrance, I thought, resembled a long narrow passage, like a furnace, very low and dark and closely confined. The ground seemed to be full of water which was filthy, evil-smelling mud, and in it were many wicked looking reptiles. At the end, there was a hollow space and I found myself in close confinement. But the sight of all these was pleasant in comparison to what I felt. This is no way an exaggeration. I felt a fire within my soul, the nature of which I am incapable of describing. My bodily sufferings were so intolerable . . . to say nothing of the knowledge that they were endless and unremitting . . I was powerless to hope for comfort . . . I felt completely stifled . . . There was no light and everything was in the blackest darkness. I can’t understand how it can be for although there was no light, it was possible to see everything the sight of which can cause so much affliction . . .

If the pain of sense is horrible, the pain of loss is much worse. The condemned soul is deprived of God and has lost Him forever. Man was made for God but now he can never attain what he was made for and that is the most terrible pain the soul can ever suffer. God is love and God is man’s model.

Man tries to identify himself with his model but the man in hell is deprived of God and he could feel no love but only hatred. He tries to identify himself with his model but at the same time rejects him with this hatred that fills him. Since he cannot attain what he was made for, he is continually torn apart. No wonder hell is filled with eerie sounds of “wailing and gnashing of teeth” due to tremendous frustration and untold despair.

St. Teresa continues,

. . . There was nothing in comparison to the agony of my soul, an oppression, a suffocation and an affliction so deeply felt that I cannot forcibly describe it . . . my soul was tearing itself apart . . . I cannot describe that interior fire and despair which is greater than the most grievous tortures and pains.

The condemned man is constantly doing violence to himself without any prospect of relief whatsoever. The damned souls cannot communicate with each other. There is no language in hell that that can unite them or bring them closer together. The condemned soul cannot open up to his fellow sufferers because the hatred that chains him in hell separates him from the other inhabitants. He is forever alone, full of hatred for himself and for the others because the only emotion he can feel is hatred.

Each one in hell revolts in his own fire, struggling to free himself of the others with a great and impotent hatred because they recognize in one another what they hate about themselves: egoism, impotency, agony, terror, despair and hopelessness. Their existence is a hopeless and permanent situation because hell is final and immutable.

The devil is real, devious, manipulative, and the father of lies. He will do everything to lure us to his side so we will succumb to his treacherous but seemingly attractive temptations. However, God does not demand the impossible from us. He would not demand from us unyielding love and absolute loyalty unless it were possible for us to give them. He gave us reason and free will and if we frequently ask for God’s grace, He will make us strong against the devil.

God who is all goodness and love deserves our total fidelity. After realizing what price we have to pay when we deliberately separate ourselves from God’s love and knowing now what hell is really like, would we ever cavort with the devil even for just one instance? 

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