What is Hell?

by Arthur Policarpio

Hell is a state of punishment in the next world where the souls who die in mortal sin are condemned to suffer for all eternity together with Satan and the devils. The existence of hell is very much a reality, and is an irrefutable teaching of the Catholic Church.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love Him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against Him, against our neighbor or against ourselves…To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from Him forever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called ‘hell’.

God does not want anyone to go to hell. However, human beings are free – we are free to choose God, or to deny Him. Those who deny God in this life necessarily cannot be united with Him in heaven. As the late Pope John Paul II said, hell “is not a punishment imposed externally by God but a development of premises already set by people in this life.”

God does not predestine anyone to go to hell. To go to hell, “a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end” (Catechism of the Catholic Church).

What is Mortal Sin?

The Catholic Church teaches that unrepented mortal sin at the point of death brings us eternal death. But what exactly do we mean by “mortal sin”? The Catechism says that “mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.”

Further, the Catechism explains: “To choose deliberately - that is, both knowing it and willing it - something gravely contrary to the divine law and to the ultimate end of man is to commit a mortal sin. This destroys in us the charity without which eternal beatitude is impossible. Unrepented, it brings eternal death.”

Is Hell Eternal?

The Church unequivocally 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.’”

What is Hell Like? What are the pains of hell?

The most overwhelming pain of hell consists in the separation of the soul from God. We are made for God. After death, the soul propels itself to God with overpowering force, like a falling meteor rushing to earth. The soul is overwhelmed with an intense, burning longing for God, like fish longing for water when thrown into the ground. The previous longings of our hearts that so consumed us during life – wealth, power, glory, pleasure, success – disappear like a distant memory, dissipating like mist under the heat of the morning sun.

But the soul in mortal sin, realizing its own fate, is immediately judged by God and instantly rejected and cast into hell. “Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire, which was prepared for the devil and his angels!” (Matthew 25:41). Rejection so overwhelms us – it burns our hearts in a way that even the harshest of physical pains cannot replicate.

Imagine our own mother telling us, “Depart from me, you cursed one! I never want to see you again!” Imagine the pain of a mother when her own child tells her, “Depart from me, you cursed one! I do not want to see you again!” Such pain will be unbearable for most of us, and may even drive many to the point of despair. And yet, compare that pain with the pain of being rejected by God, of being rejected by our Maker – of being rejected by the sole, overpowering object of desire of our souls after death.

The soul burning in hell will forever be separated from its Maker, but it will always be consumed by an overpowering, burning, yet futile desire to be united with Him. For all eternity, it will suffer an unbearable thirst that can never be quenched, an intense hunger that can never be satisfied. It will forever long for God, yet realize that this longing can never be satisfied for all eternity, due to its own fault and free choice.

The Church likewise teaches us that there is a very real torture by fire in hell – a fire not in the earthly sense, but more of a spiritual fire that burns both the soul and the body (for our bodies will eventually be united with our souls at the end of the world). Imagine the pain and agony burning your hand in earthly fire, even for just a minute. Imagine a burning pain a million times more intense than that, not just for a minute, but for all eternity.

Yet another pain that will pierce the soul in hell is the terrible remorse that will forever consume the condemned soul – the realization that it is in hell because of its own negligence and sin. Imagine the pain of realizing that your soul could have been in the blissful presence of God in heaven, yet through your own faults and free will, you have condemned yourself to an eternity of torture.

Of course, in all these unimaginable tortures, we will forever be accompanied by the presence of Satan, the devils and other wicked souls. We will come face to face with Satan, and will forever curse him, the devils and the other wicked souls for deceiving us. In turn, they will mock us and curse us – and together with them, we will curse God and utter the most foul blasphemies and insults. Souls in hell are unable to love, and are consumed by nothing but hate.

How do we know that hell exists?

We know that hell exists because Jesus, our God and Maker, said so!

We do know that Jesus is truly God, and not just any holy man or prophet. He proved His divinity through His miracles. He raised people from the dead. He performed many acts which ordinary human beings could not perform. But most of all, He proved His divinity by rising from the dead, through His Resurrection – only God can do this, only God has control over life and death.

The apostles and disciples were witnesses to this event, and recorded their testimonies in the Bible. Could they have been deceived? Could they have been liars who merely fabricated these resurrection stories? This is impossible, for the simple fact that they died in testimony of this truth – would you die for a lie? They believed in Jesus’ Resurrection to the core of their being, to the point of death.

Jesus is God, and He said many times that there is a hell, therefore hell must be true! In fact, in the Bible, Jesus spoke of hell more than fifty times! He told us of the fiery furnace, where people “will weep and gnash their teeth” (Matthew 13:42). He spoke to us of Gehenna, with its “unquenchable fire” (Mark 9:43). He explained to us that hell is a place of eternal suffering, with no possibility of return nor alleviation of pain, in the form of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16: 19-31).

In Matthew, Jesus says "But I say to you, that whosoever is angry with his brother, shall be in danger of the judgment....And whosoever shall say, you fool, shall be in danger of Hell fire" (St. Matt. 5:22).

Likewise, Our Lord says, "The Son of Man shall send his angels and they will collect out of his kingdom all who cause others to sin and all evildoers. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth" (St. Matt. 13:41-42).

In Mark, Jesus warns: "And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go into Hell, into the unquenchable fire..." (St. Mark 9:43).

His apostles likewise mentioned hell numerous times in the New Testament texts, speaking of hell as a “storm of darkness” (2 Peter 2:17), “perdition” (1 Timothy 6:9), “corruption” (Galatians 6:8), “death” (Romans 6:21), “second death” (Revelation 2:11), “pool of fire” (Revelations 20:13), and many others.

In the Old Testament, there are more than thirty references to hell. "The Lord Almighty will take revenge on them, in the day of judgment he will visit them. For he will give fire and worms into their flesh, that they may burn, and may feel for ever" (Judith 16:17). "Depart from me, come not near me, because thou art unclean: these shall be smoke in my anger, a fire burning all the day" (Isaiah 65:5).

Why is there a hell? Why would a merciful, loving God create a place of eternal torment?

Hell is not a “place” where God sends us, as punishment for our sins. Rather, it is a state of being – a state freely chosen by man who is totally free to choose in this life whether to accept God or not.

Those who deny God in this life, and die without remorse and repentance, in a way freely condemn themselves and hurl themselves to hell by the choices they made in life. Hell is not so much a punishment imposed to us by God, as a state freely chosen by those who defy God, an extension of the choices made in this life.

God is an infinitely good and merciful Father. He wants us to be united to Him in heaven – in fact, He even sent His own Son to die for us so that we may have the opportunity to go to heaven. But an important point must be remembered – human beings are free. We are free to choose God, or to deny Him. God is not a heartless, merciless, ruthless Master who throws people to the fires of hell.

In fact, in a way, God is “powerless” before our free will – He cannot force us to love Him, serve Him, and be united with Him in heaven. We are free to defy Him. We are free to choose to live without Him – in this life, and in the afterlife. In living a life of defiance against God, we freely condemn ourselves to separation from Him in the afterlife.

The late Pope John Paul II, in a General Audience held on July 28, 1999, clarifies this point clearly:

God is the infinitely good and merciful Father. But man, called to respond to him freely, can unfortunately choose to reject his love and forgiveness once and for all, thus separating himself for ever from joyful communion with him. It is precisely this tragic situation that Christian doctrine explains when it speaks of eternal damnation or hell. It is not a punishment imposed externally by God but a development of premises already set by people in this life.

…In a theological sense however, hell is something else: it is the ultimate consequence of sin itself, which turns against the person who committed it. It is the state of those who definitively reject the Father's mercy, even at the last moment of their life.

Rather than a place, hell indicates the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy.

In the same General Audience, the late John Paul II likewise explained:

"Eternal damnation", therefore, is not attributed to God's initiative because in his merciful love he can only desire the salvation of the beings he created. In reality, it is the creature who closes himself to his love. Damnation consists precisely in definitive separation from God, freely chosen by the human person and confirmed with death that seals his choice for ever. God's judgement ratifies this state.

What should be our proper attitude towards hell?

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Ecclesiastes 1:16). It will be the height of folly, the height of foolishness, for us to live this life in complete ignorance and indifference towards the reality of hell.

Hell exists – Jesus has said it in clear, unequivocal terms. In numerous Church-approved revelations, various saints and the mystics have testified to hell’s existence, and have narrated horrifying accounts of hell. A holy fear of the Lord, a holy fear of separation from Him in the afterlife, is the beginning of wisdom.

The devil’s ultimate trap is to convince people that hell is nothing but a joke, that it is an outmoded, traditionalist concept that has no place in modern-day society. We should live our lives with our spiritual eyes firmly fixed on the eternal reward of heaven, and fully conscious of the reality and possibility of eternal damnation.

As Steven Covey, the famous author of the bestselling book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” wrote, we should always “Begin with the End in Mind”. To live a “highly-effective spiritual life”, maybe we ought to heed Covey’s advice and begin each day of our lives with the end in mind – keeping our minds firmly fixed on heaven our ultimate home, and fully conscious of hell, the eternal fire that we ought to avoid.

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