The Catholic Teaching on Hell
by Fr. John Trigilio, PhD, ThD.
Clear and concise Catholic Moral guidance on Hell
Q. Can people really go to Hell?
A. The existence of Heaven and Hell are formal doctrines of Christianity. Hell exists as does Heaven. Hell was created primarily for the fallen angels who rebelled against God and fought the Archangel Michael. Human beings have the potential or possibility of going to Hell because we also have the possibility and potential to go to Heaven (by God’s grace). (CCC #1035)
Particular Judgment occurs immediately after a person dies and their soul is separated from their bodies. The soul is judged and if the person dies with an unforgiven, unrepentant mortal sin, they go directly to hell for eternity. Lucifer and the other bad angels were cast into hell after they rebelled against the dominion of the will of God. They preferred to be masters of their own destiny rather than be happy as servants of the Lord. John Milton the famous poet in his epic “Paradise Lost” has Lucifer say: ‘far better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.’ His pride prevented him from an eternity of joy, happiness and glory in heaven just so he could appease his fat ego.
Last Judgement by Fra Angelico
Hell is the eternal separation from God and it is utter and sheer loneliness. No matter how many demons, devils or damned souls are in hell, everyone there is totally isolated from each other and most of all from God, who is love. That is why Dante Alighieri in his poem the “Divine Comedy” depicts hell as a place of absolute cold and freezing temperatures due to the lack of warmth from love. It is allegorical, but paints a good picture.
The fires of hell are real, though, insofar as they represent the pains and torments as the punishment for sins. Since the soul is immaterial, it is not a material fire but it is painful and causes great misery. After the resurrection of the dead at the end of the world, the just will get their bodies reunited with their souls and go back to heaven while the damned will get their bodies and go back to hell. The resurrected body cannot die, so the torments of hell will only be increased when the body and soul are reunited. For the just who go to heaven, however, their joy and happiness will only be enhanced when their bodies join their souls in heaven.
People ask how can a good and loving God send any of his children to hell? First of all, God sends no one to hell. People send themselves to hell. When we commit a mortal sin (grave matter, full knowledge, deliberate and free consent), we are consciously rejecting the dominion of God. It is more than mere disobedience of a law. Sin is a disease to the soul. Just as there are benign and malignant tumors, so there are venial and mortal sins. Mortal sins are like malignant tumors in that they are deadly and can kill the life of grace. Only the sacrament of penance (confession) can remove them for a Catholic Christian just as only an oncologist can remove the tumor by surgery or destroy it by radiation or chemotherapy.
God prefers everyone go to heaven but he gave us a ‘free will.’ Mankind is made in the image and likeness of God. God has a Divine Intellect and a Divine Will. Human beings have a rational intellect and a free will. That free will does not mean we have the liberty to do anything we want. I cannot defy the laws of gravity and walk off the roof of my home and expect not to fall. I can freely choose to walk off the roof but the consequences of my choice are not under my control. Gravity works whether I want it to or not. Likewise, I can freely choose to sin and break the Commandments but the consequences of that free choice are beyond my control. If I lie, steal or murder someone, there are consequences, not just legal ones. Innocent people will get hurt. Suffering will be caused. I will be punished in this life and/or the next.
Since God gave us a free will, he respects our will even when it freely chooses to reject Him. Hence, if a person chooses hell over heaven, God respects that choice. If God intervened and contravened our free will, we will cease to be human. Animals act of instinct. Computers operate by programming. Human beings, however, have a free will and we make moral decisions which have consequences and ramifications. This is what we call moral responsibility. I cannot blame society, the devil, others or genetics for the sins I commit. You and I freely choose to do good or to do evil.
While the Church can infallibly declare someone in heaven as a Saint, she has never pronounced or declared any particular person to be in hell. That is because the Divine Mercy of God is awesome and mysterious. There is a possibility of any sinner being able to repent of their sins and seek the forgiveness of God. There is also, sadly, the possibility of a sinner being obstinate and freely rejecting the grace of repentance. That is why hell is possible for anyone and must be avoided at all costs. Hell is never inevitable. No one is predestined to damnation. There is always hope while the person is alive. Only after death is it too late. Particular Judgment happens at the moment of death. General Judgment is at the end of time and is merely a revelation and ratification of what happened at the Particular Judgment, but this time disclosed to everyone.
Often people think only the worst go to hell. Just one mortal sin can damn you to hell for eternity. It is not a number crunching game, either, where God counts and weighs your good deeds against your bad ones. Obviously, if I commit sin every day, it is very likely I will be in the state of sin when I die and have Particular Judgment. On the other hand, if you are doing good and avoiding evil every day of your life, it is very likely and probable you will be prepared and ready for judgment whenever it happens. As we ‘know not the day nor the hour’, it is prudent for us to always be ready every day by being in the state of grace (i.e., free of mortal sin). Our Lady of Fatima showed the children (Saint Jacinta, Saint Francisco and Sr. Lucia) a vision of hell and the souls in torment there. She said many souls go there because no one prays for them. Mary urged the children to spread the message that Jesus wants us to pray for the conversion of sinners; to save souls from hell by praying (like the Rosary) for them. One of the spiritual works of mercy is the admonition or warning of sinners. Too often good people do bad things and other good people remain silent instead of offering Christian fraternal correction (always done in charity with discretion and prudence).
The reality of hell should wake up Christians to live morally good lives and to pray for their neighbor and hopefully give good example to him or her. The reality of heaven is our goal while the fear of hell is a good deterrent, we should want heaven more than we want to avoid damnation.
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As Our Lady requested at Fatima, let us pray daily for poor sinners who have no one to pray for them and no one to offer sacrifices for their salvation. Let us also spare no effort to practice and to spread devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary!
At the same time, let us not fall into the modern trap of pretending that sin is no longer sin. No matter what the world or the media might say, sin is sin whether it be the sin of adultery, homosexuality, abortion or blasphemy! And mortal sin will lead souls to Hell!
Yet no matter the gravity of the sin, God will always forgive the sinner who repents of their sin and amends their life. If you know someone who is living in sin, pray for them and encourage them to seek God's forgiveness in the sacrament of confession. Our Lord Jesus Christ awaits to forgive the sinner just as the father in the Gospel parable awaited to forgive and welcome the prodigal son.
Once we have confessed our sins and obtained forgiveness, let us not allow anxiety or guilt to plague us, nor allow the devil to make us lose hope. Let us always remember the power of God's mercy, as expressed by St. John Vianney, the famous Cure D'Ars and the patron saint of priests:
"Our sins are nothing but a grain of sand alongside
the great mountain of the mercy of God!"