What can one say about Hell? For atheists and other non-believers, it’s part of a symbolic fairy tale, and doesn’t really exist, any more than the God who supposedly sends people there (or does he? More on that later!) Yet it does exist, contrary to popular wishful thinking! St. Padre Pio is said to have told a skeptic who said he didn't believe in Hell that he would when he got there!
Our Lady of Fatima showed the three Fatima visionaries Hell for a brief terrifying moment and told them that many souls who go there (many for sins of impurity) didn’t believe in it either!
And yet Lucy, Jacinta, and Francisco at Fatima were by no means the only ones to see Hell. God also allowed St. Teresa of Avila, St. Faustina, and Sister Josefa Menendez, among others, to experience quite severe revelations of that place where both hope and souls are lost forever.
While many Near-death experiences have been joyful glimpses of heaven, some others have been quite the contrary: dark, painful, foul-smelling, stiflingly hot, demonic, hateful and more miserable than anything anyone could imagine!
Hell is mentioned numerous times in both the Old and New Testaments. It is referred to by that specific name as in this reference: “The way of sinners is made plain with stones, and in their end is Hell, and darkness, and pains” (Sirach 21:11).
Hell is also called such fitting terms as the “pit” (Psalm 30:4) or the Hebrew word Sheol, meaning the netherworld, the abode of the dead. (Intriguingly enough this article sheds much needed light on the two types of such an abode that existed before Jesus’ Passion, death and resurrection, one a kind of resting place for the just awaiting heaven and another of fiery torment for evil-doers!)
Our Lord referred to Hell a few times in the Gospels as the fiery Gehenna (referring to a notorious garbage dump just outside Jerusalem that was once an infamous place of child sacrifices!) In fact, Jesus warned of Hell numerous times, referring to it most notably as place of fire or of an outer darkness where there would be wailing and gnashing of teeth for the wicked and those who were otherwise not faithful to God and His commandments.
The contrast between the two eternal abodes of heaven and Hell couldn’t be more stark. Heaven, as I’ve written about in this blog post has been observed by theologians, religious and lay people (emerging from Near Death Experiences) alike, is a place of unbelievable peace and joy as one could never imagine on earth.
Hell is its polar opposite! A key component in this endless bliss or misery is the presence or absence of God! Our souls feel most intensely upon death how much they are meant to be at one with God, our Creator.
Our senses are extraordinarily sharpened once we’ve passed from this life into the next and we feel most like a fish out of water without God! To look at it another way, as St. John said in one of his letters “He who does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:8). So it naturally follows that to be without God for eternity is to be without love forever. Theologians refer to this pain of Hell as being a pain of loss! Quite a loss indeed!
The damned have an eternity filled with loathing for the love of God they will never ever experience, as well as regret over how they ruined their lives and squandered their Heavenly inheritance.
You might have read somewhere this stupid and dangerously misleading quote. It’s meant as a joke about the uselessness of worrying but this is no laughing matter: “If you go to heaven there’s nothing to worry about. If you go to Hell, you'll be so busy shaking hands with all your friends that you won't have time to worry!”Wrong!!!
There are no handshakes in Hell because there’s no love or even the hint of friendship or any sort of camaraderie! And you’ll have only the deepest sort of anger and contempt for those of your “buddies” on earth with whom you might have shared sinful lives.
If I steer you into making a decision, whether intentionally or not, that’s going to make your life miserable, you’re not going to think too highly of me, now are you? Think also of those “partners in crime” who often turn on each other when arrested! There is an intriguingly heartbreaking description of Hell entitled “Cry of a Lost Soul”, in which, a damned soul states that in Hell “we here drink hatred like water”.
Keep in mind also that it has been said that Hell itself has many layers of punishment. And in its most begin form, the loss of God and the loss of and sense of peace or love or joy forever is torture enough! Yet as mentioned earlier, Hell is also a place of fire, stench, pain you can’t imagine with no relief in sight, and actual torture by hideous looking demons. St. Faustina wrote in her diary a chillingly precise summary of Hell’s torments in this vision that she experienced of that wretched place.
Hell is indeed a place of guilt, shame and endless regret for sins we’ve committed in this life with no regards to their eternal consequences for our souls. If we fall into Hell it’s too late to ask God for forgiveness or help in combating our sinful tendencies.
Intriguingly it is also referred to as perdition, as in “lost”. Jesus allowed Himself to be crucified so that not one of us would be as lost sheep to be devoured by wolves.
And yet….nowadays if people think of Hell as a place at all, it is only occupied by Hitler and….OK, maybe Stalin and a few other baddies like them I guess.
The universalist notion that everyone will be saved from this place of eternal torture and misery is much more comforting, quite naturally. So is a similar strain of thought in some Protestant circles that says “once saved always saved” as discussed here. And while we may hope we may be saved wishing it doesn’t make it so!
If anything, Jesus gave a stern warning to us all when asked “Lord, are only a few to be saved?” He answered “Strive to enter by the narrow gate; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able to.” (Luke 23-24). A number of great saints such as St. Augustin and St. Thomas Aquinas echoed his chilling words that most people wind up in Hell.
St. Teresa of Avila wrote of seeing souls fall into Hell like snowflakes! And St. Jean-Marie Vianney once preached using a similar metaphor: “Shall we all be saved? Shall we go to Heaven? Alas, my children, we do not know at all! But I tremble when I see so many souls lost these days. See, they fall into Hell as leaves fall from the trees at the approach of winter.”
We naturally recoil at the notion that a good and loving God who created each of us in his image could possibly send anyone to such an awful place upon our passing from this life! Yet Catholic doctrine holds God sends no one to Hell. Rather we send ourselves there by our actions.
Our teachings on sin and penance can shed some light on the darkness both of this subject (no pun intended)! While it is hard to condense so much information on this subject into a single blog post, this link can provide a quick summary as well as this one and this one on mortal sin as well.
The key point to remember is this: Our faith speaks of two types of sin: Mortal and Venial. While this might seem rather Pharisaical to other Christians, it has a solid scriptural foundation. While all sins negatively affect our relationships with God (and with each other as well), as St, John put it in one of his letters “All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not deadly” (1 John 5:17)
Mortal sin kills the life of sanctifying grace within our souls, but the good news is that such grace can be restored through repenting of such sins through the Sacrament of Penance (Confession). Church teaching is that if a sin that is indeed mortal and we know it is, but commit it anyway, that's when we're in trouble and need Confession!
It is mortal sins for which you have not repented through Confession that can land you in hot water (or should I say fire?). Christ gave us good examples of mortal sins in this passage from Matthew’s Gospel: “murders, adulteries, immorality, thefts, false witness, [and] blasphemies” (Matt 15:18).
St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians corroborated our Lord's thoughts when he wrote: "It is obvious what proceeds from the flesh: lewd conduct, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hostilities, bickering, jealousy, outbursts of rage, selfish rivalries, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, orgies and the like. I warn you, as I have warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God!"(Gal 5:19-21)
Yet, we need not, and should not despair! God wants none of us to perish in that inferno that makes Auschwitz look like a Holiday Inn by comparison! He sends us numerous graces and promptings to follow Him in obeying His commandments, which are meant to be laws of love, after all. He is the Good shepherd always looking out for his lost sheep (John 10:11).
But it’s up to each of us to respond to Him through the free will he gives each of us! If we make regular examinations of conscience and live lives of love and repentance for our sinful tendencies, along with availing ourselves of His Mercy in the Sacrament of Penance when we’ve committed Mortal Sins, we can set ourselves on the right path towards Eternal Life in heaven.
But if we blot out our inclinations to do God’s will and respond to His grace, we run a great risk of damnation and the Eternal loss of our souls! This doesn’t mean you should base your relationship with God just on fear, (although a healthy fear of the Lord in His justice is one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit).
After all, as God the Father told the great mystic St. Bridget of Sweden. “If Hell pains were visibly seen as they now exist, man would be totally frozen with fear and would see Heaven out of fear and not out of love. Since no one ought to seek Heavenly joy out of fear of punishment but rather out of divine charity, these pains are therefore now hidden.”
And yet…if the fear of Hell could somehow make a comeback, it just might persuade at least some people to turn away from evil. Think of the gangsters and the banksters, for example. If our society had a proper sense of dreading Hell, a lot of the crime, fear, hatred and corruption we find so prevalent in the world today might well dry up!
After all, is it worth it to be a drug kingpin or a “robber baron” (or to otherwise be a slave to primeval appetites for money, power and worldly delights) if you wind up in Hell? What’s the point of living in a luxury mansion for a few decades if afterwards your dwelling place forever has the ambiance of a furnace and a sewer, and all the warmth and love of a prison yard! (And yes there is an eternal fire in Hell, along with great darkness in spite of it, and demons there whose only pleasure is to make you as miserable as possible!)
Clearly God wants us to share Eternity with Him badly enough to have died for us and our sins on the Cross at Calvary. But He cannot force us to love Him or choose Him in return! That’s up to each of us. But as long as we live we can make the choice of love, much as Moses spoke of in the book of Deuteronomy when he told the flock entrusted to Him by God to to choose blessings not curses (Deuteronomy 30:19).
It is worth noting that while the notion of a loving God allowing any soul to perish in Hell might be disconcerting, His love cannot exist without His Justice. If someone harmed one of your loved ones, or wronged you in some way, wouldn’t you want them punished or otherwise held to account in the name of justice? So does God!
Thankfully there is also Purgatory as a place of expiation for sins and not just Hell, as described here! (Otherwise, could any of us frail sinners ever reach Heaven where perfection is naturally the order of the day?) Yet, our society has so lost a sense of sin that many people might indeed experience a rude awakening rather than a peaceful “sleep” upon their passing away.
St. Faustina noted in her vision mentioned earlier that Hell included pits in which the souls of the damned are continuously tortured by hideous looking demons. She also wrote that “the constant company of Satan” was another horrible aspect of Hell.
Apparently the Evil One is not loads of fun at parties! Satan's hatred for you and for all humanity is red hot indeed. His jealous rage for God and human beings knows no bounds! You get an opportunity to eternally experience what the devil and his rebellious minions who were kicked out of heaven never will: the great peace, joy and love that comes from being in God's presence in paradise. For Satan, misery hates company but he wants to drag you to Hell with him in any case!
While our emphasis on how one unrepented mortal sin could spell Eternal Ruin, especially to non-Catholic Christians, consider these facts: In terms of the length of the punishment, keep in mind that when you pass away from this earth you enter a region outside of time, where now is forever, and time doesn’t have the same meaning as it does for us in our lives.
God Himself exists outside of time, which is a concept I admittedly can’t quite get my head around; but then again, part of faith is understanding that there are somethings in this world that we will never fully understand. As we read famously in Isaiah 55:8 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts: nor your ways my ways, saith the Lord."
This is not to say that faith and reason don’t go together. God’s Ten Commandments are laws of love that very much pertain to the natural law in any case for our own self-preservation and sanity, overall.
Granted, the punishment of Hell for one unrepented mortal sin sounds quite jarring! But keep in mind this practice of avoiding mortal sins and confessing them when we do commit them in the Sacrament of penance has a useful, soul-saving purpose.
Confession acts in this regard as a kind of “guard rail” against our turning vices into habits and sinking further and further into the morass of such devilish snares as pornography or drug abuse, for example.
Watch out for presumption (where you assume your salvation) and despair (where you give up on ever achieving it). And while you might not think of yourself as being an enemy of God when you’re committing a mortal sin that seems more innocuous, say going on a bender or looking at porn, you are nonetheless becoming estranged from your Creator in causing Him great offense by such actions. Remember that you were made to be one of God’s adopted children (Romans 8:15).
And beware of giving into the tragic temptation of shutting out God because He has allowed you to experience some personal tragedy or setback that was just too much to bear. Don’t let the crosses of this life crush you!
Otherwise, God may very well say to you upon your death as the famous Catholic writer Frank Sheed put it so well “OK you have chosen that your will be done, not mine.” This may land you in a nasty stretch of Purgatory at best!
Don’t go down the tragically foolish road our Lord warned us about that leads to destruction (Matt 7:13) because of sexual frustration for example. It isn’t worth it! You won’t have a hot time in Hell. Well, actually you will, but not the kind of hot time anyone ever wants! As mentioned earlier to sum up, in Hell the soul can experience horrible fire there as well as great remorse from having lost God forever!
We live in a society nowadays where a disconcerting number of people are flirting with Satanism. I even saw a picture on the internet of someone holding up a sign at some rally that said “Hell will be fabulous”. No it won’t be, not at all!!
Keep in mind these two important thoughts above all: you have free will and your soul is valuable real estate in the fight between Christ and Satan. At your ultimate destination as Bishop Sheen once said one of the two of them will say “you’re mine”! Forever!
Stay close to God in following His Commandments and seeking His forgiveness in Confession when you stray from our Good Shepherd (as we all do more often than any of us would like to admit)! The great novelist, essayist and lay theologian C.S. Lewis once wrote spoke of Satan and his demonic minions as feasting on fallen souls. Don’t them them snack on yours!