As we approach the end of this liturgical year, the Church reminds us to contemplate life after death. One doctrine clearly taught by Christ is hell – the state of eternal misery. Far too often today there is silence from the pulpit and in our catechesis regarding hell, possibly due to an assumption this reality is straightforward and exists. However, evidence suggests this is a false presumption, so it is beneficial for us to be reminded that not only is hell real and frightening, it is a possibility for any one of us depending on choices we freely make in life.
The Devil’s Deceptions
Among the many clever tricks of the devil, three stand out related to hell. Firstly, he tries to convince people hell does not exist. Then, in his cunning, he attempts to fool those who accept the reality of hell into thinking there is no chance they could ever go there after death. A third form of attack by the devil is to influence people to become indifferent to sin and to disregard the explicit warnings of Scripture related to eternal consequences of our choices.
If inclined to think the devil’s ploys are futile, you are wrong. Several groups who call themselves “Christians” reject either the reality of hell or at least the eternal aspect of damnation (Mormons, Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christadelphians are a few examples). Additionally, Americans, regardless of religious affiliation, have fallen prey to this deception with one recent poll in 2013 showing only 53% believed in hell. Furthermore, in this same poll, 62% of Americans believed heaven was real and that is where they would be after death. We can also observe Western culture to see signs of Satan’s successes with many people – including Christians – carelessly living contrary to God’s teachings and basing decisions on worldly standards, emotions, and passions rather than using theocentric standards.
To counter this duplicity of the devil, God has given us admonitions throughout Scripture so we can avoid being deceived. God’s Word reveals hell is a state of eternal suffering and separation from God. Hell is the result of rejecting God through grave sin.
The Reality of Hell
The idea of a state of eternal suffering is frightening, as it should be. When Scripture refers to hell, terrifying descriptions are given, such as “place of torment” (Luke 16:28), “unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12), “outer darkness” (Matthew 8:12) and “eternal destruction” (2 Thessalonians 1:9). Jesus uses the appalling depiction of hell as a state “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48). Imagining these horrors of hell, I have been asked how a loving God could create such an existence.
Hell is not the result of God’s positive act of creation. It is the result of people freely rejecting God and His love. Satan and the demons freely separated themselves from God in the beginning, and, since then, many people have chosen to join the fallen outside the Beatific Vision.
God desires all men to be with Him in heaven (1 Timothy 2:4), but, because God is the perfect gentlemen, He respects our choices and will never coerce us to act against our will. Therefore when we stand before the judgment seat of Christ, we will face two scenarios. Christ will bestow on some entrance into a state of everlasting happiness to be in the presence of God in heaven. This reward will be for those died with God’s gift of grace within their soul and will have had faith and been obedient to God in life. However, there will also be those who die and come before Christ without God’s grace either because they rejected His love, refused to have faith or who were unrepentant. In this scenario, Christ will grant to these people a continuation of the life they chose to live – spiritual separation from God. This latter state is not the result of God’s desires but is the consequence of man’s earthly choices. (See the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1021-1022; 1033-1041)
The Pains of Hell
Scripture provides some limited descriptions of hell (Jeremiah 23:39-40; Revelation 14:11; 20:10), and the Church Fathers also give us their speculations, allowing us to begin to have a hint of the wretchedness. An existence in hell is one of suffering, misery, sorrow and hatred; the degree of torment is inconceivable in our minds. The Fathers surmise those in hell will ultimately experience two types of pain: the pain of the senses and the pain of the loss of God.
Men in hell are surrounded by darkness, unable to see clearly, enveloped by an offensive stench emitted from all the citizens of hell. There is constant physical suffering from the pains of fire which burns without consuming as well as the agony of an intense hunger and thirst that can never be quenched. They are bombarded with the sounds of howls, woeful lamentations, and vulgarity. Beyond these horrors, a most intense positive pain is experienced because of the complete spiritual separation from God Himself. Outweighing every other torment, those in hell are acutely aware God is the ultimate source of man’s highest felicity yet they have chosen their fate. They are now cognizant of the many graces God had offered them throughout their lives which they rejected, and they fully understand their state is not the result of a vengeful God but due to their own choices. They are filled with remorse and shame. A desire for eternal bliss will be ever-present but will be unfulfilled, leading to despair.
Hell Is Only For Murderers, Right?
Someone once made the comment, “Why are some afraid of hell? Not many will be there and it is really only a place for people who have committed serious sins like murder or who have apostatized from faith in Christ.” There are two major errors in this statement.
Hell does not have a small population. In addition to the large population of demons, Jesus Himself warns us “many” human beings will be there:
Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few. Matthew 7:13-14
This revelation is contrary to any idea hell is sparsely populated, plus, Jesus informs us the path leading to eternal damnation is easy, and as such, a tempting one to tread down.
Furthermore, Jesus teaches it is not only unbelievers who are in hell but also those who believe in Christ yet who are disobedient to God:
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers’ . Mt 7:21-23
Jesus is in no way ambiguous. It is not only what and in whom we believe but how we live our lives. Sin is disobedience, and committing a grave sin is choosing to turn away from God. We may appear to be virtuous or able to do great works in the name of Jesus, but God knows every aspect of our heart so there is nothing we can hide from Him. If we are living in sin, we are far from God, which is why Jesus urgently calls all to repentance before it is too late. Throughout the Gospels Jesus instructs us how we must live to enter heaven, including loving God and neighbor and keeping the commandments (Matthew 19:16-22). St. Paul also explicitly tells us a few of the grave sins which could result in eternal damnation (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). Using these cautionary words, God could not be any clearer in His warnings.
Fear of Hell to Lead to Repentance
Awareness of the reality of hell and the agony suffered should be alarming. But consolation comes in recognizing God who wants us to be with Him in heaven and offers us His grace to assist us. Additionally, God has revealed not only the way to heaven but the truths of the danger of choosing hell by how we live. The Church reminds us, this fear of hell is a gift. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church discusses, though repentance motivated by the dread of punishment is not perfect contrition, it can still stir one’s conscience and initiate the process of conversion along with the promptings of grace (1453). Then, if we are receptive to the transforming power of grace, this communion with God, initially motivated by terror, can be metamorphosed into a desire for union with God propelled by love.
Our Response: Despair Or Conversion?
These truths about hell should create uneasiness within our hearts, but we must also caution against despair, irrational fear and anxiety. Hell is a fate freely chosen. These teachings of Christ and His Church are calls for conversion since we know neither the day nor the hour when we will be standing before the judgment seat of Christ.
For non-Christians who do not know God, there is an obligation to obey the natural law God has placed in our hearts and to sincerely seek Him (Romans 2:6-16). Faithful Christians should strive to avoid sin and repent when we fall. We must also recognize Divine Revelation is undeniable: the consequence of sin is choosing to be spiritually separated from God and, if we die in this state, this separation from God will be eternal.
The desire to avoid sin may seem impossible on our own but with God, nothing is impossible (Mark 10:25-27). God offers all of us His grace. This supernatural power enables us to have faith and be obedient to God, as well as giving us the ability to resist temptation. But even with grace, we must always be cautious to not become presumptuous. We cannot say “because God is merciful He will not condemn me if I persist in my sins.” Rather, God exhorts us to not delay in turning away from our sins to repentance (Peter 1:3-23).
Hell is Real and Freely Chosen
Hell is real, and this eternal experience of misery is a consequence of sin chosen in this life. God has revealed truths of hell so we will not fall prey to the lies of the devil. God is giving us the time to turn away from our sins. Now is the time of grace, repentance, conversion and mercy. After death, the time of justice will have come and judgment by Christ Himself will be based not only on faith but on all earthly deeds – “for we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body” [in his earthly life] (2 Corinthians 5:10). Hell is not merely for apostates and murderers; the citizens of hell will include some of the baptized, even priests and bishops. Jesus warns us of the consequences of our actions and calls us daily to conversion.
Knowing we all will ultimately spend eternity in either heaven or hell, it is critical we acknowledge the drastic differences between these two states. And though disturbing, we cannot neglect to contemplate the realities of hell to remind ourselves of the grave consequences of sin. As Dr. Peter Kreeft wrote:
If all of life’s roads lead to the same place, it makes no ultimate difference what choice we make. But if they lead to opposite places, to infinite bliss or infinite misery, unimaginable glory or unimaginable tragedy…then life is a life or death affair…and our choice of roads is infinitely important (Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Heaven).