Category Archives: Hell

Is Hell Fictional or Real?

In an earlier blog post, I talked about whether or not there are souls in Hell right now. And the answer is, yes! This post sparked a lot of questions that I very commonly get from Catholics as well as from atheists and agnostics concerning the nature of Hell. “What is Hell?” “Is it really ‘eternal’?” “Could a truly loving God allow for such a place to exist?” And more…

These questions were and are asked by Catholics, most often, so they can understand the dogma of Hell better and help friends and family members, but for atheists and agnostics, it is often a key reason why they cannot believe in God at all.

Below find my answers to some of the key questions asked about Hell.

By definition, according to CCC 1033, hell is “[the] state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed.” Some people cannot fathom how Hell could be a reality if God is truly an “all-loving” and “merciful God.” Yet, Hell could be said to be both the definitive expression of God’s justice and of the lofty calling and dignity of man. What do I mean by this?

Let’s look at the latter statement first.

In his infinite wisdom, God deigned to create man with the immeasurable dignity of a free, rational, spiritual, and therefore, immortal soul. He did not create us as robots that can only “choose” the good. Man has been gifted with the incredible gift of being free to either accept or reject God and God’s plan for him.

The ultimate reason for this is love. CCC 1861 says it well: “Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself.” Without freedom there is no real love as we understand it. The Catechism goes on:

[Mortal sin] results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back.

God has given to man his entire lifetime on earth to make that irrevocable decision of which the Catechism speaks. Thus, the “time” for choosing is now in this life, but the choice we make will have eternal consequences. Indeed, not only is this the “time” for choosing, but this is the only “time” there will be “time” at all. “Time” will be no more after we die, at least, not as we understand it. There will be some sense of sequentiality, some sort of “time,” if you will, but very different from “time” as we understand it now. Our “eternity” is thus sealed at the time of our death! But think about this: our choices affect not only us, but others as well and quite possibly for all eternity! Consider these two texts: one from the Old Testament, and one from the New Testament:

If I say to the wicked, “You shall surely die,” and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked, and he does not turn from his wickedness, or from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but you will have saved your life (Ez. 3:18-19).

In I Tim. 4:16, St. Paul says to Timothy:

Take heed to yourself and to your teaching; hold to that, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.

Ezekiel seems to indicate that if we choose not to evangelize someone God places in our life, it may well be that this will have been the last opportunity that person will ever have to choose God! This is daunting in one sense to be sure, but it also speaks of an incredibly lofty calling we all have as God’s faithful on earth. Some people, Calvinists in particular, simply cannot believe God would give to man this kind of responsibility. Yet, according to Scripture, this is the dignity and calling of man.

Now, I should also note that it may well be, and I would think it would most often be the case, that if we choose not to evangelize someone, he will be given any number of other opportunities to come to God, but both Ezekiel and St. Paul remind us of another reason why we need to evangelize: we save our own souls as well. “Educating the ignorant,” and “admonishing the sinner” are corporal works of mercy by which we will be judged on the Last Day. It is precisely because of this spiritual and free component in man that he has the ability to ascend the heights of a Mother Theresa or to descend to the depths of an Adolf Hitler. German shepherds have neither ability.

God considered this gift of freedom, and the ultimate fruit of that freedom–eternal life–as being worth all the evils that would eventually be brought about by the abuse of that freedom. As St. Paul said it, “… the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” in full at the end of time (Romans 8:18).

To chase a rabbit here for a moment: when considering the massive amount of evil that exists in the world we should also remember that God only even permits this inasmuch as he knows that he will bring ultimate good out of that evil. The crucifix is the ultimate example of this. The greatest evil ever perpetrated in the history of creation—the crucifix where we killed God—results in the greatest good… the redemption of the world by the grace of Jesus Christ.

Answering Objections and Questions

1. The Bible Does Not Teach “Hell” – At Least, Not as an Eternal Hell

The truth is: Most of what we know of Hell and its eternity comes from the very lips of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And he uses terms that are unequivocal. Pope St. John Paul II, in his book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, pg. 185, says it succinctly:

… the words of Christ are unequivocal. In Matthew’s gospel [Christ] speaks clearly of those who will go to eternal punishment (cf. Matt. 25:46).

The CCC 1035 concurs:

The teaching of the Church affims the existence of Hell and its eternity.

Most importantly, Scripture itself could hardly be clearer:

In Revelation 20:10, St. John describes Hell (“the lake of fire,” more specifically) in relation to the Devil and the False Prophet of the end times in terms difficult to misunderstand:

And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone where  the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.

Then, in Revelation 20:14-15, St. John again mentions this same “lake of fire” and explicitly and specifically declares that humans will go to the same place—and that means “for ever and ever.”

This is the second death, the lake of fire; and if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown in the lake of fire.

Revelation 21:8 says it as well and includes all those who die in mortal sin:

But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, as for murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their lot shall be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.

In Matthew 25:41 and 46, Jesus says just as heaven represents eternal life, Hell represents eternal punishment:

Then he will say to those at his left hand, “Depart from me, you cursed, in to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels…
And they [the unrighteous] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

Matthew 13:41-42, 47-50:

The son of man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth…

So it will be at the close of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.

2. Catholic “Dogma” Misuses Biblical Terms for “Hell”

The truth is, the word Hell, or I should say the “words” translated as “Hell” [Hebrew-sheol, Greek-Hades, Tartarus, and Gehenna-which is a Greek word of Hebrew origin], have various meanings and usages in the different books of the Bible and extra-biblical sources, yet this does not justify a failure to use the term “Hell” as understood in Catholic dogmatic teaching, in certain contexts, for these terms. In fact, and by way of example, “Gehenna” is always used for the “Hell” of “Catholic dogma” in Scripture. Let me explain what I mean:

Sheol generally represents “the place of the dead” in the Old Testament. Both the righteous and the unrighteous go there. In ancient Hebrew thought, this “place of the dead” was divided into two sections: a place of suffering and a holding place for the righteous. We find this idea in the teaching of Jesus in Luke 16:19-31, where Jesus speaks of a wicked rich man and a righteous poor man named Lazarus who had been a poor beggar. The wicked man who had “everything in life” goes to the place of torment, Hades, which is the closest thing to a Greek equivalent of the Hebrew “sheol,” while the poor man, Lazarus, goes to paradise. They are both in the same “place of the dead,” but separated by a “great chasm” as verse 26 calls it. The place of the righteous is called “the bosom of Abraham,” while the place of torment is called “Hades.”

The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried; and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus in his bosom (verses 22-23).

“Hades,” though here used for Hell, can, again, be used as “the place of the dead” as is “Sheol” in Hebrew. We see this in texts like Acts 2:27, 31 and Rev. 20:13-14. But the point is, it is, at times, used for the place of eternal torment we call “Hell.”

Gehenna is a different story. As I mentioned above, it is always used for eternal “Hell” as we see, for example, in Mark 9:43:

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 Gehenna: into the unquenchable fire.

Of the 12 times “gehenna” is used in the New Testament, 11 of the 12 come from our Lord and unequivocally refer to Hell (see Matt. 5:22; Matt. 5:29-30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15; 33; Mark 9:43-47; Luke 12:5, etc.). James 3:6 is the only other place we find “gehenna” used and it clearly refers to “the fire of gehenna” in referring to the danger of an unruly tongue.

Perhaps more importantly, what we find in the New Testament are multiple terms and multiple ways in which the inspired text teaches about Hell. We find phrases like “the lake of fire” (you find this used in Revelation 19:20; 20:10), or “furnace of fire” (Matthew 13:42) used to represent Hell. So it’s really not about misusing particular terms; the truth is, the biblical text is remarkably clear when it comes to the reality of an eternal Hell.

Perhaps the plainest text of all concerning Hell’s reality and eternity is found in Revelation 14:10-11. This text uses none of the above-mentioned terms; rather, it describes Hell in such stark terms that there is no way of parsing words and claiming a different usage for “hades” or “gehenna.” This is not a matter of semantics:

If any one worships the beast and its image, and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also shall drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever; and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image and whoever receives the mark of the beast.

These words speak for themselves!

Tartarus“is yet another term used in Scripture for the “Hell of Catholic Dogma.” In II Peter 2:4, we find:

For if God did not spare the angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell (Gr.-tartarosas)and committed them to pits of nether gloom to be kept until the judgment.

3. Are the “Flames” of Hell Literal?

It should be understood that both the joy of heaven and the pains of Hell are indescribable this side of eternity. And just as the Church warns against seeing heaven as a “worldly” sort of extension of life on this earth, so it is with Hell. The inspired authors cannot describe Hell adequately using human language; thus, the “flames of fire” are simply the most painful things we can imagine on this earth used to attempt to describe the indescribable to some degree.

So, are the “flames of fire” of Hell literal? No, they are not. In fact, it should be obvious that they are not literal right now because the souls in Hell do not presently have bodies. You can’t “light up” a soul with a match.

But even after the resurrection, the Catholic Church does not teach the “flames” of Hell to be literal. CCC 1472 answers this question succinctly:

These two punishments [the Catechism is here speaking of both Purgatory and Hell] must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church emphasizes the fact that Hell is primarily eternal separation from God. To quote CCC 1033 again, it defines Hell as, “The state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed.” It is absolute emptiness and isolation beyond anything we can fathom. The “pains” that are quite real, quite literal, and consist of both the pain of loss, and the pain of sense, i.e., they involve the body after the resurrection of the body, “follow from the very nature of sin,” or, they arise from the inside out, not from the outside in.

To bring this concept down to earth, think about this: What is mortal sin but the rejection of the love of God and neighbor? It is ultimate selfishness. Ultimately, the damned will simply get what they wanted—themselves for all eternity!

It is said that a man will go insane if he is kept in isolation for too long because human beings are so ordered toward communion with other persons. Hell will be that isolation that would lead anyone to insanity, but the condemned will never be able to lose their faculties. They will be fully cognizant of the pain of their isolation.

Some may ask as a follow-up, “What about, for example, the private revelation of St. Faustina that speaks of ‘the company of the devil’ as being part of the pains of Hell? How does that square with this ‘isolation’ that we are talking about?”

Answer: the “isolation” we are talking about here does not mean necessarily that there will be no other persons present. Think of it this way. Have you ever seen a person who is “all alone” in the middle of a party with people all around? For example, a person who is angry or having a “pity party” and wants nothing to do with anyone? In fact, the presence of people having fun can be an occasion for increased rage for someone like that!

That is an imperfect glimpse of Hell.

4. Is Hell a “Place” or a “State of Being?”

Hell is primarily a state of being, but inasmuch as the souls there will have bodies after the resurrection of the dead, they will have location as well. So, in that sense, we can say Hell is a “place.” In fact, we could say the same of heaven. But both heaven and hell are not “places” in the sense that the people there could “leave” and “return.” Inasmuch as these are states of being, “heaven” and “hell” are present wherever the saints and damned are.

5. How could it be possible that the just in heaven will be able to rejoice for all eternity in God, when they know that loved ones, for example, are in Hell for all eternity?

In other words, it has been asked of me, how could the angels and saints rejoice in heaven, for example, in Rev. 21, knowing the damned are suffering terribly as we see in Rev. 20? Or even more, we see in Rev. 14:11, the damned, “shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the lamb.”


Perhaps an analogy would work best in explaining this: Imagine you are in a court room and a man whom you know is guilty of murder is standing before the Judge and jurors where his fate is about to be determined. The foreman of the jury stands up and says, “Your honor, we find Tom Smith (insert your own name here) ‘not guilty’ of all charges.”

Your immediate reaction would most likely be to say, “That’s unjust!” At least, it should be! This would be an injustice because this man was, in fact, guilty. You should feel outraged at an injustice like this. Yet, on the flip side, if that same juror were to say, “We find Tom Smith guilty,” there would be a sense in which you could rejoice in this that is just. We should not rejoice in the suffering that awaits this man. We should not allow ourselves to fall into a sense of vengeance for vengeance’s sake, but we can, and indeed we should, rejoice in the good that is justice. You could say in a joyful way, “Justice was served today! And that is a good thing!”

On Judgment Day, all will know that every person will have been judged rightly and we will be able to see this with “God’s eyes,” so to speak. The blessed will be able to rejoice in God’s justice and mercy. In fact, only heaven will reveal in full the reality that Justice and Mercy are actually absolutely one in our infinitely just and infinitely merciful God!

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Is Hell Really Real?

It has become fashionable in some Catholic quarters these days to question where there are now or will ever be any souls populating hell. Hell, it is taught, is a “real possibility,” but whether there are any souls actually there, or whether there will ever be any souls there, is unknown to us.

It is, of course, true that hell is a “real possibility” for each of us. And that is a sobering thought. But it is also true that souls are actually in hell now, and will be for all eternity. This is a teaching of our Catholic Faith.

Au Contraire!

No less of a luminary than Fr. Robert Barron, following the great Hans Urs von Balthasar, from his famous book on the topic, Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved?, writes in his book, Catholicism, on pages 257-258:

If there are any human beings in hell, they are there because they absolutely insist on it. The conditional clause with which the last sentence began honors the church’s conviction that, though we must accept the possibility of hell (due to the play between divine love and human freedom), we are not committed doctrinally to saying that anyone is actually “in” such a place. We can’t see fully to the depths of anyone’s heart; only God can. Accordingly, we can’t declare with utter certitude that anyone—even Judas, even Hitler—has chosen definitively to lock the door against the divine love. Indeed, the liturgy compels us to pray for all of the dead, and since the law of prayer is the law of belief, we must hold out at least the hope that all people will be saved. Furthermore, since Christ went to the very limits of godforsakenness in order to establish solidarity even with those who are furthest from grace, we may, as Hans Urs von Balthasar insisted, reasonably hope that all will find salvation…

Let me just say at the outset here that neither Hans Urs von Balthasar nor Fr. Robert Barron are “universalists,” as they are sometimes accused of being. Both taught hell as a “real possibility” emphasizing the fact that we just can’t know with “utter certitude”—to use Fr. Barron’s words—whether anyone is in hell. Neither ever taught we can know with that same “utter certitude” that everyone is going to be saved either. For an excellent defense of von Balthasar’s teaching, I recommend Mark Brumley’s article, “Did Hans Urs von Balthasar Teach that Everyone Will Certainly Be Saved?” found in The Catholic World Report, November 21, 2013.

Having said that, this does not mean there are not problems with both von Balthasar and Fr. Barron’s teaching. There are. We’ll focus now on Fr. Barron’s above-quoted statement.

The central problem comes from the statement, “If there are any human beings in hell…” And then also with the claim that “the church’s conviction” is that we are not committed “doctrinally” to saying anyone is “in” such a place (hell). These are problematic. There are four points that I think we need to consider:

1. The First Constitution of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 at the very least alludes to the fact that folks then living in AD 1215 would be in hell. This was the opening statement of the Council and its “Profession of the Faith.” The implication is that people from every generation would finally be eternally separated from God, not just people from the 13th century. But, at the very least, for the strict interpreter of the words of the Council, it seems inescapable that the Council taught souls are in hell now:

Indeed, having suffered and died on the wood of the cross for the salvation of the human race, he descended to the underworld, rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. He descended in the soul, rose in the flesh, and ascended in both. He will come at the end of time to judge the living and the dead, to render to every person according to his works, both to the reprobate and to the elect. All of them will rise with their own bodies, which they now wear, (Latin text reads quae nunc gestant—which they are now bearing or wearing) so as to receive according to their deserts, whether these be good or bad; for the latter perpetual punishment with the devil, for the former eternal glory with Christ.

The present tense indicates that some folks then living—now wearing their bodies—would go to hell. Thus, the Church is here teaching there are souls “in” hell.

2. We have a more recent magisterial statement from Pope St. John Paul II with, shall we say, an interesting history. It was originally recorded in the L’Osservatore Romano, August 4, 1999, and it read:

Eternal damnation remains a real possibility, but we are not granted, without special divine revelation, the knowledge of whether or which human beings are effectively involved in it.

This sounds like it agrees with Fr. Barron and von Balthasar, doesn’t it? However, when this statement was placed in the AAS (Acta Apostolicae Sedis—all of the official statements of our Popes are placed there in their official form), “whether or” was edited out. This is most significant. The Pope’s original statement seemed to lend itself to Fr. Barron’s position. At the time, it was met with serious blow-back. But it was purposely amended, it appears, to eliminate those two problematic words. Thus, the official statement of the Pope reads:

Eternal damnation remains a real possibility, but we are not granted, without special divine revelation, the knowledge of which human beings are effectively involved in it.

The official statement of the Pope indicates the traditional Catholic teaching that there are human beings in hell, but that we just do not know “which human beings” they are. This is contrary to Fr. Barron’s position.

3. Pope John Paul II, in his book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, provides:

Can God, who has loved man so much, permit the man who rejects Him to be condemned to eternal torment? And yet, the words of Christ are unequivocal. In Matthew’s Gospel he speaks clearly of those who will go to eternal punishment (cf. Matt. 25:46). Who will these be? The Church has never made any pronouncement…” (pg. 185)

Though not a magisterial document, this does give us some insight into the mind of our former Pope. The unresolved question for John Paul was not whether folks are in hell or not, but who they will be individually. That is what the Church has not defined or taught officially. In other words, there is no “anti-canonization” process where someone is declared to be in hell infallibly.

Thus, it seems the Church’s Magisterium has, in fact, taught that there are souls in hell now, and that there will be for all eternity. “Which human beings” we do not know without special divine revelation. With all due respect to von Balthazar’s “Dare We Hope,” I would say that kind of “hope” would be to hope against the sensus ecclesiae, if by that he meant, or if by that Fr. Barron means, that there could even be a possibility that no one is or ever will be in hell. Jesus’ words are, as Pope John Paul II said, “unequivocal.”

And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life (Matt. 25:46).

Jesus seemed as certain that there will be souls in hell as he was that there will be souls in heaven.

Thus, in Fr. Barron’s statement, “If there are any human beings in hell…” he seems to be confusing the idea that we don’t have definitive knowledge of an individual soul being in hell by name, and our not knowing whether there are any souls in hell. We don’t know the former; we do know the latter as a matter of Church teaching.

Dare We Hope?

Finally, I want to consider Fr. Barron’s argument that the Church’s prayer for all of the dead means “we must hold out at least the hope that all people will be saved,” based upon the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi. This seems to be a non sequitur. Because we cannot know who will be saved, and who will be lost (apart from a private revelation, as Pope John Paul II said), it stands to reason we would pray for all. In other words, we would not pray: “Lord, because we know some will end up in hell, I pray Eggbert McGillicutty will be one of them.” Absolutely not! Just as God “wills all to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (I Tim. 2:4), so must we. But a hope or desire does not necessitate even the possibility of a strict fulfillment.

As an analogy, because I know my six children either have sinned (those over the age of accountability), or will sin (those under the age of accountability), that does not mean my prayer, “Dear Lord, keep my children from the ‘sin which clings so closely…’” is somehow void of hope. My desire, my hope, is that they never sin, but there is nothing in that desire, or hope, that means I must then hold to the possibility that all of my children will actually be sinless.

Neither is there anything in the Church’s prayer for all souls that necessitates a doctrinal stand of the Church that says we “must” hold out hope that we will discover “hell” empty in the afterlife. In fact, that would contradict both the words of our Lord I cited above and the teaching of the Church in CCC 1034:

Jesus solemnly proclaims that he “will send his angels, and they will gather… all evil doers, and throw them into the furnace of fire,” and that he will pronounce the condemnation: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire” (Matt. 25:41)!

Notice, the Church declares that “Jesus solemnly proclaims” and “pronounce[s]” that some will indeed be lost.

What Do We Conclude?

While we did not broach the topic of “how many” will be saved; that is for another time, our focus here has been on the question of whether there are and whether there will be souls in hell for all eternity. Greater minds than mine, like the aforementioned Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Fr. Robert Barron, have posited the possibility that all men could well be saved. Indeed, Fr. Barron even claims that as Catholics we “must” hold this to be a real possibility.

In a word, both of these great men are wrong. The teaching of the Church is clear. CCC 1034 teaches us that Jesus “solemnly proclaim[ed]” that Christ will, in fact, “pronounce the condemnation: ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire!’” And the Church can do nothing but repeat her Lord’s solemn words.

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