Category Archives: mortal and venial sin

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.”

Huh?

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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Mortal and Venial Sin

 

The most common Bible verse used against the very Catholic and very biblical doctrines concerning mortal and venial sin is James 2:10-11:

For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” said also, “Do not kill.”

The argument is made from this text that all sins are the same before God. Is this true?

Two Points in Response:

First, the context of James 2 reveals St. James to have been talking about showing partiality for the first nine verses leading up to verses ten and eleven. In verse one St. James says, “My brethren, show no partiality as you hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ.” St. James then goes on to say that if we show partiality, for example, toward the rich at the expense of the poor, we fail to keep what he calls “the royal law, according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (verse 8). He then says, in verse nine, “But if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors.” This is his lead-in to talking about keeping the commandments.

The point here is we cannot pick and choose who we are going to love as the Lord commands and who we are not going to love. On Judgment Day, we cannot say, “But I loved over six billion people as I love myself, Lord! I only hated that one guy!” It is an all or nothing proposition. In the same way, we cannot say to God on Judgment Day, “But I kept the other nine commandments, Lord!”

The second point I would make here is if you read the rest of verse 11, St. James explains a little more precisely what he means.

For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” said also, “Do not kill.” If you do not commit adultery but do kill, you have become a transgressor of the law.

He never says anything remotely related to “all sins are equal.” He does not say, “If you commit adultery, you are guilty of murder, lying, stealing, etc.” as if there is no difference between these sins. The gravity of each sin is not his point. He simply points out that if you break any of these laws, you have become a transgressor of the law. Again, I believe he is saying you cannot pick and choose which of God’s laws you will obey and those you will not. You must obey all of them.

What is Mortal and Venial Sin?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church provides:

[1855] Mortal Sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God’s law; it turns man away from God… by preferring an inferior good to him. Venial sin allows charity to subsist, though it offends and wounds it.
[1861] Mortal sin… results in… 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…
[1862] One commits venial sin when, in a less serious matter, he does not observe the standard prescribed by the moral law, or when he disobeys the moral law in a grave matter, but without full knowledge or complete consent.
[1863] Venial sin weakens charity… and… merits temporal punishment. Deliberate and unrepented venial sin disposes us little by little to commit mortal sin. However, venial sin does not break the covenant with God. With God’s grace, it is humanly reparable. “Venial sin does not deprive the sinner of sanctifying grace, friendship with God, charity, and consequently, eternal happiness.”

What Does the Bible Have to Say?

Matt. 5:19:

Whoever then relaxes (breaks) one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Our Lord here teaches that there are “least commandments” a person can break and even teach others to do so yet still remain “in the kingdom of heaven.” That is both a good definition of venial sin and perfectly in line with paragraph 1863 of the Catechism. Then, Jesus goes on to warn us in no uncertain terms that there are other sins that will take us to hell—if we do not repent, of course. In Matt. 5: 22, Jesus further says, “… whoever says ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire.” In verses 28-29, he then says:

But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.

Clearly Jesus teaches there are some sins that will separate us from God for all eternity and some that will not–mortal and venial sin.

Matt. 12:32:

And whoever says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come (Matthew 12:32, emphasis added).

This statement of our Lord implies there are at least some sins that can be forgiven in the next life and some that cannot to a people who already believed it to be so. That sounds awful Catholic, doesn’t it?

II Maccabees 12:39-46, which was written ca. 125 BC, gives us an excellent historical backdrop that can shed light on the importance of our Lord’s words in Matt. 12:32. As the story goes, Judas Maccabeus and his army collected the bodies of some fallen comrades killed in battle. When they discovered these men were carrying “sacred tokens of the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear” (vs. 40), Judas and his companions discerned they had died as a punishment for sin.

Therefore, Judas and his men turned to prayer beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out… He also took up a collection… and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably… Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.

Whether one accepts the canonicity of I and II Maccabees really doesn’t matter. Whether a person accepts the inspiration of these books or not does not change the fact that they give us crucial information about the faith and practice of the Jews shortly before the time of Christ from a purely historical perspective. The Jews believed there were some sins that could be forgiven in the next life (analogous to what Catholics call venial sins), and that there were some sins that could not be so forgiven (analogous to what Catholics call mortal sins). That’s the historical record.

Some may argue at this point that this text only mentions some sins can be forgiven in the next life, it never says anything about any sins being unforgiveable. And that is true. However, we also know that at least some Jews of the more orthodox bent believed in a state of separation from God, or hell, where sins cannot be forgiven as well. Jesus himself speaks of this in multiple texts of the New Testament, for example, in Mark 9:47-48:

And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.

In the latter portion of that text Jesus actually quotes Isaiah 66:24 from the Old Testament as alluding to the existence of hell. And he was not saying anything novel or revolutionary here. According to the Talmud, and many Jewish writings before the time of Christ, as well as Orthodox Jewish teaching today, the Jewish faith has included a belief in a place of eternal punishment for the damned for well over 2,000 years. Moreover, among the Old Testament passages used historically by Jewish scholars, Isaiah 66:24 is one of the most common.

Most importantly, we have to acknowledge that this is the faith in which Jesus and the apostles were raised. They would have been raised to believe there were some sins that can be forgiven in the next life and some sins that cannot be. And it is in this context Jesus declares in the New Testament, as we saw from Matt. 12:32 above.

I John 5:16-18:

If anyone sees his brother committing a sin that is not a deadly sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not deadly. There is sin which is deadly; I do not say one is to pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not deadly. We know that anyone born of God does not sin, but He who is born of God keeps him, and the evil one does not touch him.

Three points:

1. These verses cannot be any plainer that there is such a thing as “deadly sin” and “sin which is not deadly.” That is precisely what the Church means by mortal (sin unto death) and venial (sin not unto death) sin.

2. St. John distinguishes the effects of mortal and venial sin as well. Members of the Body of Christ can pray for someone who commits venial sin (sin “which is not deadly”) and “life” (Gr. – zo-ay, or the divine life of God) and healing can be communicated to him through that prayer. But when it comes to “deadly sin,” St. John tells us not to “pray for that.” This is not meant to say we should not pray for a person in this state of sin at all. Scripture is very clear that we should pray for “all men” in I Tim. 2:1-2. The context seems to indicate that he is referring to praying that God “give [the wounded member of Christ] life” directly through that prayer. Divine life and healing can only come through members of the Body of Christ to other members in a direct way if the person being prayed for is in union with the Body of Christ. For mortal sin, one can only pray that God would grant the grace of repentance to the sinner so that they may be restored to communion with the Body of Christ through the sacrament of confession.

To understand this better, consider the analogy St. Paul uses for the People of God in I Corinthians 12:12-27—the analogy of the physical body of a human being. St. Paul tells us we are all members of “the Body of Christ.” A wounded finger that is still attached to its host body can be healed organically by the rest of the body. That kind of wound is analogous to the effect of venial sin. A severed finger, however, cannot be healed by the rest of the body because it is no longer attached to the body. That kind of wound is analogous to the effect of mortal sin. So it is in the Body of Christ.

3. Just after distinguishing between mortal (deadly) and venial (non-deadly) sins, St. John says “anyone born of God does not sin.” We know St. John could not be referring to all sin here because he already told us in I John 1:8: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Christians sin. It is clear from the context that St. John is referring to mortal sin here. If we sin mortally, we are cut off from the Body of Christ and are no longer in union with God. In that sense, the one who is in union with God cannot sin mortally. This is yet another clear distinction between mortal and venial sins in this text.

Mortal Sin Lists

We’ve already seen examples of “venial sins” in I John 5:16 and Matt. 5:19, but when it comes to mortal sin in Scripture, there are actually multiple lists of deadly or “mortal” sins in various places in Sacred Scripture. Our Lord himself provides us with several of them in Matthew 15:18-20, Revelation 21:8 and 22:15.  St. Paul gives us the rest in Ephesians 5:3-7, Colossians 3:5-6, Galatian 5:19-21, and I Corinthians 6:9-11.

Any one of these biblical texts makes very clear that the biblical data is clearly in favor of mortal sins, but for brevity’s sake I will cite just one of them (Eph. 5:3-7):

 But immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is fitting among saints. Let there be no filthiness, nor levity, which are not fitting; but instead let there be thanksgiving. Be sure of this, that no immoral or impure man, or one who is covetous (than is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for it is because of these things that the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not associate with them…

According to St. Paul, no matter how “born again,” “saved,” or whatever you think you are, if you commit these sins and you do not repent, you will not go to heaven. That is the essence of what “mortal sin” means.