Hell is not just a theoretical possibility according to the Gospel reading on 24 May and many more passages in scripture.
“The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.” (CCC 1035)
Although Hell is real, prudence must be exercised when we teach others about it. St. John Paul II gives us a helpful reminder to all Christians: “The issue that some will go to hell is decided, but the issue of WHO in particular will go to hell is undecided.”
I particularly despise people who proclaim things like, “You are going to hell if you don’t convert to Christianity!” Such people are arrogant and presumptuous.
It is important for us to know our place. ALL of us will be judged, Christian or not (c.f. Mt 25:31-46). We are not the judge (c.f. Jas 4:12). Claiming with absolute certainty that someone is going to hell is the grave sin of presumption because they assume the role of God.
That is why up till this day, the Catholic Church has never definitively declared who’s in hell — because the truth of the matter is, she doesn’t know! Yes, even non-believers and the worst sinners.
Many today think that this is just a politically-correct answer. To such people, let me ask a simple question: “How would YOU know that even the greatest sinner did not, at the last second of his death, cry out to Jesus to save him?”
This is the essence of the good thief in Luke’s Gospel. The story’s purpose is to show that God’s mercy is limitless.
The resurrection of the dead is among the central tenets of Catholicism, and indeed of any branch of “mere” Christianity which could be called “orthodox” . It is the central point of the Gospels, that Christ came to die and then that he rose again from the dead; it is a point mentioned both in connection with Christ and then again with us in the historic creeds. And indeed, it is a central enough point that St. Paul tells us,
“Now if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:12-15).
The general resurrection is thus intimately connected to the other doctrines—and speculations—concerning eschatology. Our bodies are intimately a part of us—and if our souls are to be separated from our bodies at death, then we are incomplete until body and soul are reunited in the resurrection. As Dante Alighieri writes in his Divine Comedy,
When, glorious and sanctified, our flesh
Is reassumed, then shall our persons be
More pleasing by their being all complete;
For will increase whate’er bestows on us
Of light gratuitous the Good Supreme,
Light which enables us to look on Him;
Therefore the vision must perforce increase,
Increase the ardour which from that is kindled,
Increase the radiance which from this proceeds.
But even as a coal that sends forth flame,
And by its vivid whiteness overpowers it
So that its own appearance it maintains,
Thus the effulgence that surrounds us now
Shall be o’erpowered in aspect by the flesh,
Which still to-day the earth doth cover up;
Nor can so great a splendour weary us,
For strong will be the organs of the body
To everything which hath the power to please us.”
(Paridiso, Canto XIV, Longfellow Translation)
Thus, the beatific vision of heaven—and for that matter the torment of hell—will prove ever grater to us when we are whole, body and soul. We may “experience” these as souls, but that experience is not complete when we lack our bodies, through which we experience the world.
Here is a speculative answer as to why that may be. As Saint Thomas Aquinas teaches us, all that is in our minds is first experienced through the five senses (ST I.84.6). Now, our souls may be separated from our bodies at death , with the result being that we have in heaven mind and memory and intellect and even will, but not those things which are proper to the body such as the senses. It seems to me that, deprived of the sense, we cannot gain new experiences in their proper entirety.
What does this mean heaven will be like for us? Perhaps we can look to the angels—though it seems to me that we don’t actually know much about their experiences of heaven. Again, we have deduced that they do not learn in the same way that we do: rather, they are able to instantly grasp and understand new knowledge, conveyed not so much be sense as by intuition. Will our intellects be heightened in this manner? It is certainly within the realm of possibility, and would speculate that this must be so if we are to judge the angels themselves (see 1 Corinthians 6:3). Perhaps we will experience a heightening of this sort, and then we can apply these heightened intellects to intuit heaven’s joy: but again this is not so much an experiencing of heaven as an understanding of it. It would be good, and exceedingly so, even under these conditions, but how would we experience that goodness? Perhaps through memories of the good things we experienced in this life, but elevated and perfected by heavenly grace .
Yet, without our bodies, are we really experiencing the fullness of heaven, or is the whole thing little more than a dream-like state until the resurrection ? Reunited with our bodies, we may finally actually experience heaven, and in so doing move beyond memory and imagination to actually participate in the real thing. It is one thing to understand the joy of heaven, and even to have that as our single thought, to take delight in it as it fills our minds, our souls; it is another thing still to be fully present in heaven, to experience it and delight in the experience.
Speculation aside, we are told another thing about our bodies in heaven:
“But some one will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’ You foolish man! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body which is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body….So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-44).
From this, and from the resurrection accounts of the Gospels, we can draw a few conclusions about our bodies in heaven:
Our risen bodies will be whole. Each of us will have our entire body restored to us (Luke 12:17).
The bodies in their perfection are “spiritual bodies” . Saint Augustine explains in his City of God that this means they are perfected beyond even what our first ancestors (Adam and Eve) had in the garden before the Fall and the entrance of Original Sin. For example, Adam and Eve still required sustenance (e.g. the tree of life, Genesis 2:9, 16), but our resurrected bodies will not. One result of this is that our risen bodies will be immortal.
Our risen and glorified bodies will be impassible. This means that they will be incorruptible (1 Corinthians 15:42) but that they will also be free from inconveniences, such as the pain of heat or cold or physical barriers (John 20:19).
Our glorified bodies will shine with brightness (or glory). They will have different degrees of glory (1 Corinthians 15:39-42).
Our bodies will have perfect agility. This means that we will be able to move with the swiftness of thought, and so space will prove no barrier to our movements. The body can move instantly to any place the soul desires.
The risen body will be absolutely obedient to the soul, and the intellect will govern the will. This obedience is called “subtility,” and was among the gifts enjoyed by Adam and Eve before the Fall but since then lost.
Suffice it to say that the resurrection is something to look forward to (as the Nicene Creed states), and this as a joyous part of the life in the world to come.
 Orthodox: here I mean that there are certain doctrines which the various branches and schisms of Christianity have traditionally held in common. I will not list all examples here, but some include the doctrine of the Trinity, or that Christ was both true God and true man, or that He died and then on the third day resurrected from death to life. Basically, anything contained in the historic creeds, and a few other points of doctrine or common morality.
 This is certainly the bulk of opinion among Catholic thinkers. I suppose that the Orthodox opinion of a general dormition until the resurrection would be one alternative to this. The idea of form (soul) without matter (body) is a difficult one to fathom, so I won’t attempt to discuss it much more here.
 Here I am reminded of a passage from C. S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet, in which the main character (Ransom) questions the alien hrossa about their mating rituals. The hross which he questions explains that they mate for a single season of life. Ransom asks whether there is pleasure for them, and if so how they can bear to remember it without returning to it. The surprised hross replies that there is as much pleasure in the memory as in the thing itself, and that only in memory can pleasure be completed.
 Perhaps there may be something to the Orthodox interpretation, and yet we need not give up the Catholic interpretation to get there!
Some years ago, I joined a group of friends in their college dorm lounge to enjoy a movie. While we watched the movie, I overheard a conversation between two students in the lounge’s loft area (it was an elaborate lounge). The topic of the conversation was Hell.
The first student, a woman, stated not a disbelief in the existence of hell, but rather her objection as to its significance and her astonishment that it should exist. The second student, a man, attempted to answer her question by citing Biblical passages, ultimately demonstrating that Hell was consistent to Christian doctrine but failing to really address his friend’s specific objections. The result was that the woman did something too often observed in Christian circles: she marginalized Hell.
I am reminded of this conversation by a more recent exchange I had with an acquaintance — this about morality. Why should we be concerned with our own sins, let alone with warning others against theirs? Provided that the sin in question isn’t harming us, what business is it of ours?
In one sense, none—we can’t really judge the state of another’s soul by the public sins they do or don’t commit; our Lord is quite in His proscriptions against judging and condemning others’ souls (see Matthew 7:1-5 or Luke 6:35-42).
Sure, He also gives us instructions regarding fraternal correction (Matthew 18:15-17), and of course by nature of our baptisms we all have the prophetic charge given to Ezekiel (Ezekiel 33:5-7). But why the concern for morality and sin; why are these important? My acquaintance did not account for Death and Judgement and Hell in his philosophy of life.
The British novelist Piers Paul Read begins his essay on Hell with a reminiscence of his childhood catechesis:
“My religious upbringing began at Gilling, the Ampleworth Prep school, which I attended from the age of eight to twelve. It followed the Penny Catechism with its numbered questions and answers. To encourage us to remember the answers, we were set a ‘stick test’: too many wrong answers led to a beating. It was important to get them right not just to avoid being thwacked on the hands by a ferule in this world but to escape a more terrible punishment in the next. ‘What are the four last things to be ever remembered?’ asked question 332. ‘The four last things to be ever remembered are Death, Judgement, Hell, and Heaven.’ What was Hell? Eternal punishment. What would lead to eternal punishment? Dying unrepentant in a state of mortal sin. What sins were mortal? Murder, adultery—and choosing not to go to Mass on a Sunday.”
He then asks why it seems that these things “to ever be remembered” seem to have been forgotten by the Church today.
Of the existence of Hell, there ought not to be any doubt on the Christian’s part. Yet all too many Christians pay lip service to its existence whilst doubting or even disbelieving in its existence. These people fail to attribute any importance to the existence of Hell, concluding that if it does actually exist, none save Satan and a few demons are actually sentenced to an eternity there.
How important is Hell really? Does Christianity really need a place of suffering and damnation, or is it merely a doctrine held on the basis of Biblical references for the sake of internal consistency? All too often, Christians tend to draw the latter conclusion, which then leads to a marginalization of Gehenna. Unfortunately, Hell is not such a trivial matter, and forsaking it often leaves the devil to pay.
Most people would like to think of Heaven while ignoring Hell. However, Hell’s existence illustrates some of God’s defining traits independently of Heaven. Russell Kirk once noted that without Hell, there could be no true justice in the world: Hell enables those who escape from their just punishments in this life to pay for it in the next.
People who are wicked and who win a “free pass” from justice in this life can only be led to justice in the next. All people sin against God (and man), and most of those will never be caught, thus escaping from atonement, reconciliation, atonement, justification, and even guilt. Hell allows for these things to happen.
Just as Hell gives a picture of God’s justice, it also illustrates His mercy. Mercy is, after all, the remittance of a punishment justly deserved. Thus, in not condemning some souls to Hell, God shows us His mercy, forgiving us our just reward for something else. It is only through mercy that God is able to forgive people their sins, whose betrayal of His friendship and love justly deserve His condemnation. Forgiveness, the act of mercy, means not consigning some people to the Fire for their treachery.
Ignoring the existence of Hell does even more than to hinder the acknowledgement of two of God’s qualities. For so long, Christians have known that people will ultimately arrive in one of two places in the afterlife: Heaven, or Hell. When Hell is ignored, it becomes incomprehensible to a person that he or she may be sent there after death; thus, the only option left is Heaven.
If Hell is impossible, then a person views himself as being entitled to Heaven, as perhaps earning it somehow. Thus, yet another of God’s characteristics is lost: grace. If Heaven is earned, it is not freely granted, nor is it an undeserved gift. Rather, it becomes a birthright, and God becomes a cruel tyrant for not granting it to some.
Moreover, by forgetting Hell man must necessarily lose sight of Heaven. If man is entitled to paradise, what has he to gain by living for God first? Thus, happiness on earth supersedes happiness in Heaven, and man’s own ends become more important to him than God’s.
After-life and life are then divorced from each other, and then God is forgotten. When God is denied, “He will also deny us” (2 Timothy 2:12, NAB). Thus is paradise lost.
In addition to the theological and spiritual ramifications of the denial of Hell’s significance, there are effects in daily life. Without Hell, God’s wrath also becomes insignificant, and thus God cannot be truly feared either. Damnation by God means nothing if no sentence can be carried out. What does His wrath mean if it is restricted to sufferings in the short time of life on earth when these will be but a distant memory during the eternity of Heaven?
Righteous fear of the Lord is the basis for human courage. Kirk noted that “Meek before Jehovah, Moses had no fear of pharaoh,” while those who lacked a proper respect for God’s justice, being “much at ease in Zion, were timid in the presence of a traffic policeman.” Is it any wonder then why Christians often seem so unwilling to fight for those things which are right and against those which are wrong?
This attitude can be compared against that of a man whom has the courage of conviction that God is on his side.
When asked why he is so outspoken on the toughest issues of modern times, Bishop Fred Henry of Calgary responded “…if you really believe that the Spirit of God is with you, what have you got to fear?” An outspoken bishop, Henry has even warned that there is danger in ignoring the laws of God—namely, the danger of burning for eternity in Hell.
The relationship between faith and courage is simple: “If we really believe in our baptism we’ve got to be courageous people, the Spirit of God is with us.” Without the courage of conviction, faith becomes fragile and may break when first tested. Without the fear of God and the possibility of eternal perdition, courage may be brittle; that makes for a weak faith indeed.
I’ve heard it opined by the occasional atheist that he not only believes that God does not exist, but actually desires to be right in this non-belief. A very honest opinion, that, if also erroneous. There are, of course, several reasons to have such a desire. We have a natural need to conform our intellects to the truth, to bring our beliefs in line with reality, but we may at times be mistaken as to what is and isn’t actually real. Again, there is the fact that if God exists, then there is a Truth outside of ourselves: God is always right, so we may be wrong, both intellectually and morally . And yet again, a person who recognizes that if he is wrong about God’s non-existence might desire to be right about this non-existence for fear that if he is wrong, he may be heading for Hell.
The conformity of the mind to reality is knowledge, and it is an innate desire. It is how the intellect responds to truth, which is in a sense the response of the soul to Truth, that is, to God. Truth, like reality, is something which transcends us—both truth and reality are among the transcendentals. That is, they are things which are outside or above and beyond us, things which are “more” than us, and thus which we can grasp only in part and not in whole. Two types of mistake which we might make about Truth are:
We can mistake our own opinion, beliefs, or even knowledge for the whole of truth
We can reject those parts of knowable truth as not only inadequate and insufficient, but as incorrect because of that inadequacy.
Strange as it may seem, these two errors are not mutually exclusive. We desire to know the truth of things, that is, we desire to be able to say of what is that is is, and of what is not that it is not. However, this desire to be right can be twisted in us—such an effect of Original Sin—so that we desire to be right even when we know ourselves to be wrong. In other words, we know that our minds are not in conformity to reality, and so we know that we are wrong, but we desire to be right; but rather than change our minds, we look for ways of changing reality.
Thus we see the various attempts to find technical solutions to what are actually moral problems. We seek, for example, to cure rampant rates of STIs, out-of-wedlock births, and (worst of all) a high abortion rate by handing out free condoms. The result is not that all of these things go away, or even necessarily that any of them will be reduced; rather, the result is that these things become first randomized, then normalized, and finally trivialized. Thus do we see Planned Parenthood’s advice to people who are HIV positive is that they should decide for themselves whether or not to tell their would-be sexual partners about this little detail: after all, if they use a condom, they’ve done their part to keep sex safe.
The reality of the situation is that the person is carrying an incurable infection which can be sexually transmitted and which can certainly lower the quality-of-life of anybody who gets that disease. Such a person should consider abstinence or faithful monogamy with another person who knows, understands, and accepts the risks of intercourse with a person who is HIV positive. The offered solution is to be dishonest-or more precisely to not be honest and upfront until later–but to wear a condom and hope for the best: “safe sex” indeed .
Now, the mistake about reality can itself be either honest or dishonest—we might be deceived, but sometimes we go along with a deception knowing that it is less-than-reliable. We might, for example, be victims of our own pride, as when we reject an argument because somebody else thought of it and it proves us wrong. On the other hand, our concupiscence can certainly lead us to wearing moral and intellectual blinders: the evidence is there in front of us, but we do everything we can to look the other way.
As to God, without Him there is no Truth. There are still truths of the little-t variety, still a reality outside of ourselves to which we must conform our minds and which we can know at least in part. However, absent the big-T Truth these little truths are somehow less important, less relevant. Certainly, we might be considered madmen if we reject the most obvious ones as a mental state, and eccentrics if we reject them as a hobby or lifestyle choice, but there is no lasting consequence of either. The madman is sent to his asylum and the eccentric to his armchair, and neither is ultimately worse-off for it. With God, the madman becomes afflicted, wrong, a victim to be cured and not merely a ward to be confined , and the eccentric a new kind of sinner, in a sense the worst kind.
Many people who hope that God does not exist do so because they fear Hell and do not want to go there. Hell is envisioned as being merely a place where the damned go to suffer torment for eternity. More to the point, the damned don’t just go there, but rather they are sent there by a vindictive God: with such a conception of hell, is it any wonder that many an honest atheist does not want God to exist?
However, what our honest atheist friend has overlooked is that Hell is not necessarily a placed where we are sent by God for punishment. While orthodox Christianity is certain that the damned do suffer in Hell for eternity, Hell need not be a place so much as a state. It s the state in which the soul has utterly rejected God, and so finds that God has become absent. The first and greatest torment of Hell is precisely the loss of the beatific vision, that is, the absence of God.
The objection might here be raised that all I have done is just apply a convenient re-definition to Hell, and have therefore discarded the traditional meaning of Hell as a trick. I have done no such thing, as this meaning can be seen in the Gospels  and even Dante’s famous portrayal saves one level of hell for the “just damned” whose only torment is this loss of the Beatific Vision, an unfulfilled and unfulfillable longing for God:
The sighs arose from sorrow without torments,
out of the crowds–the many multitudes–
of infants and of women and of men.
The kindly master said: ‘Do you not ask
who are these spirits whom you see before you?
I’d have you know, before you go ahead,
they did not sin; and yet, though they have merits,
that’s not enough, because they lacked baptism,
the portal of the faith you embrace.
And if they lived before Christianity,
they did not worship God in fitting ways;
and of such spirits I myself am one.
For these defects, and for no other evil,
we now are lost and punished with just this:
we have no hope and yet we live in longing’ ”
(Inferno, Canto IV, 7-9, 25-42; transl. Allen Mandelbaum).
Dante’s damned exist forever without hope, which results in eternal sorrow without torment. The longing for God is very real for them, and yet they know that it cannot be satisfied, not because there is no God, rather because they have in essence rejected Him in this life, and he has honored that rejection in the next. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that
“The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, ‘eternal fire.‘ The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs…Hell’s principal punishment consists of eternal separation from God in whom alone man can have the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.” (CCC 1035 and 1057).
This is the poena damni, the chief punishment of the damned: all other punishments–poena sensus and accidental punishments–are secondary next to this one .
The state of Hell (and Heaven, for that matter) can begin in this life: if we have the premise that there is no God, then it naturally follows that life must be without God, and therefore there can be no Heaven, no beatific vision, no eternal happiness. Since the loss of these things—in short, the loss of God—is Hell, then God’s non-existence does not save us from Hell, but rather ensures that we are there already. The only differences are that without God, every man is in Hell, and that Hell just not eternal, because at death we cease to exist in any meaningful sense. I suppose the “extra” suffering can be mitigated in this life—though not always, and it often isn’t—yet there is certainly plenty of suffering in the world to go round, all of which is meaningless.
In Dante’s Inferno, every damned soul in Hell has chosen to be there. To some extent each soul has chosen exactly where in Hell he will be, that is, he has been drawn to a particular state of hell and has gone willingly. Eternity, then, is a continuation of this life but with greater clarity. How we live in this life determines how we will live in the next, with the most important question being, do we live as if there is a God, or as if there is not? This is a moral and not merely an intellectual question. Or again, do we greet the possibility of God with hope and joy, or with sorrow and despair? The former might mean we are convinced intellectually that there is no God but we are saddened by that conclusion and all which follows from it; the latter might mean that we are intellectually convinced that God does exist, and so are saddened that we are not the masters of our own universe or indeed of our own lives.
God’s absence means Hell. If God does not exist, then He is essentially absent, which means that this life is already Hell. I suspect that the greatest difference between the Hell of this life without God, and the Hell of eternal life without God, is that on the one hand this life is not eternal, meaning that there can be no absolute certainty that God does not exist, and on the other that we can in this life attempt to put on a brave face by seeking happiness in other things. We may perhaps convince ourselves that we have succeeded in finding happiness: by burying ourselves in our work for the sake of money or honors or even simple knowledge; or by numbing the sorrow of despair with endless pleasures; or by attempting to love someone or something as best we are humanly able .
Absent God, we are ultimately faced with the realization that our happiness in this life must come to an end: in other words, that we must experience some sorrow for even our best efforts.
 There are other reasons which might be given, in varying degrees of honesty. Indeed, to the extent that the reason is an attempt to avoid the truth is the extent to which it is a dishonest excuse rather than an honest objection.
 Think about the fact that we live in a culture where “safe sex” is a part of our idiom. That we need such a phrase tells us bounds about our cultural milieu, of its rejection of the meaning of sex, of marriage, and especially of love. Is it really any surprise that in such a culture we would be embroiled in a battle over the meaning of marriage?
 There are, of course, other reasons to attempt a cure—such as the cost of maintaining the asylum, for example, or the grief of the madman’s family at seeing him in that state—but few which can honestly state that they are best for the victim.
 “Then the king said to his attendants, ‘Bind his hands and feet, and cast him into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth” (Matthew 22:13). The image is of being excluded from the wedding banquet, that is, from the eternal joy of paradise and the presence of God—and no other punishments or tortures save possibly the binding of hands and feet. Or again, “Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I say to you, many will come from the east and the west, and will recline with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the banquet in the kingdom of heaven, but the children of the kingdom will be driven out into the outer darkness, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.” (Matthew 8:11-2). There is the promise of exclusion to the outer darkness, but no other afflictions are necessarily added. Then there are the seven foolish virgins, who again are “punished” only by their exclusion (Matthew 25:1-13). The lake of fire and the worm which does not sleep may also be suffered by the damned, but this is not the chief affliction, and perhaps might be likened more to lower levels of Hell. The Gospels are not specific that every man suffers the same thing in Hell, beyond that every man in Hell is separated forever from God.
 The Catholic Encyclopedia, for example, notes that
“The poena sensus, or pain of sense, consists in the torment of fire so frequently mentioned in the Holy Bible. According to the greater number of theologians the term fire denotes a material fire, and so a real fire. We hold to this teaching as absolutely true and correct. However, we must not forget two things: from Catharinus (d. 1553) to our times there have never been wanting theologians who interpret the Scriptural term fire metaphorically, as denoting an incorporeal fire; and secondly, thus far the Church has not censured their opinion. Some few of the Fathers also thought of a metaphorical explanation.”
There might be literal fire in Hell, or it might be metaphorical, or it might be literal but not literally applied to all who dwell there.
 Of course, as I have argued elsewhere, to love someone means to desire the greatest good for that person (a point which comes to me through Blessed Pope John Paul the Great). But the greatest possible good is God, so even the act of truly loving a person must mean desiring God for that person, even if He does not exist. A convinced atheist must, if he is consistent, desire that God exists even while being convinced that He doesn’t, and must desire this for the sake of His beloved. They seldom do, however.
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