Is Hell a Choice Made on Earth?


A friend recently challenged my beliefs about hell. He described hell as a state of being where God is always present, loving the damned, and sinners are frozen by their sins to the points where existing sinless becomes unattractive to them. When welcomed into heaven, they choose instead to exist in hell until they can choose to finally accept God. What are the Church's teachings on hell? Is a hell a choice made on earth?

Sacred Scripture clearly attests to a place of eternal damnation called hell or sometimes referred to as Gehenna. Examples include the following: Jesus said that the angry man who holds his brother in contempt "risks the fires of Gehenna" (Mt 5:22). Our Lord warned, "Do not fear those who deprive the body of life but cannot destroy the soul. Rather, fear him who can destroy both body and soul in Gehenna" (Mt. 10:28). Jesus said, "If your hand is you difficulty, cut it off!" Better for you to enter life maimed than to keep both hand and enter Gehenna with its unquenchable fire" (Mk 9:43). Using a parable of the weeds and the wheat to describe the final judgment, Jesus foretold, "The angels will hurl (the evildoers) into the fiery furnace where they will wail and grind their teeth" (Mt. 13:42). Similarly, when Jesus spoke of the last judgment where the sheep will be separated from the goats, He will say to the wicked, "Out of my sight, you condemned, into that everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels!" (Mt 25:41). Finally, in the Book of Revelation, each person is judged individually and the evildoers are cast into "the fiery pool of burning sulphur, the second death" (Rv 20:13-14; 21:8).

Just for clarification, Gehenna was a valley south of Jerusalem which was infamous for pagan sacrifices of children by fire. The prophet Jeremiah cursed the place and predicted it would be a place of death and corruption. In later rabbinic literature, the term identified the place of eternal punishment with tortures and unquenchable fire for the wicked.

Therefore, the Church has consistently taught that hell indeed exists. Those souls who die in a state of mortal sin immediately descend to eternal punishment in hell. The punishment of hell is primarily the eternal separation from God. Here one suffers the sense of loss — the loss of God's love, the loss of life with God and the loss of happiness: True love, life and happiness are rooted in God and each person longs for them. However, only in Him will man find their fulfillment. (Cf. Catechism No. 1035).

The damned person also suffers pain. Given the description of "fire," the apostolic constitution Benedictus Deus (1336) of Pope Benedict XII said that the souls would "suffer the pain of hell," and the Council of Florence (1439) decreed that the souls would be "punished with different punishment."

Some saints have had visions of hell. Blessed Sister Faustina described hell as follows: "Today I was led by an Angel to the chasms of hell. It is a place of great torture; how awesomely large and extensive it is! The kinds of torture I saw: The first torture that constitutes hell is the loss of God; the second if the perpetual remorse of conscience; the third is that one's condition will never change; the fourth is the fire that will penetrate the soul without destroying it — a terrible suffering, as it is a purely spiritual fire, lit by God's anger; the fifth torture is continual darkness and a terrible suffocating smell, and despite the darkness, the devils and souls of the damned see each other and all the evil, both of others and their own; the sixth torture is the constant company of Satan; the seventh torture is horrible despair, hatred of God, vile words, curses and blasphemies. These are the tortures suffered by all the damned together, but that is not the end of the sufferings. There are special tortures of the senses. Each soul undergoes terrible and indescribable sufferings, related to the manner in which it has sinned. There are caverns and pits of torture where one form of agony differs from another. I would have died at the very sight of these tortures if the omnipotence of God had not supported me. Let the sinner know that he will be tortured throughout all eternity, in those senses which he made us of to sin. I am writing this at the command of God, so that no soul may find an excuse by saying there is no hell, or that nobody had ever been there, and so no one can say what it is like."

We must remember that God does not predestine anyone to go to hell or desire for anyone to be damned. God lovingly bestows the actual grace to us which enlightens the intellect and strengthens the will so that we can do good and turn away from evil. However, a person in his informed intellect and with consent of his will can choose to do evil, to commit the mortal sin, and thereby to turn away from God. If a person does not repent of mortal sin, does not have any remorse and persists in this state, then that person's rejection of God will continue for eternity. In a sense, people put themselves in hell.

Pope John Paul II in Crossing the Threshold of Hope (pp. 185-6) addressed the question, "Can God, who has loved man so much, permit the man who rejects Him to be condemned to eternal torment?" Citing Sacred Scripture, the Holy Father in his answer repeats the unequivocal teaching of our Lord. He also reminds us that the Church has never condemned a particular person to hell, not even Judas; rather, the Church leaves all judgment to God. However, the pope, through a series of questions, asserts that the God of Love is also the God of Justice, who holds us responsible for our sins and punishes them accordingly.

We must instead pray for the grace to resist temptation and follow the way of the Lord while at the same time always seeking forgiveness for any failing. In speaking of the journey of the Pilgrim Church, Vatican II in the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church (No. 48) advised, "Since we know neither the day nor the hour, we should follow the advice of the Lord and watch constantly so that, when the single course of our earthly life is completed, we may merit to enter with Him into the marriage feast and be numbered among the blessed and not, like the wicked and slothful servants, be ordered to depart in the eternal fire, into the outer darkness where 'men will weep and gnash their teeth.'" For this very reason, we pray in the first Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass, "Father accept this offering from your whole family. Grant us your peace in this life, save us from eternal damnation, and count us among those you have chosen."




Saunders, Rev. William. "Is Hell a Choice Made on Earth?" Arlington Catholic Herald.

This article is reprinted with permission from Arlington Catholic Herald.


Father William Saunders is dean of the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College and pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Sterling, Virginia. The above article is a "Straight Answers" column he wrote for the Arlington Catholic Herald. Father Saunders is also the author of Straight Answers, a book based on 100 of his columns and published by Cathedral Press in Baltimore.

Copyright © 2003 Arlington Catholic Herald

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