Each year in October, I dedicate a lesson in the eighth grade catechism class I teach to the subject of hell. I felt the need, many years ago, to start this as I saw the season and celebration of Halloween to be centered more and more on the glamorization of evil and the devil. I wanted to have a very real, frank discussion with these young adults preparing for Confirmation as to what hell really was, who the devil is. I can tell you without a doubt that this lesson, above all others, keeps their attention the most.
You may be saying to yourself, “Who cares about that? I don’t have to worry about hell. I’m not that bad.” This is one of the most dangerous attitudes out there today and couldn’t be further from the truth. St. Teresa of Avila, great mystic and Doctor of the Church rightly said, “I saw souls falling into hell like snowflakes.” To believe in the certainly that you are “at least better than the guy next to you”, is a perilous and very foolish gamble with your immortal soul. Satan, the father of lies, wants nothing more than for you to live in your lukewarm complacency.
With how notably the devil is working in our world right now to gather sorry souls into the ranks of eternal damnation, I again feel compelled to share this very grave and very real lesson. So, I will break this discussion up into three parts, as there are so many important facts to cover. This first installment will focus on the definition of what this place of punishment is and why it came to be, the second details the tortures of hell, and third, we will discuss what eternity is. Remember always, each one of these sobering realities is not presented for us to fall into despair, but to rouse us from our natural, human complacencies, and to awaken within each person the great need to pray earnestly for the conversion of sinners and the salvation of each and every soul.
So first, what is hell? Very basically, hell is “the absence of God”. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him forever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called ‘hell’” (n. 1033). I would ask my students to picture what that is. It’s hard for mere humans to envision an absence of God, as He is Omnipresent—He is everywhere, in everything. There is no place we can go that the truth and light of God cannot be. But still, try and picture, if it were possible, a place on this earth where God would not go: it would be very dark, wouldn’t it? Tremendous fear would consume you in that dark, closed alley in some lawless city with no help—no justice against intrinsic evil. You would feel such oppression, despair, grief, loneliness, and paralyzing fear. Still, these images don’t even begin to explain it.
It is true we humans have an impossible task to understand fully what hell really is, as we are finite, and while we have seen and heard about many disturbing things in our society, we still cannot comprehend the magnitude of this place of punishment. Many will say they do not believe in hell. How could a loving God condemn someone to hell? Well, actually, if truth be told, God does not condemn us to hell, we condemn ourselves. C.S. Lewis said the gates of hell are locked from the inside. Despair and distrust in the love and mercy of God are the horribly sad keys that doom a sinner behind those permanent doors.
I almost laugh at those statements from misguided people, as the devil couldn’t be more pleased with the ignorant mindset of his nonexistence. But make no mistake, our God Who is forever merciful and loving, is at the same time the God of justice. And He will judge you. Yes, every single one of us will stand before the eternal majesty of God. Divine Justice cannot be swayed. He cannot be bartered with. It cannot be undone.
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’” (Matthew 25:41).
But why was this horrible place created? It began before this earthy existence began—with the fall of Lucifer and his angels as a place of punishment. (See Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28)
I remember as a child my saintly mother would teach us about Lucifer and how he was the most beautiful and gifted of all the angels in heaven. But his sin changed even his appearance. She would say that if we truly were to look on the face of Satan, we would die of fright. Woe to a world that mistakenly blinds itself to his true nature. I can hear her voice as she described his fall into pride with his words: “I will not serve”.
These four words are central to all sin really, and I shutter as I look all around me today and see this damning declaration at the heart of our society. People say I will not serve, as they twist and warp and justify all manner of sin to their own liking: abortion, same-sex marriage, transgenderism, adultery, pornography, bigotry, premarital sex, gluttony, rage, immodesty… And what’s so abominable is many of these atrocities are motivated by some twisted version of what the world calls “love”. The father of lies is hell-bent on convincing us that first, he does not exist, and second, true happiness comes only through being centered on self. All things can be justified in the consuming pursuit of self.
But, make no mistake, if we live our lives saying, I will not serve, there is a consequence to that, and it is called hell. It is real. It is horrific. It is forever.
It is an alarming reality how quickly our world is sinking deeper and deeper into sin. Everyday there is some new and horrible proof that the devil is working overtime toward the fall of humanity. You might be saying to yourself, “So? Who cares about any of that because I’m certainly not going to hell. That’s only for Hitler and serial killers, right?” Hmm.
It’s interesting that this complacent mantra of the world today is completely at odds with what Jesus taught. He said, “Be perfect, just as your heavenly father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). I didn’t hear him say, “Just make sure you’re better than the guy next to you, and that’ll be good enough.” In fact, Jesus warned over and over about the realities of hell and the amount of people falling into it. “…for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many” (Matthew 7:13).
This is most certainly one of the devil’s great deceptions, because who really wants to think on such disturbing things? It’s so much nicer to skip along in the mindset of a loving God Who wouldn’t dream of sending me to hell. After all, I’m good. I love people, right? I don’t kill anyone; I pay my taxes. Besides, the devil’s not that bad. He looks like the attractive guy on the TV programs with the black, three-piece suit and dashing English accent. Why should he care so vehemently about the destruction of mere humans? The truth is, the devil hates man. He hates anything that God loves. Satan is the accuser, the adversary; his goal is to scatter the flock. Jesus said: “A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy; I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).
This is the second installment of three on the subject of hell. I have been feeling very motivated in our unbelievably troubled world to offer the grim reminder that hell is real. It is a horrific place of torture and despair, and it is forever.
So what exactly do we mean by “horrific torture”? You can get bits and pieces of it from Jesus as he calls it a place “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Luke 13:28). Again, it’s difficult for us to comprehend what that level of punishment would be like. For me, I can best think of the fire and brimstone of hell whenever I am sitting beside a roaring campfire and gaze into the very heart of the glowing embers.
I can feel the heat of it radiating on my face, and I imagine what that would feel like to step into the center of that blaze. It wouldn’t be enjoyable, that’s for sure. But the fire we have on earth is completely different than the fire of hell. Our fire was made as a help for man, but those created for hell are far different. They are black, and choking, and all-consuming without consuming.
Many of the saints and holy people through the years have reflected on the pains and tortures of hell. From the reflections of Sister Lucia, one of the children from Fatima, she describes the vision the three were shown by Our holy mother:
…we saw as if into a sea of fire, and immersed in that fire were devils and souls with human form, as if they were transparent black or bronze embers floating in the fire and swayed by the flames that issued from them along with clouds of smoke, falling upon every side just like the falling of sparks in great fires, without weight or equilibrium, amidst wailing and cries of pain and despair that horrified and shook us with terror. We could tell the devils by their horrible and nauseous figures of baleful and unknown animals, but transparent as the black coals in a fire.
Also, from his writings: The Pains of Hell, St. Anthony Mary Claret describes this place of torture. Although a little lengthy, I find it to be very thought-provoking and sobering. I’m sure you would agree:
First, the fire is all-extensive and tortures the whole body and the whole soul. A damned person lies in hell forever in the same spot which he was assigned by divine justice, without being able to move, as a prisoner in stocks. The fire in which he is totally enveloped, as a fish in water, burns around him, on his left, his right, above and below. His head, his breast, his shoulders, his arms, his hands, and his feet are all penetrated with fire, so that he completely resembles a glowing hot piece of iron which has just been withdrawn from an oven. The roof beneath which the damned person dwells is fire; the food he takes is fire; the drink he tastes is fire; the air he breathes is fire; whatever he sees and touches is all fire… But this fire is not merely outside him; it also passes within the condemned person. It penetrates his brain, his teeth, his tongue, his throat, his liver, his lungs, his bowels, his belly, his heart, his veins, his nerves, his bones, even to the marrow, and even his blood…
…Secondly, this fire is far more dreadful than man can imagine. The natural fire that we see during this life has great power to burn and torment. Yet this is not even a shadow of the fire of hell. There are two reasons why the fire of hell is more dreadful beyond all comparison than the fire of this life. The first reason is the justice of God, which the fire serves as an instrument in order to punish the infinite wrong done to his supreme majesty, which has been despised by a creature. Therefore, justice supplies this element with a burning power which almost reaches the infinite… The second reason is the malice of sin. As God knows that the fire of this world is not enough to punish sin as it deserves, He has given the fire of hell a power so strong that it can never be comprehended by any human mind.
Let these reflections be for all of us not a reason to despair, but instead a call to pray and fast. Say a rosary! Get on our knees and beg God: Though we don’t deserve it, show us mercy anyway, Lord! When I pause and think for a while on hell, it motivates me to pray and offer up more readily the little crosses of life. I pray for the conversion of poor sinners. I pray for mercy.
We are finite creatures. We live in the here and now and have great difficulty in comprehending the subject of eternity. Forever. In this third and final installment on our frank discussion of hell—what is it, what is it like—I want to focus on the grim fact that those cast into this place of torture and punishment are there forever. The thought of that alone makes me shutter.
It is one thing to imagine the experience of hell for just a weekend visit, it’s quite another to contemplate that if you go there, you will never get out. The human creature is connected to time—whether it is the awareness of each hour that passes in a day, or the seasons that come and go and the progressive aging obvious in everything around us—we are intimately related to it. To wrap our brains around eternity is difficult, but it is an essential focus if you want to truly understand the suffering of hell.
“The Devil who had led them astray was thrown into the pool of fire and sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet were. There they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Revelation 20:10).
One of the most sobering thoughts for me is the image of the Second Coming of Jesus. As we are told, “Jesus who had been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven” (Acts 1:11). The souls of all people will be judged then, in this final judgement, and Satan and the lost souls will be locked finally and forever in hell. The door will be permanently sealed. The fire, designed by Divine Justice to punish, will be closed in there forever—without God or goodness or hope or love. The suffocating smoke, the mournful cries of souls wedged tightly together will be eternally encased within this dreadful prison.
But for now I can almost hear them as they writhe and wail, “Woe is me! Woe is me!” It is a horrible and very certain reality.
Each year I read to my eighth grade catechism class the following description of what eternity is, from his writings: The Pains of Hell, by St. Anthony Mary Claret. There is always a difficulty when teaching a group of young teenagers on a Monday evening to keep them focused and attentive. When I read this, I always have their undivided attention:
Suppose that, in the case of unhappy Cain, weeping in hell, he shed in every thousand years just one tear. Now suppose this case: For six thousand years at least Cain has been in hell and shed only six tears, which God miraculously preserves. How many years would pass for his tears to fill all the valleys of the earth and flood all the cities and towns and villages and cover all the mountains so as to flood the whole earth? We understand the distance from the earth to the sun is thirty-four million leagues. How many years would be necessary for Cain’s tears to fill that immense space? From the earth to the firmament is, let us suppose, a distance of a hundred and sixty million leagues. O God! What number of years might one imagine to be sufficient to fill with these tears this immense space? And yet—O truth so incomprehensible—be sure of it as that God cannot lie—a time will arrive in which these tears of Cain would be sufficient to flood the world, to reach even the sun, to touch the firmament, and fill all the space between earth and the highest heaven. But that is not all. If God dried up all these tears to the last drop and Cain began again to weep, he would again fill the same entire space with them and fill it a thousand times and a million times in succession, and after all those countless years, not even half of eternity would have passed, not even a fraction. After all that time burning in hell, Cain’s sufferings will be just beginning.
The purpose of these discussions on hell is not to cause us to fall into despair. “Make us know the shortness of our life that we may gain wisdom of heart” (Psalm 90:12). Sometimes we must be roused from our natural human complacency and moved to action. What action? you may ask. There is nothing that we can ever do to earn Heaven and prevent hell. The truth is, we deserve hell. Each one of us.
That is why this time of Divine Mercy is so amazing. The darker the world the more light that shines from His merciful heart. Jesus longs for us to come to Him, to know that no matter the sin, there is forgiveness. Truly, it is impossible for us to reach Heaven without Him. “For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).
I will leave you with the haunting words of Jesus to St. Faustina: “Souls perish in spite of My bitter Passion. I am giving them the last hope of salvation; that is, the Feast of My Mercy. If they will not adore My mercy, they will perish for all eternity. …tell souls about this great mercy of Mine, because the awful day, the day of My justice, is near (965, Diary, Divine Mercy in My Soul, Stockbridge, MA: Association of Marian Helpers, 1996).
And then He tells not only St. Faustina, but all of us what to do: “I thirst. I thirst for the salvation of souls. Help Me, my daughter, to save souls. Join your sufferings to My Passion and offer them to the heavenly Father for sinners” (1032).