This article is the first in a three-part series on the afterlife – Hell, Heaven, and Purgatory. I am intentionally beginning with Hell in order to facilitate a trajectory of hope, rather than despair, through this series. So, with this being the least hopeful portion, please keep in mind that there is more to come.
Let’s start with a very brief catechesis on judgment. The Catholic Church distinguishes between the particular judgment and the final or last judgment. “The Last Judgement will come when Christ returns in glory. Only the Father knows the day and the hour; only he determines the moment of its coming” (CCC #1040). When this time comes, all things on earth will come to light. (Read more on eschatology here.)
God’s plan will be revealed in its fullness and all the people still living on Earth will go to their eternal home. The particular judgment occurs at the moment a particular person dies. “Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven – through a purification, or immediately, – or immediate and everlasting damnation (CCC #1022). Your particular judgment will occur at the moment your soul separates from your body, and you give an account of your life to God according to whether you followed Jesus’ teachings or not. For this reason, God does not send anyone to Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory, rather, we send ourselves to our destination based on our relationship with Jesus and the choices we made throughout our lives that reflect that relationship. It is also important to note that our judgment is irrevocable and unchangeable. This is because, at that moment, we will see our whole life with clarity and will have made our choice. We will not receive any new information that will cause us to change our minds. Additionally, God loves us so much that He gives us the freedom (Free Will) to choose Him or reject Him. True love is not forced; therefore, He will never impinge on our freedom, regardless of our choice. Keep these truths in mind as you move through the series.
Two of the most dangerous trends in our culture today are to either disbelieve that Hell is even real or, to the other extreme, having an over-reliance on God’s mercy to the point of thinking you will not end up there regardless of how you live your life here on earth. It’s not so much that God withholds mercy from anyone who asks; after all, we reflected on God’s super-abundant, divine mercy just last week. The matter has more to do with our acceptance of His mercy in this life and our willingness to being open to constant conversion of heart as we continually turn back to Him and His will. In that sense, His mercy is never withheld, but it is very much our personal responsibility to respond to it appropriately in this life. Be assured, there is a Hell and Jesus warns us about it often.
In Scripture, we see descriptions of what Hell is like:
• “The children of the kingdom will be driven out into the darkness where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth,” (Mt 8:12).
• “Depart from me, you accursed, into that eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels,” (Mt 25:41).
• “These will pay the penalty of eternal ruin, separated from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power,” (2 Thes 1:9).
• “God did not spare the angels who fell into sin; he thrust them down to Hell, chained them there in the abyss, to await their sentence in torment,” (2 Pt 2:4).
• “The smoke of the fire that torments them will rise forever and ever, and there will be no relief day or night for those who worship the beast or its image or accept the mark of its name” (Rv 14:11).
It follows that if Heaven is to live in complete union with the triune God (which we’ll get to next week), then Hell must be the exact opposite. It is a place completely devoid of God and the Truth, Beauty, and Goodness that He radiates. Hell is darker than any place you have experienced. The souls that dwell there are perpetually angry, bitter, and miserable. While it’s difficult to understand Hell with any divine certitude and only what our limited minds can comprehend, it’s generally understood that a soul will suffer greatly according to the sins it clung to during its lifetime. While it is a work of fiction, a good resource to help envision what it might be like for a soul in Hell is Dante’s Inferno, in which he progresses through nine levels of Hell loosely based around the seven deadly sins where each level offers a particular eternal punishment of torment.
Moving on to the Catechism:
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. (CCC #1045)
First, the Catechism states that a soul in the state of mortal sin will go to Hell. You can read more about the difference between venial and mortal sin here. Next, the Church affirms three very clear things: 1) Hell is eternal; 2) Hell is a place of great suffering; and 3) The source of that suffering is complete separation from God. As if contemplating the realities of Hell is not horrible enough, Church teaching goes even further. Catholic teaching states that after the final judgment, all of our souls will be reunited with our bodies, just as Jesus’ did, at the final resurrection, where we will continue into eternity (CCC #366).
What this means specifically for the souls in Hell is that when their bodies and souls come back together after the final judgment and resurrection, they will suffer the torments and tortures of Hell physically in their flesh as well spiritually in their souls. Dare I remind you again, this is for all of eternity according to your choice.
One final thought on the reality of Hell: Jesus provides a very ominous warning when He says: “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Mat 7:13-14). Jesus’ language here is very specific. Many souls go through the wide gate to destruction. Few souls go through the narrow gate to salvation. Most theologians agree that there are more souls in Hell than in Heaven. Jesus also states that the wide gate is on the easy path, while the narrow gate is on the difficult path. It is very, very difficult to follow Jesus according to His teaching, particularly in a world that tells you that Jesus didn’t really teach this or that interprets scripture through a lens of convenience or says that the Church should evolve with the times. Those things simply make the path easier, which is exactly what Jesus is warning against. I heard it said very recently that although, yes, Jesus dined with prostitutes and tax collectors, they were the ones who walked away changed, not Christ. Remember Jesus’ words to the woman caught in adultery: “Neither do I condemn you,” said Jesus. “Go away, and from this moment, sin no more.” It is common for people to focus on Jesus’ words of forgiveness while downplaying His directive to amend her life. Yes, Jesus is forgiving, but He also demands repentance and conversion. You cannot avoid Hell by persisting in sin on the easy path. Jesus does not change His teaching to accommodate us; He asks us to do the hard things and change our ways so we do not have to be estranged from Him for eternity.
Now that we have gotten the hard things out of the way, we can move on to more hopeful material next week. It is not pleasant to contemplate Hell, but it’s probably necessary for most of us on occasion as a reminder of where we don’t want to end up and just how easy it is to get there.
To read more about purgatory, click here.
To read more about heaven, click here.
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