Today, few Catholics and other Christians believe in hell. Priests do not often talk about hell. Some say: "Hell was invented by priests to scare people", or "Hell exists but there is no one in it", or "Good people will go to heaven, but bad people will not go to hell; they will simply be annihilated". No, the truth is that the Church teaches that hell exists and that there are souls in hell.
At death, each person will obtain a particular judgement by God and will spend eternity either in heaven or hell. God may direct the person to purgatory if purification is needed before entering heaven, but if one has died in a state of mortal sin, he goes to hell. In hell, people are in perpetual torture, and their suffering will never end. Avoiding eternal damnation is the most important thing to know and practice since the very salvation of our souls for all of eternity is at stake.
Hell is real; Jesus refers to hell fifteen times in the Gospels. By God's grace, some have visited hell and told us what they witnessed, including St. Theresa of Avila, St. Frances of Rome, St. Faustina Kowalska and St. John Bosco. Some damned souls have even appeared to people on earth. The Blessed Virgin Mary at Fatima, Portuga,l showed Lucia, Francisco and Jacinta a vision of hell. God, who wants all his children saved, has given us instructions on avoiding hell. We must know and use the means: the holy sacraments, prayer, good works, wearing the Scapular of Mount Carmel, etc.
Let us first look at the Church's teaching about hell. These excerpts are from the Catechism of the Catholic Church published in 1992, under the leadership of St. John Paul II.
1033 We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves: "He who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him." (1 Jn 3:14-15.) Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren. (Cf. Mt 25:31-46.) 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."
1034 Jesus often speaks of "Gehenna" of'the unquenchable fire'reserved for those who to the end of their lives refuse to believe and be converted, where both soul and body can be lost. (Cf. Mt 5:22, 29; 10:28; 13:42, 50; Mk 9:43-48.) Jesus solemnly proclaims that he "will send his angels, and they will gather... all evil doers, and throw them into the furnace of fire," (Mt 13:41-42.) and that he will pronounce the condemnation: "Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire!" (Mt 25:41.)
1035 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.
1036 The affirmations of Sacred Scripture and the teachings of the Church on the subject of hell are a call to the responsibility incumbent upon man to make use of his freedom in view of his eternal destiny. They are at the same time an urgent call to conversion: "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." (Mt 7:13-14.)
Since we know neither the day nor the hour, we should heed and follow the Lord's advice 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 into the eternal fire, into the outer darkness where "men will weep and gnash their teeth." (LG 48 # 3; Mt 22:13; cf. Heb 9:27; Mt 25:13, 26, 30, 31, 46.)
1037 God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end. In the Eucharistic liturgy and in the daily prayers of her faithful, the Church implores the mercy of God, who does not want "any to perish, but all to come to repentance": (2 Pet 3:9.)
Father, accept this offering from your whole family. Grant us your peace in this life, save us from final damnation, and count us among those you have chosen. (Roman Missal, EP I (Roman Canon) 88.)
The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes articles 1036 and 1037 in one question and answer: Question 213:
How can one reconcile the existence of hell with the infinite goodness of God?
"God, while desiring'all to come to repentance'(2 Peter 3:9), nevertheless has created the human person to be free and responsible; and He respects our decisions. Therefore, it is the human person who freely excludes himself from communion with God if at the moment of death he persists in mortal sin and refuses the merciful love of God."
And when do we commit a mortal sin? The answer is also given in the Compendium, n. 395:
"One commits a mortal sin when there are simultaneously present'grave matter, full knowledge, and deliberate consent'. This sin destroys charity in us, deprives us of sanctifying grace, and, if unrepented, leads us to the eternal death of hell. It can be forgiven in the ordinary way by means of the sacraments of Baptism and of Penance or Reconciliation."
Meditation on hell can prevent us from committing many mortal sins. In his book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, published in 1994, Italian journalist Vittorio Messori asked St. John Paul II why so many churchmen no longer dare speak about Hell. The Holy Father answered:
"Let's remember that not so long ago, in sermons during retreats or missions, the Last Things – death, judgment, Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory – were always a standard part of the program of meditation, and preachers knew how to speak of them in an effective and evocative way. How many people were drawn to conversion and confession by these sermons and reflections on the Last Things!
"It is necessary to respond honestly by saying yes: To a certain degree man does get lost; so too do preachers, catechists, teachers; and as a result, they no longer have the courage to preach the threat of Hell.... And yet, the words of Christ are unequivocal. In Matthew's Gospel He speaks clearly of those who will go to eternal punishment (cf. Mt 25:46)..."
Jesus tells us that hell exists on fifteen occasions in the Gospels. The clearest example is the parable of the wheat and the tares (Matthew 13: 36-43), in Matthew (25: 31-46) regarding the final judgement, and in Luke's account of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16: 19-31).
A Carmelite nun, St. Theresa of Avila (1515- 1582), visited hell through God's grace. In the following, she recounts her terrifying vision:
"A long time after the Lord had already granted me many of the favours I've mentioned and other very lofty ones, while I was in prayer one day, I suddenly found that, without knowing how, I had seemingly been put in hell. I understood that the Lord wanted me to see the place the devils had prepared for me and which I merited because of my sins. This experience took place within the shortest space of time, but even were I to live for many years, I think it would be impossible for me to forget it.
"What I felt, it seems to me, cannot even begin to be exaggerated; nor can it be understood. I experienced a fire in the soul that I don't know how I could describe. The bodily pains were so unbearable that though I had suffered excruciating ones in this life and, according to what doctors say, the worst that can be suffered on earth for all my nerves were shrunken when I was paralyzed, plus many other sufferings of many kinds that I endured and even some, as I said, caused by the devil, these were all nothing in comparison with the ones I experienced there. I saw furthermore that they would go on without end and without ever ceasing.
"This, however, was nothing next to the soul's agonizing: a constriction, a suffocation, an affliction so keenly felt and with such a despairing and tormenting unhappiness that I don't know how to word it strongly enough. To say the experience is as though the soul were continually being wrested from the body would be insufficient, for it would make you think somebody else is taking away the life, whereas here it is the soul itself that tears itself in pieces. The fact is that I don't know how to give a sufficiently powerful description of that interior fire and that despair, coming in addition to such extreme torments and pains. I didn't see who inflicted them on me, but, as it seemed to me, I felt myself burning and crumbling; and I repeat the worst was that interior fire and despair."
St. Frances of Rome (1384-1440), by the will of God, visited hell. Following this visit, she wrote a book where she recounts what she saw. This treatise gives us much information about hell. Here are excerpts from Chapter II, titled "Tortures exercised on nine kinds of sinners":
1° Torture of those who have offended nature by their impurities. Frances saw in hell's lowest and most horrible section men and women who were submitted to horrible tortures. The demons who were their torturers would have them sit on steel bars, reddened by fire that penetrated their body lengthwise and exited through the top of the head. While one demon pulled the bar out and inserted it anew, other demons using burning snips cut through their flesh from head to toe. These torments were unceasing, not to mention other treatments such as fire, freezing cold, deep darkness, blasphemies and gnashing of teeth.
2° Torture of the usurers. Not far from where the first ones were being held, Frances saw another place where criminals were tortured in a different way, and she was told they were usurers. These wretched souls were lying down nailed on a table of fire, arms outstretched, not in the shape of a cross, and Frances'guide told her that any mention of the cross was banished from these infernal places. Each had a circular red iron on his head. Demons drew melted gold and silver from containers that they poured in their mouth; they also poured some in a wound they had made to their heart while repeating:'Remember, you wretched souls, the affection you had for these metals during your lifetime; it is this affection that has brought you here'. They would then submerge them in a basin filled with liquified gold and silver; this way, they would be submitted from one torment to the next, without reprieve. They also suffered all the other torments endured by all the other suffering souls; this led them to a horrible despair; which is why they blasphemed unceasingly the sacred name of the One who exercised upon them this just vengeance.
The other seven types of sinners included blasphemers, traitors, killers, apostates, those who commit incest, sorcerers, and those who have been excommunicated.
In a book titled Does Hell Exist? Dom Joseph Tomaselli writes: "Impurity is the sin that leads us easily to hell". St. Alphonsus Liguori states: "We go to hell because of this sin, or at least we cannot avoid hell without having committed it".
The Fatima apparitions have been authenticated by the Catholic Church. On July 13, 1917, the Blessed Virgin showed a vision of hell to three young children, Lucia, Jacinta and Francisco. Here is Lucia's account:
"[Mary] opened her hands once more, as she had done the two previous months. The rays [of light] appeared to penetrate the earth, and we saw, as it were, a vast sea of fire. Plunged in this fire, we saw the demons and the souls [of the damned].
"The latter were like transparent burning embers, all blackened or burnished bronze, having human forms. They were floating about in that conflagration, now raised into the air by the flames which issued from within themselves, together with great clouds of smoke. Now they fell back on every side like sparks in huge fires, without weight or equilibrium, amid shrieks and groans of pain and despair, which horrified us and made us tremble with fright. (It must have been this sight which caused me to cry out, as people say they heard me.)
"The demons were distinguished [from the souls of the damned] by their terrifying and repellent likeness to frightful and unknown animals, black and transparent like burning coals. That vision only lasted for a moment, thanks to our good Heavenly Mother, who at the first apparition had promised to take us to Heaven. Without that, I think that we would have died of terror and fear."
St. Faustina Kowalska (1905-1938), a religious nun from Poland, saw Jesus on many occasions during her lifetime. Jesus asked her to paint the now famous image of our Lord, known as His'Divine Mercy'. One day, she was transported to hell. What follows is an account of this visit.
"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 tortures I saw:
"The first torture that constitutes hell is the loss of God; the second is 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, since 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 the 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 their sufferings. There are special tortures destined for particular souls. These are the torments 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 use 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 has ever been there, and so no one can say what it is like.
"I, Sister Faustina, by the order of God, have visited the abysses of hell so that I might tell souls about it and testify to its existence. I cannot speak about it now; but I have received a command from God to leave it in writing. The devils were full of hatred for me, but they had to obey me at the command of God. What I have written is but a pale shadow of the things I saw. But I noticed one thing: that most of the souls there are those who disbelieved that there is a hell.
"When I came to, I could hardly recover from the fright. How terribly souls suffer there! Consequently, I pray even more fervently for the conversion of sinners. I incessantly plead God's mercy upon them. O my Jesus, I would rather be in agony until the end of the world, amidst the greatest sufferings, than offend You by the least sin." (Diary of St. Faustina, 741.)
Dear reader, are you in a state of grace? Do you have on your conscience some grave sin that could threaten your eternity should you die unexpectedly? If so, do not hesitate to feel true repentance, and go to confession on this very day or as soon as you are able.