Hell Fire: What Everyone Needs To Know About The Meaning Of Hell And Its Punishments
What Is Hell?
The Hebrew Sheol and the Greek Hades translated into English, Hell, often signify the grave, or the place of departed spirits. Here was the rich man after death. The rebellious angels were also cast down into hell, and delivered into chains of darkness. (2 Peter ii. 4.)
The term hell is now commonly applied to the place of punishment in the unseen world. It is a place in which the reprobate and the demons suffer eternally.
Does Hell Exist? Is Hell Real?
The existence of hell is one of the principal mysteries or dogmas of our faith. We must, first of all, believe in God, and then that He is the remunerator; that is, that God will reward the just forever in heaven, and punish the wicked forever in hell.
This dogma of faith may be proved from many places of the Holy Scripture. In the Parable of the Marriage Feast: then the King said to the waiters, Bind his hands and feet, and cast him into the exterior darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth* Depart from me you cursed into everlasting fire, which was prepared for the devil and his angels. And in the Gospel of St. Luke, where it is said that the rich man died and was buried in hell.
Where Is Hell?
The place where hell is. According to the tradition of the Church, the place of hell is subterraneous, which is in accordance with the scriptural manner of speaking in regard to this place of torment. Thus, in St. Luke’s Gospel, it is narrated how the demons asked our Lord not to command them to go down into the abyss. It is not a dogma of faith that hell is in the bowels of the earth, or in its centre, although it would be rash and against the common notion of the faithful to teach the contrary.
The gates of hell, mentioned by our Saviour, signify the power of hell; for the people of the East call the palaces of their prince’s gates.
The Jews say there are three gates belonging to hell: the first is in the wilderness, and by that Corah, Dathan, and Abiram, descended into hell; the second is in the sea, for it is said that Jonas, who was thrown into the sea, cried to God out of the belly of hell. The third is in Jerusalem, for Isaias tells us that the fire of the Lord is in Sion, and his furnace in Jerusalem. (1) Earth. 2) Water. (3) Fire. These are evidently three modes of death or destruction.
The Meaning Of Hell
According to the references of the Old Testament, that place is deep (Job xi. 8), and dark (Job xi. 21, 22), in the center of the earth (Num. xvi. 30; Deut. xxxii. 22), having within it depths on depths (Prov. ix. 18), and fastened with gates (Is. xxxviii. 10) and bars (Job xvii. 16). In this cavernous realm are the souls of dead men, the Eephaim and ill spirits (Ps. lxxxvi. 13., lxxix. 48; Prov. xviii. 14 ; Ez. xxxi. 17, xxxii. 21).
In the New Testament the word Hades, like Sheol, sometimes means the grave, or the unseen world; but it is used of the place of everlasting torments in St. Luke xvi. 23 ; St. Matt. xi. 23 ; 2 St. Peter ii. 4. And it is in this sense it is commonly understood by all Christians, and even Jews in the present day.
The Pains of Hell
The pains of hell are two-fold: the pain of loss and the pain of sense. The pain of loss is the privation of the vision of God in punishment of sin, together with an everlasting hatred of good, and the greatest sadness and dereliction of spirit.
The pain of sense is that which is perceived by the senses, and by the soul, caused by the fire, and the other physical torments of that state.
The pain of loss is incomparably greater than any other pain or torment of hell; because it is the more opposed to the greatest and the highest good; and it is in that, that damnation essentially consists. For with God all other things could be endured.
It is true we have not on earth the vision of God, and its privation here does not cost us much suffering or sorrow ; but we must remember that it is not now due to us ; that it does not belong to this state, but it is that which is due after death, and destined for all men, and which the wicked will, therefore, feel as a privation and a penalty: because through their own fault they have lost so great a good, and are deprived of so much happiness. This may be illustrated by the example of a King, who, through his own fault, becomes dethroned and deprived of his Kingdom.
The pains of the damned are not equal. All are punished according to the measure of their demerits ; according to the words of the Apocalypse,* As much as she hath glorified herself, and lived in delicacies, so much torment and sorrow give ye to her, “because (in reference to the fall of Babylon) she saith in her heart: I sit a queen, and am no widow; and sorrow I shall not see. Not even the pain of loss can be said to be equal; for although as a privation of the vision of God it must of itself be equal, yet it can be said to be greater or less according to its cause and its effects. The greater the sins of anyone, the greater will be the indignation and the wrath of God in rejecting such a sinner from His sight ; and the greater on that account will be the affliction of the lost soul, according to that which is decreed by the Divine power and justice, because the pain of loss is a privation of the vision of God in relation to sin, and to the punishments of Divine justice.
The Fires Of Hell
It was fire that consumed the burnt sacrifice and the incense-offering, beginning with the sacrifice of Noah (Gen. viii. 20), and continued in the ever-burning fire on the altar first kindled from heaven, and re-kindled at the dedication of Solomon’s temple. It was the symbol of Jehovah’s presence, and the in- etrument of His power, in a way either of approval cr destruction. (Exod. iii. 2 ; xiv. 19, et. seq.)
According to the common opinion of Catholics, fire will be the instrument of the Divine justice in hell, and the fire of hell is real, material or corporeal fire. That as to its substance it is the same as our fire, but differing in its accidents and qualities. It is much more severe than our fire: it penetrates to the interior soul; it is not bright but obscure; it burns but does not consume, and it does not need fuel of any kind, but is included in itself and subsists by itself like the sun. St. Augustine, writing of it in his Commentary on the 57th Psalm, says, that it is more terrible and severe than anything which a man can endure in this life. This opinion is founded on the fact that Sacred Scripture in many places clearly asserts that there is fire in hell : And shall cast them into the furnace of fire. Depart from me ye cursed into everlasting fire, etc. Which expressions should be taken not in a metaphorical sense, but in their true literal meaning; as there is no reason for a contrary interpretation.
From the texts of Scripture already quoted, we have to learn that not only the bodies of the wicked will suffer by the action of fire, but also lost souls and the demons. The fire was prepared for the devil and his angels. And in the Apocalypse it is said: And there came down fire from God out of heaven, and devoured; and the devil who seduced them was cast into the pool of fire and brimstone, where both the beast and the false prophet shall be tormented day and night forever and ever.
Material fire could not naturally act on a spirit, but it can do so as the instrument of the divine power. Our bodies act on our souls in this life; and God, in the other life, can cause fire to act immediately on the souls of the wicked and on the demons.
There is a special difficulty in accounting for the manner in which the demons, who are often going about this world, suffer from the fire of hell. It appears that they are never free from its pains; as the Angels, when they visit this world, never lose sight of the vision of God in heaven. It is probable that the fire of hell has, by divine dispensation, the power of afflicting and acting upon the demons, even when they are in the air around us. Its action is not confined to the limits of hell itself, but can act upon all the damned, no matter where they are, according to the words : out of hell there is no redemption. Its action and power is prevented by God from affecting others; and, therefore, whilst the devils around us are burning, their fire cannot affect us.
Hell Is Real
In Isaias it is said: The worm shall not die, and their fire shall not be quenched. And our Saviour, in St. Mark’s Gospel, says: It is better for thee to enter lame into life everlasting than, having two feet, to be cast into the hell of unquenchable fire, where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not extinguished.^ St. Basil, in his comments on the 35th Psalm, admits the existence of real worms and serpents in hell, which gnaw continually, and in an inexplicable manner, the bodies of the damned, without consuming them. On the other hand, St. Thomas understands the worms in a metaphorical sense, and takes them to mean the remorse of conscience, which is appropriately called a worm, as it is generated out of the corruption of sin, and tortures the soul, as a real worm would by gnawing within our body without ceasing. The reason assigned by St. Thomas for understanding the text in a metaphorical sense is, that after the day of judgment, and the renovation of the world, no such animals will exist, or mixed bodies, except the bodies of men. This reason does not hold with regard to the material fire, which is admitted by all as the means of hell’s torments. There will be in that place corporeal darkness; they will be cast out into exterior darkness. This darkness, from the position of hell in the center of the earth, is naturally enough concluded. That must be a dark place. But we are told that the darkness there is not complete; there will be some kind of dark sulphurous light, so that the damned, for their greater misery and punishment, may be able to see, not clearly, but in thick confusion, the horrible scenes by which they are surrounded and tortured.
It is not difficult in such a place to suppose weeping and gnashing of teeth. Owing to the incorruptible state of the body, there will not be the real shedding of tears; so that the weeping refers to moans and wails of the voices which continually go forth from the midst of the torments. The gnashing of teeth will be partly from the intensity of the sorrows and pains which they have to suffer.
Finally, according to the teaching of St. Thomas, every kind of punishment will be found in hell, according to the different kinds of sin for which men are condemned; so that one who has sinned in many things, and in many ways, will be tortured by many and different kinds of punishments. It is supposed that the same fire will have the power of torturing in a variety of ways: for exciting thirst in the drunkards, hunger in the gluttons, etc. Sacred Scripture conveys the notion of the generality of these sufferings when it expresses the pains of hell by so many different kinds of torments.
The eternity of the pains of hell fire.
The future liberation of the wicked and their purification, and the future liberation of even the devils and all the lost souls out of hell, and their admission into the Kingdom of heaven, after a long term of suffering, is an opinion attributed to Origen. Such an opinion is contrary to faith, and abhorred by every Christian.
The pains of the damned will last forever. This is of faith, and is clearly proved from the texts of Scripture already quoted: Depart from me you cursed into everlasting fire. “It has been ingeniously contended that this text proves only that the fire is everlasting, not that the condemned are to suffer everlastingly in it. But this evasion cannot be reconciled with the conclusion of the discourse, in which it is said that their punishment will be everlasting: And these shall go into everlasting punishment.
The same is taught in other passages. The smoke of their torments shall ascend for ever and ever. Whosoever was not found written in the book of life, was cast into the lake of fire—the lake burning with fire and brimstone. This is the second death.
How can life forever be called a Second death? Because, answers St. Augustine, to live in everlasting suffering is rather death than life. For no death can be worse than that death which never dies.”
The wicked, after the day of judgment, will not be consumed or annihilated, but will remain alive in soul and body, to endure the torments to be inflicted on them by the justice of God for all the sins committed by them in the body. Souls are immortal by their very nature, and bodies will be rendered immortal at the general resurrection.
And as the reprobate shall never fail to endure the torments for their sins, so the justice of God will never fail to inflict those torments. They shall never live to pay the uttermost farthing; or, rather, no payment or satisfaction at all can be made there. One part of their misery is the horror of despair; and it were not perfect hell if any hope could lodge in it. The favour of God is not to be obtained when there is no means left to obtain it ; in that world to come there is no place for merit, or satisfaction, or virtue. As the tree falls, so it lies ; no change can be wrought in man within those flames, no purgation of his sin, no sanctification of his nature, no justification of his person, and, therefore, no salvation for him forever.
The Scripture speaks in the same way of the duration of the pains of the wicked and the glory of the just, and as this will be eternal, so also will the pains of the wicked be. The same word is used alike in both cases. 8. St. Thomas assigns the following reasons to show us the equity of this duration of the torments of the damned : —
- Because mortal sin in a certain sense contains an infinite malice—inasmuch as God, who is infinitely good, is condemned by it—therefore it deserves to be punished by a penalty at least eternal in duration.
- Because the guilt remains forever; this cannot be remitted without grace, which is not given after death.
- Because the person who sins mortally has the interpretative will of remaining in that sin forever, inasmuch as he places himself in a state out of which he cannot get without the divine assistance; and inasmuch as he prefers the creature, for whose love he sins, to God.
- Because there is on earth a punishment for him who sins (by high treason, say,) against his king or country, for he is sometimes punished, as far as it is possible, forever; thus by death, as St. Augustine says, they are forever cut off from the society of the living.
The same may be said of perpetual banishment. If an exile could always live, he would always remain an exile.
The pains of hell cannot be said to be infinite in intensity, because God alone is capable of an infinite action ; and no creature could endure infinite suffering. They may, however, be said to be infinite in extent or in duration, as they are to last always And the pain of loss, as well as the pain of sense, inflicted for mortal sins, will never be diminished or interrupted, although the accidental pains—such as the vexations of the demons, their reproaches, and the reproaches of others, can be subject to change and diminution.
Let us consider what must be the state of the soul as to its intellect and will in the midst of all these pains and horrors.
According to St. Thomas, the soul in hell will retain all its natural knowledge. It will know whatever it knew here on earth. It will consider the evil work which it did and for which it is condemned, and all the delightful goods it has lost ; and by the thought of both it will be the more tortured. It will also know some of the things which go on here on earth, as the demons will manifest them to it ; or as God will make them known to it at the particular judgment, or by some other special way. Thus the rich man who was buried in hell knew that his brothers here on earth were leading sinful lives.
In that state the lost souls will think of God, but only as the avenger and punisher, as St. Thomas teaches ; and from this are born their depraved will and their hatred of God.
The same Saint teaches that, before the Day of Judgment those souls know that the blessed spirits are in a state of inestimable happiness. In the last judgment they will see the glorified bodies of the saints, and after the judgment they will be entirely deprived of the vision of the blessed. They will, however, retain the memory of their glory, which will only serve to their own sorrow out of envy for the happiness of the saints; and because they have lost the state of happiness which so many others have obtained.
In regard to the wills of the damned. We have first to state that the wills of the devils are entirely bad in such a way that they sin mortally by every act which proceeds from their own will ; they are obstinate in sin as they have reached their term, in which they remain as to the same state of mind and will, because in all things they act out of pride and rebellion. As to men, it is held that every deliberate act of their wills is evil : because they also are obstinate and confirmed in evil, and they cannot desire that which is good, except through some perverse motive.
Neither the one nor the other will ever repent of their sins. They will hate sin because of the punishment which it has brought upon them; and when the expression ” penance ” is applied to the lost, it must be understood of their affliction because of the penalty of sin; but no sorrow for sin itself. They will have hatred towards God because of their punishments, and this hatred will cause many of them to blaspheme Him.
Finally, as the blessed no longer merit by their good works in heaven, and their essential glory is not increased by them; so neither do the damned demerit by their sins, or deserve an increase of their punishments. The reason is because both the blessed and the lost are beyond the state of merit or demerit; they have reached the term of their reward or punishment, and they are no longer capable of meriting or dementing.
But the very will of the damned, and the sing committed through it, are a pain and a punishment to them; as the goodwill of the blessed serves to their reward and happiness.
Answering Objections To Hell
All the reasons assigned by infidels against an eternity of punishment are of no value, and they are not new, but as old as unbelief itself.
(a) To say that God would condemn a poor creature eternally for the sake of only one mortal sin, is it not making God a cruel judge? “
To this we answer that the number of those sins of a lost soul is only an accessory thing. God pardons seventy times seven times; that is, an indefinite number of times, anyone who truly repents. If, then, anyone be condemned to hell for only one mortal sin, it is because such a one died freely in a state of final impenitence, with the knowledge and acceptance of all its consequences. He has laughed at the justice of God; he has condemned His mercy. It is the sinner who has condemned himself, who has been his own executioner. God warned him often enough, but He does not interfere with the freedom of man’s will, and therefore He let him go where he liked; and thus his cry of despair will be for eternity, ” the fault is mine; it is my fault alone! ”
(b) But is it just that a sin of an instant should be punished by an eternity of suffering?
Human justice does not take into account, and rightly so, the time which it takes a criminal to commit murder: but it punishes eternally by depriving the murderer of his life which he will never’ get back in this state. If an obstinate sinner should live eternally here on earth, he would always remain in evil, and be always deserving the same punishment. His sin, in his intention and will, is eternal; and it is therefore just that the penalty last forever.
(c) But is it possible that an infinitely good God would leave His creature in suffering forever?
There would be no eternal hell were it not that God is infinitely good, and that He loves His creatures in an infinite manner. It is this love, contemned and trampled underfoot to the last hour, which calls forth, on the part of God, the definite and final abandonment of the soul.
(d) But could not God pardon the lost soul after it has made sufficient expiation? God would pardon the lost soul if it would repent.
The damned will never repent, and they will never repent because in that state they are incapable of repentance. Their will was fixed in evil at death; therein it will remain forever, as it is no longer free to turn to good.
(e) Should not God leave the damned liberty to merit, and offer them the grace of conversion, as He offers the sinner in this life?
That is to say that God should give the damned a new trial, or a new period of probation. But on this supposition, either the damned will accept the grace of God, or they will refuse to accept it. If they accept it they will be saved, and their portion and happiness will be the same as those just souls who faithfully observed the law of God in this life ; and from this it would follow that a man could live here on earth any kind of life — he could hate both God and man, and commit all manner of iniquity, and die with blasphemy on his lips, and depend on grace and repentance in the next life. Or the lost souls would refuse to receive the grace of God, and again throw themselves freely into a state of sin; then, to reclaim them, a third or fourth opportunity should be given, and so on indefinitely, which would be nothing less than a mockery of divine justice.
It is therefore conformable to the wisdom of God to limit the gift of His grace, and the time of merit and demerit, to the present life, and to establish after death a definite sanction, and to proclaim the evangelical maxim: as the tree falls there shall it remain.
(f) God knows beforehand those that will be lost. Why, therefore, does He create them?
God has created them for eternal happiness, and has given, or at least offered, them the means to obtain it. If they are lost, it is solely by their own fault. God has wise reasons for tolerating the evil which the wicked do on earth, and the damnation which is the result of it. He obtains through its toleration great good; for the elect, who are scandalized and persecuted by the wicked, a great harvest of merits; and for Himself, a signal manifestation of His patience, His mercy, and His justice. In this question, as in many others, there are contained mysteries which will be unfolded or revealed in the life to come. Both the elect and the reprobate will then know and acknowledge that the judgments of God are true and just.
The Punishment of Children Who Die Without Baptism in a State of Original Sin
Their state will be eternal or everlasting, and therefore we have to refer to it in treating of the life everlasting. It is of faith that children who die in original sin suffer the pain of loss. This is proved from the words: Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God. We have also to remember that every mortal sin excludes from heaven, and original sin is mortal. Hence the opinion is improbable which says that these children will have nothing whatever to suffer either in the way of sorrow or affliction; for they know that on account of that sin they are deprived of eternal happiness, which must naturally cause them sorrow and sadness.
There is a sharp controversy amongst Catholic authors as to whether children dying with only original sin suffer the pain of sense. St. Thomas teaches clearly that they do not. Punishment, according to him, in the next life is due only to personal sin.
Their state in the future life will be one of natural happiness, and in it they will be able to know and love God as the author of nature; but inasmuch as they will be deprived of eternal happiness, we conclude the important and grave obligation of parents, doctors, nurses, and priests, to see that children are not deprived of the Sacrament of Baptism, and the guilt of those who neglect to have children baptized, or through neglect permit them to die without Baptism.
(Adapted from The Creed Explained by Rev. Arthur Devine)
(For more, see Theology Of Hell And Damnation program available here.)