Who Goes to Hell

Over the last several weeks I have been mesmerized by the tantalizing images of the relentless lava flow on the main island of Hawaii. While my heart goes out to those who lost their homes to the volcano’s awesome destructive power, I cannot but marvel at the magnificent display of Mother Nature’s might. One day as I was staring at the images of glowing red lava starting fires everywhere set in bold relief against the darkness of the night, one question kept recurring in my mind: “Is this what hell looks like?”

From the time we were children, we were told that hell is a place of unquenchable fire inhabited by fearsome demons. Even in my seminary days I was deathly scared of going to hell. Unfortunately nowadays hardly anyone speaks of hell. There are many who do not believe that there is such a thing as hell. What is hell? What does the Church teach about this mystery? Last week I wrote a column on heaven. Now it is time for me to tackle hell.

Neither the Old Testament nor the New Testament uses the word, “hell.” Jesus uses the word, “Gehenna” which was considered to be the place of undying fire. The word used in the Old Testament is “Sheol” which referred to the underworld, the place of the dead. The word “hell” is derived from German and it means “realm of the dead.” Our vision of hell as the place of roaring fire and demons with pitchforks has been shaped by Dante’s “Inferno” and Renaissance paintings such as the “Last Judgment” by Michelangelo.

Certain Church documents down the centuries (the Athanasian Creed from the fifth century and the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215) have spoken of hell. However, both the Second Vatican Council and Pope Paul VI’s otherwise very complete Credo of the People of God do not mention hell. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the Catholic teaching on hell in these words:

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.” 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. 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.” (#1033)

It is important to note that God does not send anyone to hell. It is a choice made by the individual. God only makes definitive the final decision made by the individual. By radically rejecting God’s love and by remaining unrepentant unto the end one may incur eternal punishment. Thomas Merton, the American mystic, concurs. He writes:

 It is not compulsory for anyone to go there. Those who do, do so by their own choice, and against the will of God, and they can only get into hell by defying and resisting all the work of Providence and grace. It is their own will that takes them there, not God’s. In damning them He is only ratifying their own decision—a decision which He has left entirely to their own choice.

Nowadays there are some who prefer to deny the very existence of hell. They do not realize that by denying its existence they negate the very possibility of human freedom. If a human subject is free, he or she has to be capable of rejecting God completely. Hell has to exist at least as a metaphysical possibility so that human freedom can be protected. Even though the Church has affirmed the existence of hell, she has never declared that any particular person has gone there. She has named the individuals who have gone to heaven. They are the canonized saints. Just as we do not know who goes to heaven and who doesn’t, we cannot say who is in hell. It is a mystery.

Face to face with such realities as heaven and hell, we must remain reverently speechless and just like Job place our fingers on our lips. It is not up to us to make these declarations. Some people assert that in their judgment certain individuals deserve to go to hell. Fortunately the Lord does not listen to their suggestions. His mercy knows no bounds and his decisions go counter to their cranky, self-righteous judgments.

The mystery of hell can serve as a deterrent against sin. The thought of eternal damnation may help us resist temptation. However, goodness born out of fear is imperfect. We want to embrace goodness out of love for God. As long as we strive to love God and hold on to him in spite of our weaknesses, we do not have to be afraid. Unconcerned about what others are doing, we are called upon to work out our salvation carefully. Loving God and our neighbor, and living in obedience to Christ’s commands, we can journey towards our heavenly home with confidence.

The Father who sent his Son to die on the Cross for us does not want anyone to go to hell. As the Scriptures tell us, God wants everyone to be saved and no one to be lost. St John Bosco used to say, “Why do you think God created heaven? To leave it empty?” But if we do not cooperate with his grace, he cannot save us. St Augustine said: “He who made you without you cannot save you without you.”

Let us rely on the tremendous mercy of God. Let us live lives worthy of the calling we have received.

Mission Statement: As children of God, living in a Catholic community of faith, we are united by the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. Aware that all we have is gift and grace from our Heavenly Father, we strive to give of our time, talent and treasure to build His kingdom on earth. We live this mission, challenged by the Word, nurtured by the Sacraments, and enlivened by the Spirit, to serve our brothers and sisters in peace, justice and dignity. All are welcome on this journey.

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