Is Anybody There?…In Hell That Is.

In the current debate on hell (which is really a debate on universalism) there is some fuzzy thinking going on. Here is an excerpt from my book The Quest for the Creed which comes out next week. This book is a new edition of Adventures in OrthodoxyPublished by Crossroads, it has new material and a new format.


Someone once asked the famous mystic Padre Pio, what he thought of modern people who didn’t believe in hell. His terse reply was, “They will believe in hell when they get there.”

Is it possible to believe in hell? Surely, when faced with Auschwitz, Hiroshima, the Gulag and the killing fields, the question should be, “Is it possible not to believe in hell?” I don’t simply refer to the fact that concentration camps were a kind of hell on earth. Instead I wonder how one can deny the existence of a place of severe punishment when faced with Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin and African soldiers who chop off little girls hands for fun. When faced with such monsters can we really cry with a good conscience, “God would not send anyone to burn forever in the fires of everlasting torment!” After a century that has witnessed more genocide, religious martyrdom and brutality to children than ever before in human history, can we really dismiss the only punishment left for the dictators, abortionists, terrorist bombers and genocidal maniacs who have got away with their crimes? If it were true that there is no hell I, for one, would be howling with rage at the insanity and unfairness of it all. Yet those who deny the existence of hell calmly assume that their denial shows how enlightened and humane (and therefore fair) they are.

These are good people. They dismiss the possibility of hell not because they deny the wickedness of human beings, but because they affirm the goodness of God. They believe in a God who is so very good that he would not send anyone to hell. It would certainly be nice if there were a heaven but not a hell. But can you believe in one without the other? What I mean is, how can someone believe in heaven, which must after all, be a place of goodness, (and if goodness, then justice) while denying the fact of hell which makes justice possible? Therefore it seems to me, that if you believe in heaven you must also believe in hell. Hell is somehow written into the constitution of heaven.

Nevertheless, good-hearted people insist that a good God would not possibly send anyone to be tormented in hell for all eternity. This is a laudable sentiment, but I worry that that’s all it is: a sentiment. Nevertheless, the conviction that God would could not send anyone to hell is a feeling I myself incline to—especially after a warm day in May followed by a very good dinner with four glasses of claret. Furthermore, at that moment I am not usually thinking about Pol Pot or Stalin. I am thinking that God would not send an ordinary, decent fellow like myself to hell.

But this is exactly the point where the possibility of hell is meant to knock me down and shake me up. We are told that the road to hell is a wide smooth, downhill highway, while the road to heaven is a narrow and hard mountainous climb. What if hell were populated with hordes of overweight complacent people just like me who never really did anything magnificently evil, but also never bothered to do anything spectacularly good? Why should we imagine that heaven is reserved for the mediocre?

When I look at it this way I have the dreadful suspicion that perhaps those who deny hell because God is too good to send anyone there are really proposing that God is too good to send them there. It is ironic that people who believe in heaven are sometimes blamed for wishful thinking. Isn’t it that more likely true of those who disbelieve in hel? I say this because the person who disbelieves in hell doesn’t really believe in heaven either. He believes in oblivion. He desperately hopes that he will cease to exist after death. In other words he hopes he will get away with it after all, and this, it seems to me, is real wishful thinking.

Others protest that the concept of eternal punishment makes God out to be an angry, short-tempered disciplinarian of the worst sort. But is God such a nice middle class English gentleman that he would not be angry enough to send anyone to hell? [Read More]


Is This a Miraculous Image of the Divine Mercy?
Abortion and Obi Wan Kenobi
Atheism or Catholicism - You Choose
Idol Speculation
  • u3

    God doesn’t send anyone to hell, the person chooses that for themselves. We ‘believe’ that Satan exists but we don’t ‘believe’ in him, we believe in Jesus Christ. To doubt the existence of Satan is to doubt scripture and to doubt scripture is to doubt God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Anytime we take God out of the picture, Satan will take his place everytime. Many people don’t believe in hell because they don’t believe in consequences. It’s all about gaining souls for Christ with love and then conquering evil with love because ‘an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.’

  • lubo

    Hell is a real place and the devil Satan works for God in his own way of testing our love of God over everything else.

  • FW Ken

    Scripture says God made hell for the devil and his angels. It is possible to believe that humans are not there, not because God is an indulgent grandfather, but because it is in human nature to repent when faced with the majestic, awe-filled love of God and the glory of His Son. Who knows what transpired in Hitler’s soul add the bullet entered his brain and he began to die? Was he beyond saving? Was Pol Pot? Or Stalin?

    That this belief is possible does not mean it’s true. But the Catholic Church has never definitively pronounced on anyone’s damnation, and neither will I. However, I will confess to a personal fantasy that doesn’t even rise to the level of pious opinion. Is it possible that the lake of fire is the burning fire of God’s love into which we all go? Those who embrace Him find joy unending. Those who reject His love find the fire a torment. Most of us will find the fire a refining, cleansing experience of pain which leads to joy. For that time, we can call the lake “purgatory”.

    This is not an eschatological proposition, but my imagination run wild, hopefully not straight into heresy. Still, it gets past that whole thing of God sending people to hell. He simply calls us to Himself. Whether that is heaven, hell, or purgatory says more about us than God.

  • dabhidh

    If Hell does not exist, then all human moral choices are ultimately meaningless.

  • Vladyk

    If Hitler or Stalin were sincerely contrite in the last moment of their lives without any actions about what they’ve done, then God would have forgiven them and sent them to purgatory. So God already dispenses justice in a way that’s very different from the way many people consider it. A God that could forgive Hitler and Stalin, is already very strange and very different, many people would be angry at God for acting this way.
    The church’s liturgy has always had prayer for the salvation of all, and the Byzantine liturgy even has prayers asking for the release of people in hell.
    Everything that God creates is intrinsically good, therefore, the potential for being good is never lost in any creature even those in hell, if God is really the God of love, then he wouldn’t give up on a soul which is intrinsically good, even if it take Him eternity.

  • Joanne

    “But the Catholic Church has never definitively pronounced on anyone’s damnation”

    So important to remind people of this. After a well known public person passed away a while back, one of my non-denominational friends on Facebook made the pronouncement, “Well, we all know where (name) is right now.” I posted something in response about praying for mercy for the souls of the deceased and we had a brief discussion of the Catholic teaching on purgatory. Hopefully the discussion planted some seeds, but my point here is that I’m grateful that the Catholic Church does NOT presume a particular individual’s condemnation. And of course sometimes Catholics too need to be reminded of this.

  • Melia

    I think there is no harm in hoping that all may be saved, but great harm in assuming that therefore, you can do whatever you like. The road to perdition is indeed wide, but if it can be said to have one benefit, it is easier to turn back on it.

  • FW Ken

    Thank you, Melia. I think that’s a good addendum to Father’s points. The focus should be on my working out my own salvation “with fear and trembling”.

  • Jan

    On a 30 day Ignatian retreat I had a vivid “dream” of what hell would be like. In the “dream” I was surrounded by a dull gold light and could see nothing except the dull gold light – not myself, nor anyone else. I was told that I could do anything here that I wanted to do, anyway that I wanted to do it, whenever I wanted to do it – only there would be no one to do anything with. I was totally alone. No God, no people. Total isolation. Total nothingness – except my awareness that I was in nothingness.

    I have heard it said that hell is a state of permanent separation from God. In my dream, hell was a permanent separation from God and other people.

  • Marguerite


  • pontana

    Proof positive that Hell exists: At Fatima in 1917, Mary the Mother of Jesus appeared to three children and showed them a vision of Hell. She asked that prayers and sacrifices should be offered to help prevent souls from going there. The three children, Lucy, Jacinta and Francisco were so disturbed by the experience that they they prayed incessantly, fasted regularly and undertook various forms of penance to help save souls from going into Hell. The sixth and final apparition was attended by upwards of seventy thousand people. They were all drenched wet after torrential rain and then the sun appeared through the clouds and began spinning, dancing in the sky and appeared to be falling to earth. People were terrified, immediately afterwards, people were surprised to realize that they were all bone dry, despite the rain all morning. The apparitions of Our Lady at Fatima are approved by the Catholic Church, and Fatima has been visited on at least five occasions by a pope.

  • bill bannon

       These last two Popes, thankfully in lower authority venues, said we couldn’t be sure if Judas is in hell while both Augustine and Chrysostom in sermons rightly said he was in hell.  The Church does not declare either way until a topic affects the whole Church; it’s silence on Judas means nothing at all.
        If you can’t place Judas in hell, you can’t imagine yourself there either. Judas is in hell as is inter alia Jezebel and as is Herod from Acts 12. I know that from scripture and outside scripture I can’t know of anyone…even Pablo Escobar or Hitler because they could have been insane in God’s judgement. But Jezebel and Herod were killed by agents of God within scripture and then symbolically were both eaten by dogs/ worms respectively…that tells me damnation. Ananias and Saphirra, killed by God in Acts 5, were decently buried and thus there is hope that they reached Purgatory.  
       Christ is our source for Judas being in hell and He uses past tense prophecy as to Judas and St. Justin Martyr said that past tense prophecy in scripture is certain as opposed to conditional.  Christ prayed to His Father PRIOR to Judas actually completing the betrayal in the Garden or committing suicide later: “Those whom thou gavest me I guarded and not one of them perished except the son of perdition”. Isaiah similarly predicts Christ in the past tense 53:4 “But he was pierced for our offenses.” Judas is in hell because Christ repeatedly says things of Him that are not appropo a person who is destined for Heaven: ” But woe to him by whom the son of man is betrayed for it would be better for him had he not been born.”
    Can you say that about a person who reaches heaven through purgatory.
         Fatima by the way is not binding on the Catholic as though demanded by divine faith.  
    The Church approves interest in such revelations without endorsing them as the equivalent of Divine Revelation.
    Private revelations and their status are treated well here by a priest:

  • joe DeCarlo

    The church today preaches that God gives us unconditional love. No he doesn’t. There are conditions for his love. For instance, he gave us the 10 commandments. If we don’t keep those commandments, we lose his love. We regain his love by asking God for his forgiveness. If we don’t ask for forgiveness, then it is possible for us to go to hell. If God gave us unconditional love, there would not be a hell.

  • joe DeCarlo

    Would any of you forgive Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin, etc. for their crimes? If not, then why would God forgive them if we are made in his image and likeness?

  • Therese

    I am in complete agreement with Fr. Longenecker’s commentary. THat is why I have such difficulty with the latest near-death-experience book making the rounds: “Proof of Heaven” by Dr. Alexander. Will someone please read this and give me a perspective on it? I truly believe that near death experiences are real. However, this guy’s seems totally bizarre to me, as does his interpretation of the afterlife – no mention of Jesus, refers to God as “OM”, no mention of suffering, a bizarre awakening in a ghoulish creepy underworld and then a fantasy flight to the upper world … He tries to tell us that his experience of the afterlife was deeper than the others who had such experiences and, therefore, we should accept his interpretation of afterlife reality. It makes a mockery of everything Jesus and the saints have told us about heaven and hell. I’m baffled.

  • bill bannon

    Why would you read things that contradict Christ’s words? Scripture says, “Satan himself disguises himself as an angel of light; it is no great wonder then that his ministers disguise themselves as ministers of justice.”
    In another place it says, ” but the man was not deceived but the woman was”. Put those two together and God is wondering why you would expose yourself to books that can only harm your degree of faith.

  • Steve

    We know hell exists because God descended into and united himself to it, as man. The work of Christ in hell is eternal (or as long as hell remains real to those who are there):

    ‘For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirit in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited’*. However, many Church Fathers and liturgical texts of the Orthodox Church repeatedly underline that having descended to hell, Christ opened the way to salvation for all people, not only the Old Testament righteous. The descent of Christ into Hades is perceived as an event of cosmic significance involving all people without exception. They also speak about the victory of Christ over death, the full devastation of hell and that after the descent of Christ into Hades there was nobody left there except for the devil and demons.

    (Source: Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev: Christ the Conqueror of Hell, The Descent of Christ into Hades in Eastern and Western Theological Traditions, A lecture delivered at St Mary’s Cathedral, Minneapolis, USA, on 5 November 2002)

    * 1 Pet. 3:18—21.

  • Joe Mulvihill

    The Church teaches that hell is real and eternal but does not claim to know who, if anyone, is there. I believe and have been taught that God loves us so much that he will send us to hell if that is what we choose. The Commandments and Magisterium just instruct us on the choices we need to make in order to tell God where it is that we wish to spend eternity – with Him or without Him. That is what Free Will and Unconditional Love is all about; the ability to choose and have OUR choice respected by our Creator.

  • bill bannon

    But Christ’s enemies among the Jewish leaders thought they were holy and holier than the publicans…Christ pointed that out. And yet Christ said Jerusalem and it’s inhabitants would be destroyed because they did not know the time of their visitation:
    Luke 19:41 NAB Bible
     As he drew near, he saw the city and wept over it,
    saying, “If this day you only knew what makes for peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes.
    * For the days are coming upon you when your enemies will raise a palisade against you; they will encircle you and hem you in on all sides.
    They will smash you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave one stone upon another within you because you did not recognize the time of your visitation.”

  • Michael

    I am a former Catholic,now an atheist. I have knowingly turned my back on God as taught in the Catholic Church and in former times (and maybe even now by some Catholic teachers) would be a prime candidate for eternal damnation. Not only do I not believe in God but if offered incontrovertible evidence that God exists, I would acknowledge God’s existence but would refuse to worship a God that would create beings and allow them to be punished for all eternity. Because if there is one thing that my humanism has instilled in me, is morality. And I refuse to change my morals to attempt to garner favour with such an immoral God.

    I bet if we all chose to take that position on hell, God would change. Or rather our concept of God would change.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    Your concept of God and Hell is wrong, therefore, if you wished to understand these things properly you are correct– your concept of God would change.

  • Lorenzo

    God loves all of his creation, including those who are in hell. The problem is those that do not love God in return have chosen their eternal place of residence. By His very Nature God is Love. He cannot, NOT LOVE.
    Therefore His Love IS UNCONDITIONAL.

  • bill bannon

    Mull over Aquinas’ point that the eternity aspect of hell comes from turning away from Him who is eternal and perfect. Two turnings happen in mortal sin: a turning toward mutable good (e.g. gluttony) and a turning away from the eternal God…the first turning is relevant to the degree of suffering in hell/ the second turning is the cause of the unending nature of the punishment. I’m sure you would want a serial rapist/ murderer punished after death if he died easily in his sleep and was never caught in this life. What you have a problem with is eternal punishment…it’s never ending. But if our rapist murderer turned from Him who is Eternal and perfect… by the nature of what he was doing, then punishment is not just due to the acts against humans but is due to those acts also constituting an immense relationship betrayal of Him who is Eternal and who created this criminal whom He contantly helped to be good…Christ…”and I if I be lifted up, will draw all men to myself.”. Christ is drawing all men to good behaviour and to Himself. But they are free to refuse cooperation to that drawing. But they are not free to choose the eternal consequences of their refusal.

  • Frank

    Would appreciate some more comment from Fr. Dwight on whether there are or are not souls “in” hell…..not whether it exists or not. The blog was of interest to me bc it’s title is “Is Anyone There”. It seems to me the article is about whether hell exists or not. Perhaps I need to read more. Thanks

  • Michael

    Is there any concept of a hell that does not reflect that most base level of our demand for vengeance against horrible actions or attempt to frightened people into believing?

  • Michael

    I’ve taken a graduate course in Aquinas at a Catholic university. I am well aware of Aquinas’ concept of hell. And I know he would have condemned me to hell as he requires faith in Christ and the Trinity for salvation. As for me, I would not worship a God who allows eternal punishment for sin when a simple non existence would suffice. I wasn’t tortured for my sins before Iwas born, why should I be after I die?

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    the concept that hell has to do with vengeance is a misunderstanding, and using hell to frighten people into believing has sometimes been an abuse of the doctrine. It is also a misunderstanding to think that God
    “sends people to hell.”

    Hell is simply the natural consequence of their own choice. God gives them what they want.

    A person may choose what is true, beautiful and good or not. Hell is therefore a spiritual state of eternal separation from all that is good, beautiful and true. To be separated from truth, beauty and goodness is to be in torment. People go there because they choose to.

    I would like to think that no human being would choose to reject truth, beauty and goodness, but my experience in this life is that there are many people who willfully reject the truth, beauty and goodness they have known, and I must draw the conclusion that some will continue to do so.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    “God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world.” No one will condemn you to hell. You will only go to hell if you choose to.

  • Michael

    Because hell and heaven do not exist we need to elevate our morality from the level of acting because of punishment and reward and base our ethics upon principals that are worthwhile independent of whatever eternal fate we wish to avoid or obtain.

  • Michael

    “If it were true that there is no hell I, for one, would be howling with rage at the insanity and unfairness of it all.” There lies the difference. You feel it’s moral to torture dictators and murders for all eternity. I do not. This is not “rejecting goodness”, rather just the contrary. And you wonder why people reject your notion of God. It’s their ethics.

    I would say to keep up this teaching as it drives people away from the Church but children are taught this terror of hell and believe it and that is totally unacceptable. Terrorize adults with hell and descriptions of eternal torture if you must, but do not scare children with it.

  • Michael

    I am a lapsed Catholic and don’t believe in God or hell.
    Instead I try to live a good life and make things better for my family and community.
    So in the chance that I am wrong and my turning away from God has been a mistake I choose not to go to hell. That was easy.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    That is an interesting reply. However, you misunderstand the nature of the choice. The choice is not between heaven and hell, but between accepting and loving God or rejecting him. You will not be given a choice, “Look there is hell and look there is heaven–which do you prefer?” Instead the choice will simply be to see and love God and accept him or not. Those who reject him, by definition, go to hell since hell is simply the absence of God. We must then imagine what it would be like for you to meet God and have the choice to accept his love or reject it.

    If you have rejected his existence and his love here in this life why do you imagine that you would change your mind? A really convinced atheist will not be convinced even when Jesus Christ the Lord meets him and invites him to accept his love.

  • michael

    I do understand the nature of the choice and I was trying to show that the statement that “You will only go to hell if you choose to.” is a misrepresentation of the Catholic teaching. One goes to hell if you reject God’s love. Even if you can’t experience the love of an unseen, remote God, you still must accept it or you go to hell.

    A while back on some of the atheists blogs there was an active discussion as to what would cause atheists to believe in God and while the answers varied, dying and coming back to life and meeting Jesus would convince any of them, myself included. So I’ll just wait and see if that happens and if it does happen I promise I’ll accept God’s love. One would be a fool not to based upon that evidence. I’ll even look you up in the hereafter and admit I was wrong.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    I think what you may be missing is the aspect of choice which is not singular but constant. It is not that you will have the one choice to make on judgement day. It is that you are making the choice now and in every moment of your life here. This is your time to choose. Then the time to choose will be over. You don’t get another choice at that point.

    The judgement is a summary of all your choices here. If an obstinate atheist were to meet Christ on the other side he would reject him again as he has always done. You say “I promise I will accept his love.” This is not something you would be able to do at that point. It’s like the person who lived an unworthy life and held out to make a deathbed confession, then found on his deathbed that he no longer wanted to make his confession, and when he tried found he was unable to.

    If you are indeed a lapsed Catholic, and if you have been catechized, then you will be held even more responsible for your choice because the choice was informed.

  • michael

    Exactly Fr. Longenecker. I am certainly a lapsed Catholic, baptized, confirmed and quite knowledgeable in the Catholic faith. I grew up in a time when, especially at the end of Ordinary Time, when fire and brimestone, hell and damnation sermons were common. (Later when I read Portrait of the Artist the sermon by Fr. Arnall was so familiar I was sure the priests took their sermons from Joyce).

    Be upfront with people on the aspect of hell. You don’t choose to go to hell. You do it by not accepting God’s love. You don’t have a choice when face to face with God, by then, when finally faced with evidence that God exists. You said ” A really convinced atheist will not be convinced even when Jesus Christ the Lord meets him and invites him to accept his love.” but now admit it is hopeless at that point. Indeed if it were possible to accept Jesus at that point the entire fear of hell threat would evaporate.

    Modern society finds that notion of God unacceptable. Indeed out of moral conviction, I would refuse to worship such a God that requires mandatory acceptance of love under penalty of eternal damnation without giving me any evidence of that love or even evidence of his existence. One cannot be coerced to love with fear of punishment for that is not love at all.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    I’m afraid I have not made myself clear.

    Allow me to put it this way: if you blow out the light you will be in the dark. This is not the fault of the light. If you turn off the heater you will be cold. This is not the fault of the heater. Likewise if you reject the love of God you will be without the love of God. This is not God’s fault. If you reject the evidence of God’s love which is all around you, you will not experience the love of God. This is not God’s fault.

    Allow me to put it another way which is more positive: God is constantly seeking to save that which is lost. He is doing everything he can to get people into heaven, not send people to hell. His love is relentless and everyone will be given every opportunity to see and accept that love which is available in many different forms. They may even accept and affirm that love even if they think they are rejecting God because the God they are rejecting is a false understanding of God in the first place and therefore not God at all.

    A person’s false understanding of God (received through bad teaching or bad example) may be so profound that they declare themselves an atheist. They think they are rejecting God when all they are rejecting is the James Joyce god. They may live a life of justice and peace and mercy. They may pursue in their life all that they know of truth, beauty and goodness. They may sacrifice all that they have for the poor and seek to love with all their heart all the truth, beauty and goodness they understand.

    That person, when they see Jesus Christ will affirm him as all the truth, beauty and goodness they have always loved, and they will continue to reject the false god they thought was God and that will be a good thing. They too, then will be saved, and they will be saved through the love of Jesus Christ and the grace that he and his blessed Mother granted to them–even if they thought they were rejecting Christ and his love.

    This is the God I worship and this is the judgement to which I look forward–a judgement at which everyone will be surprised the good ‘atheists’ who thought they rejected God but really didn’t and likewise the bad believer who thought he believed in God, but only believed in the little false god of his own devising.

  • michael

    I can see the light from a candle, I can’t see God. I can feel the heat from a fire, I can’t feel God’s love. I don’t see (alone with many others) evidence for God. I don’t experience God’s love, try as I might when I was younger. Finally I realized it was not there to be had.

    I had good teaching, by priests that are now bishops, read the entire documents of Vatican II, could name the seven sacraments, knew Scriptures, etc. I understand the Catholic nature of God, I just stopped believing in it.

    I’m not rejecting the James Joyce’s God (he was a non believer). I was saying I had that sermon preached to me, with the same examples. I assume Joyce cribbed it from the sermons he heard in childhood and the priests on those fall retreats were recounting the same examples with terrifying and effective results.

    “That person, when they see Jesus Christ will affirm him as all the truth,” Now you are saying conversion can happen after death. I have not had bad instructions, I have not been abused ion the Church, I have not previously taken my faith seriously. I just realized that my life makes more sense when I stop trying to force myself to love a God that I have no experience of.

    It was revealed that Mother Teresa (who I actually met and briefly talked to years ago) experienced all her life great doubt and emptiness of God’s presence and love. I did the same but rather than struggle through possibly decades of “dark night of the soul” took that leap of reason and realized that assertions without evidence are only faith and even if God exists and we are made in God’s image I would rather think that God would favour rational evidence over unsupported faith.

  • rob