What the Heck is Hell?
Recently, a reader asked me questions regarding the Christian doctrine of Hell. For this article, I elaborate further and provide my understanding of this ancient doctrine. I address the following questions about Hell. Why is there a Hell? What is Hell? What do those in Hell experience? Please feel free to ask any follow-up questions about this topic in the comment section below.
Hell is God’s great compliment to the reality of human freedom and the dignity of human choice. – G.K. Chesterton.
Why Is There a Hell?
Hell exists because human freedom exists. God does not force Himself on anyone. This includes Heaven. If a person has no desire to spend eternity with God, God grants them their desire. C.S. Lewis summed it up perfectly in The Great Divorce when he wrote:
There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice, there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek, find. Those who knock, it is opened.
Therefore, simply put, Hell exists due to the reality of human freewill. If a person desires Heaven, God will grant them their desire. Conversely, if a person has no desire for Heaven, God will grant them their desire, too. Choices have consequences—sometimes eternal consequences…
What Is Hell?
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), Hell is an actual place—an eternal place where those who reject God reside for eternity.
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.”
Moreover, both Sacred Scripture (including the teaching of Jesus) and the Church teach the reality of an actual Hell. Jesus Himself clearly states in Matthew 10:28, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
What Do Those in Hell Experience?
As stated in the CCC above, the chief punishment in Hell “is eternal separation from God…” But what does separation mean when we understand God as an omnipresent being? God exists everywhere and there exists no place devoid of His presence. Therefore, separation must mean something other than a lack of God’s presence. The answer resides in the next part of the sentence from the CCC where it states that source of human happiness is God “in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.” Therefore, separation from God means separation from the life and happiness to which we were created and long for. The suffering comes from our realization of our error with no recourse for remorse and repentance.
Furthermore, the suffering experienced there is due to pure exposure to God’s love by those who do not want it, like the exposed nerve of a tooth to air. Those in Hell see the full truth about themselves for all eternity. They also know the choice as theirs and theirs alone. They willfully reject God’s love and therefore experience God’s love as pain and suffering.
Resurrected Unto Hell
Finally, as humans, those in Hell also participate in the general resurrection and therefore reunite with their physical bodies. This, too, adds to their suffering. We learn of this from Jesus in John 5:29 when He states:
those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.
And in Matthew 25:45 and 46, He says:
Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Regarding the experience of these resurrected bodies in Hell, Fr. Willian Saunders explains:
These bodies will have identity, entirety and immortality, but not the our transcendent qualities. They will have the condition necessary for suffering the eternal punishment of hell, but not the glorification of the Lord shared by those in Heaven.
Therefore, we see in these two passages three realities about Hell.
- Hell exists due to our free choices to either do good or evil.
- Those who reside in Hell do so of their own freewill.
- Hell is eternal and those who exist in Hell suffer eternally in their resurrected, physical bodies.
The subject of Hell does not often come up. People typically avoid thoughts of their own eternal destination. The sad reality about Hell is that no one need go there. If they end up there, they chose it. God offers eternal life in Heaven, but only to those who wish to go there. As C.S. Lewis stated in The Great Divorce, “No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.” The door is there, and Christ waits to open it to all who wish to enter.