Hell is one of the most feared and dramatized places discussed in human history. It teases the imagination, terrifies the soul and entertains the thrill seeker. It is seen by some as a metaphysical reality while to others a mythical place. It serves as a source of conformity for others but also a deterrent to many others. It is described in countless accounts in literature creating a place that may sometimes be more fantastical and mythical than plausible and real. Through all of these feelings and interpretations, one thing can be known, it is real and that is terrifying enough.
Ideas of Hell as a physical place have existed in humanity’s imagination for centuries. The attempt to understand a metaphysical reality in human terms. These attempts are equally as difficult as to explain Heaven. The human mind cannot comprehend the darkness and putrid evil of such a place but it attempts to do so with illustrations and comparisons to the most horrid deeds of Earth. From these depictions, humanity has created numerous visions of Hell, through Dante’s Inferno and Milton’s Paradise Lost to even ancient Greek mythologies of Hades.
Scripture and Tradition on Hell
Scripture too paints a physical description of Hell. Like many other texts, Scripture prompts one to the image of fire and brimstone. This appears to be one of the chief characteristics of Hell found throughout Scripture and all of its books both in the Old and New Testament. In the book of Mark, the evangelist states, “And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire (Mark 9:43)”. Matthew points out regarding the wicked, that they will be thrown into And thrown “fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 13:42)”. Revelation 20:13-15 proclaims “And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”
The early Christian Church Fathers also held a concrete idea of Hell as a place of torment for the wicked. Again, the characteristic of fire is a main theme. In his Letter to the Ephesians, St. Ignatius of Antioch declares, “Corrupters of families will not inherit the kingdom of God. And if they who do these things according to the flesh suffer death, how much more if a man corrupt by evil teaching the faith of God for the sake of which Jesus Christ was crucified? A man become so foul will depart into unquenchable fire: and so will anyone who listens to him.”
In Second Clement, St Clement warns that “If we do the will of Christ, we shall obtain rest; but if not, if we neglect his commandments, nothing will rescue us from eternal punishment”. St. Irenaeus also warns in his work, “Against Heresies” that “[God will] send the spiritual forces of wickedness, and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, and the impious, unjust, lawless, and blasphemous among men into everlasting fire” In his “Catechetical Lectures”, St Cyril of Jerusalem remarks, “We shall be raised therefore, all with our bodies eternal, but not all with bodies alike: for if a man is righteous, he will receive a heavenly body, that he may be able worthily to hold converse with angels; but if a man is a sinner, he shall receive an eternal body, fitted to endure the penalties of sins, that he may burn eternally in fire, nor ever be consumed.
The idea of Hell pre-dated Christian concepts in Scripture as well. The idea of the second death and the place for the cursed is clearly indicated before the coming of Christ. Deuteronomy 32:22 states, “For a fire is kindled by my anger, and it burns to the depths of Sheol, devours the earth and its increase, and sets on fire the foundations of the mountains.”. Sheol is the Jewish word describing Hell and this term is referenced throughout the Old Testament. Isaiah declares, “But you are brought down to Sheol, to the far reaches of the pit”. Psalm 116;3 cries, “The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish”. Job laments, “It is higher than heaven—what can you do? Deeper than Sheol—what can you know (Job: 11:8)”.
From this small sample source of numerous writings in Scripture and the Early Church, one can come to some basic conclusions about Hell. First, Hell is eternal and forever. It is the second death for the wicked. It consumes individuals in darkness, gnashing of teeth, despair and fire. One enters into Hell by rejecting the gift of Christ of eternal life, by rejecting His commandments and choosing wickedness. It is place for murderers, immoral souls, blasphemers and those who choose the “beast”.
In one’s attempt to understand Hell, writers over the centuries have attempted to describe it. Many times these descriptions are based upon humanity’s greatest fears and torments, but all ideas point towards an intense picture of fire. Fire seems to be the central concept of Hell. There is also an idea that many are sent to Hell and that within Hell there is an order under the demons and Lucifer. The concept of Hell as a kingdom. For it is said “better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven”.
From a theological perspective what can one honestly expect from Hell despite these vivid images?
Despite literature and images, from a theological perspective, what can one expect from Hell? First, it is important to strip the element of human imaging that attempts to compare human torment to Hell. Hell is something far more grave and intense than any depraved imagination can ever imagine. No horror movie can capture the terrifying nature of Hell. Hell is something a real place but for purposes of finite human nature it avoids complete human comprehension. Is there fire? There is obviously some form of physical pain in Hell–Scripture alludes to it. Scripture may be utilizing a more poetic description or a physical description. With so much description throughout so many texts of the Bible regarding the fire of Hell it would be difficult to discuss this description as a metaphor, but beyond this, what can theology teach one about the nature of Hell without being over indulgent in describing it to its walls or the types of torments awaiting?
First and foremost, Hell is the absence of God. The human will seeks the greatest good. Throughout life this elusive happiness is refused to humanity in the temporal fallen world. One can find brief moments of happiness, but ultimately, death or loss tears the good away from the person. Those who see the through the illusion of this world understand that the ultimate good is God but even so fail to grasp the perfection of God.
Once the soul is fully exposed to the grandeur of God, it cannot look away, it sees the perfect good for what it is. God is the perfect good. He is perfect love. He is perfect happiness. The soul is overloaded with an immense joy that it cannot exist if not for the grace of God. When this perfection is presented, one is made worthy through the blood of Christ. All are unworthy, but those who loved God, who loved Christ, will accept the invitation. Those who rejected Him in this world, cannot accept. There will has been made, but they have also seen. They wish to accept, they know they must accept, but their corrupted will prevents them from accepting.
The simple reality that they now know what God is and cannot have God thrusts them away from His glory. With the hate they held on Earth, now magnified, they fall into the abyss with Satan and his fallen angels. There the greatest pain of Hell is separation from God and the refusal to accept His mercy.
From this separation, exists a darkness from the light. A terrible darkness of the soul consumed with every vice imaginable. Pure hatred and scorn for everyone and everything ever known. The souls are thrown into a death pit of pure hate and malice for each other. Souls tear upon souls, predators prey upon weaker, but all are predator and prey. There is no joy for the demons even. The demons themselves are tormented by the same separation. They tear upon each other and a chaotic survival of the fittest erupts. There is no order or true Lord of Hell, but only hate and vice consumed with the lack of God’s presence.
When the body resurrects, an added torment emerges, where the same body on Earth shares in the same torment of the soul. No doubt, this is the fire spoken of in Scripture.
Aquinas and Hell
From a deeper theological perspective, St Thomas Aquinas taught 7 ideas from a philosophical point regarding Hell. He teaches that despite their fall, God still loves every soul in Hell. Aquinas teaches that some suffer more than others in Hell, albeit completely. He teaches also that the souls cannot repent but only see the error in their ways. Aquinas continues that the punishment hence is eternal. In regards to hatred towards God, Aquinas points out that the souls know what God is, so directly they cannot but they can be hateful since their will does not meet God’s will. He also teaches that the soul in Hell cannot wish non existence for it fundamental against the will to exist, hence all the more torture of their unfortunate fate. Finally, Aquinas points out that while before the final judgement, those in Hell may see the blessed in Heaven, afterwards, there will be an eternal separation
Who Goes to Hell?
Scripture clearly lists the types of sins and vices that send a soul to Hell. Ultimately, God is seen as a judge, but the prosecutor is oneself. One chooses Hell, God does not send one to Hell. In Revelation, Christ separates the sheep from the goats, but souls have already chosen their nature. As judge, Christ merely presents the evidence.
Sin and vice are only one aspect of going to Hell. The other is the heart of the human being. A human being must literally choose to hate God, hate his neighbor and refuse any sign of remorse. Like Abraham and God in the story of Sodom, God is more than merciful to save even one, if one shows remorse. The soul that goes to Hell not only commits evil and immoral actions but becomes those actions himself. The soul fully rejects God and refuses to repent.
As for souls who are not baptized or Christian, these souls can find mercy. Many live in ignorance of the truth in this world. They may live good lives but not know or fully understand the good news of Christ. Through their good action and true heart, God’s mercy and the sacrifice of Christ can save these souls but they need prayers. It is also important to note, these souls are accountable for what they knew. Imagine how much more accountable a Christian will be before Christ?
The classical theological question has always been can God forgive the devil? The answer is yes. If Satan himself, his demons and all souls in Hell, begged for mercy, God would grant it. However, due to the corruption of their natures and the complete hate that has possessed their very nature, one who chooses Hell chooses it eternally. They are so proud, so full of contempt, that the spirit or soul will never kneel before God.
Many believe that Hell cannot be forever, but it is. They believe that a good God would never allow everyone to suffer forever. This false belief is based on the fact they erroneously believe God sends a soul to Hell. When one understands the deformity and evil of a corrupted being and its free will, then one can see God is merciful but cannot change the heart of a creature.
Hence one can expect from a theological perspective that Hell is a place devoid of God and love. This is the primary pain and torment of Hell. Besides that, Hell is forever by choice and a place for the wicked who reject God. Later one’s body is re-united with the corrupted soul to share in the pains, which are described in Scripture as fire. Everything else is secondary and speculative. There are theories and descriptions, great literature and stories, but they are merely human attempts to grasp the horrendous nature of such a dark place.
If one wishes to avoid Hell, accept Christ, accept His commandments and love one’s neighbor as oneself. Everyday tell God that you love him and ask for the grace to never fall into such a horrible place. If you love God, if you choose God, there is a very high chance you will never reject Him and find yourself in such a terrible spot.
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Scriptures On Hell. Access here
What the Early Church Believed: Hell. Catholic Answers. August 10th, 2004. Access here
Hell. Carol Zalesky. Britannica. Access here
Hell. Wikipedia. Access here
Seven Teachings on Hell From St. Thomas Aquinas. Msg. Charles Pope. June 17th, 2020. Access here