Know the Faith: The Doctrine of Hell

by Michael Lofton  •  •  April 26, 2015   

Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium on Hell

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It is undeniable that many—both clergy and laity—no longer concern themselves with evangelization. One of the reasons is because many no longer believe in the reality of Hell. Either they explicitely deny the existence of Hell, or they believe we may have a reasonable hope no one will go there—if there even is such a place. Both views are completely contrary to the Catholic faith, as we will see by examining some of what Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium say about hell.

Scripture on Hell

Scripture clearly affirms that there are people in Hell. For example, the Book of Revelation describes those who, on the Day of Judgment, will be cast into Hell:

And I saw a great white throne, and one sitting upon it, from whose face the earth and heaven fled away, and there was no place found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing in the presence of the throne, and the books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged by those things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and hell gave up their dead that were in them; and they were judged every one according to their works. And hell and death were cast into the pool of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life, was cast into the pool of fire. (Revelation 20:11–15.)

Jesus Himself taught that some will be denied entrance into Heaven. “And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, you that work iniquity” (Matthew 7:23). Jesus also taught that Hell will be for eternity. “Then he shall say to them also that shall be on his left hand: Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41). The Lord Jesus even indicated that the majority of people go to Hell. “How narrow is the gate, and strait is the way that leadeth to life: and few there are that find it! (Matthew 7:14).

Saint Paul also describes those who will go to Hell: “Know you not that the unjust shall not possess the kingdom of God? Do not err: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor the effeminate, nor liers with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor railers, nor extortioners, shall possess the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9–10).

Tradition on Hell

Tradition is replete with attestations to the reality of Hell. Saint Ignatius of Antioch in the early second century said, “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” (Letter to the Ephesians, 16:1–2). Also in the second century, St. Irenaeus said, “[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” (Against Heresies, 1:10:1). Even St. Cyprian in the third century attested to the reality of Hell:

An ever-burning Gehenna and the punishment of being devoured by living flames will consume the condemned; nor will there be any way in which the tormented can ever have respite or be at an end. Souls along with their bodies will be preserved for suffering in unlimited agonies. . . . The grief at punishment will then be without the fruit of repentance; weeping will be useless, and prayer ineffectual. Too late will they believe in eternal punishment, who would not believe in eternal life. (To Demetrian, 24)

Saint Cyril in the fourth century likewise said:

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. And righteously will God assign this portion to either company; for we do nothing without the body. We blaspheme with the mouth, and with the mouth we pray. With the body we commit fornication, and with the body we keep chastity. With the hand we rob, and by the hand we bestow alms; and the rest in like manner. Since then the body has been our minister in all things, it shall also share with us in the future the fruits of the past. (Catechetical Lectures, 18:19)

The Magisterium on Hell

The Magisterium of the Catholic Church has also spoken about Hell. The Ecumenical Council of Florence decreed, “But the souls of those who depart this life in actual mortal sin, or in original sin alone, go down straightaway to Hell to be punished, but with unequal pains” (Session 5).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has an entire section on Hell:

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.” . . . 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.” (1033–1037)

Clearly, Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium all testify to the reality of Hell. For this reason, we must make every effort to help souls avoid this place—including our own.


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