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10 Questions and Answers About Hell

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Bede is an artist with an interest in theology and mysticism.

St. Faustina Kowalska and Two Aspects of God's Nature

St. Faustina Kowalska (1905-38) occupies a special place in my heart. She's a great mystic, humble, and a model for every virtue. Jesus likewise holds her dear as his "Apostle of Mercy." He gave her this title because it was her mission to make known his unfathomable mercy before the "Day of Justice" arrives.

She wrote down his words at the command of her spiritual director. These collected writings, known as The Diary of St. Maria Faustina: Divine Mercy in My Soul, emphasize the intensity of God's love for souls, but on occasion, his hot wrath in regards to sin.

"Hot wrath? I thought God was a big pushover like grandpa?" While St. Faustina assures us that there are no words to adequately express God's loving-kindness, his justice cannot thereby be minimized. The two aspects are one in God.

Hence, to balance the picture, God sent St. Faustina on a tour of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory in the company of her guardian angel. She saw and described the sheer happiness of heaven and the full horrors of Hell. How does one reconcile this apparent contradiction—the God of tender mercy and the God of burning wrath? This seeming dichotomy makes better sense by understanding what Divine justice is all about.

Questions Covered in This Article

  1. What is the meaning of Divine justice?
  2. How can God give such a severe punishment for sin?
  3. Is Hell ultimately a personal choice?
  4. What is the so-called "Fatima vision of Hell?"
  5. What are the chief punishments in Hell?
  6. What sins lead most souls to Hell?
  7. How do I avoid going to Hell?
  8. Has a contemporary person seen Hell?
  9. Do all non-Christians go to Hell?
  10. How can I enjoy heaven if some of my loved ones are not there?

1. What is the meaning of Divine justice?

We humans understand the basic notion of justice. For example, when a boy throws chewing gum in his sister's golden curls, the parents take action with discipline, such as a good spanking. Again, when the boy helps his sister each day with her homework, the parents reward him in some way.

Hence, the concept of justice resonates with our human consciousness—it's as though hardwired into our system. In a word, it simply makes sense. After all, let's imagine a society without the structures of justice: employees would not be compensated, good students would go unrewarded, crime would reign, and in general, a sense of rightness would spin off the table. The principles of justice are therefore as necessary to right order as the physical laws that govern the universe.

Consequently, the dynamics of human justice make Divine justice more sensible. It is reasonable that God gives each person his or her due: either rewards for goodness or punishment for wickedness. That's the straightforward meaning of Divine justice.

What confounds the mind, however, is God's vindictive justice: souls actually go to unending torment in Hell. How does one begin to fathom such radical severity? The answer resides in God's infinite dignity...


2. How can God give such a severe punishment for sin?

While human and Divine justice necessarily bear similarities, the difference emerges through an understanding of God's supreme dignity. The magnitude of punishment corresponds to the dignity of the person offended. To understand this reality, St. Thomas Aquinas explains Hell in terms of proportional justice. He says,

"A sin that is against God is infinite; the higher the person against whom it is committed, the graver the sin—it is more criminal to strike the head of state than a private citizen—and God is of infinite greatness. Therefore an infinite punishment is deserved for a sin committed against Him.” (Summa Theologica, Ia2ae. 87, 4)

In modern terms, let's suppose I were to punch a waiter because he forgot the butter. I would likely be arrested for assault and go to the local jail for a few days. If I were to punch a policeman, the punishment would be yet more severe, quite possibly ten years in prison.

However, if I were to punch the president of the United States, I would sit in federal prison for a long time, perhaps even for life. Therefore, the degree of punishment escalates in proportion to the dignity of the person offended. Since God's dignity is infinite, the consequence of unrepented mortal sin is an infinite punishment.

3. Is Hell ultimately a personal choice?

Unlike irrational animals, God created angels and human beings as persons—that is, they possess an intellect (reason) and will, and are therefore like God Himself. Whereas the angels, with their superior intellect, determined their fate by one choice, human beings have a continuous series of choices on earth. Fortunately, while the merciful God allows humans to repair bad choices, He ultimately holds them accountable for their actions at death.

Hence, just as parents exercise justice toward their children for their good or bad behavior, so God's reward system, known as distributive justice, renders to each person their due—good or bad—according to their choices made on earth. "I am He who searches the mind and heart and I will give to each of you as your works deserve." (Rev. 2:23)

Therefore, damnation or salvation is ultimately a personal choice because souls can choose or refuse God's embrace. As St. Augustine puts it, "God created us without our willing it but He will not save us without our willing it." (St. Augustine, Sermon 169, 11, 13: PL 38, 923)

God desires that we make the right choice and so find life, as He made known to Moses:

"I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days." (Gen 30:19-20)


4. What is the so-called "Fatima vision of Hell?"

In the year 1917, the Virgin Mary appeared six times to three children, ages 6, 7, and 9, in Fatima, Portugal. In her July 13 appearance, the Virgin spoke of future events, such as the end of World War I, the start of World War II, and the spreading of Russia's "errors" which would cause much suffering on the earth.

However, the most memorable moment was when Mary gave the children a glimpse of Hell. Lucia Santos, the eldest of the children, describes rays of light emerging from the Virgin's hands which made an opening in the earth. Through this opening, the children saw a gigantic sea of fire.

Lucia relates the following:

"Plunged in this fire were demons and souls in human form, like transparent burning embers, all blackened or burnished bronze, floating about in the conflagration, now raised into the air by the flames that issued from within themselves together with great clouds of smoke now falling back on every side like sparks in huge fires, without weight or equilibrium, amid shrieks and groans of pain and despair, which horrified us and made us tremble with fear. The demons were distinguished by their terrifying and repellent likeness to frightful and unknown animals, black and transparent like burning coals."

Lucia, who later became a Carmelite nun, said she would have died of fright had not the Virgin promised heaven to them beforehand.

5. What are the chief punishments in Hell?

As mentioned, St. Faustina visited Hell and by God's command, described the chief sufferings there. These sufferings include:

  1. The permanent loss of God
  2. Perpetual remorse of conscience
  3. That one's condition will never change
  4. The fire that penetrates the soul without destroying it
  5. Continual darkness and a terrible suffocating smell; yet, despite the darkness, the devils and the souls of the damned see each other and their sins
  6. The constant company of Satan
  7. Horrible despair, hatred of God, vile words, curses, and blasphemies

6. What sins lead most souls to Hell?

Hell is in consequence of unrepented mortal sin. For a sin to be mortal, it must 1) be a serious offense against God, known as "grave matter"; 2) it must be committed with full knowledge; and 3) there must be full, deliberate consent.

Grave matter includes involvement in witchcraft or other cult practices, hatred of God and his teaching, blasphemy, serious slander of another person, murder, serious theft, having an abortion or assisting with it in any way, cohabitation before marriage, internet pornography, fornication, adultery, homosexual acts, and prostitution, are some examples of mortal sins.

7. How do I avoid going to Hell?

  • Avoid mortal sin as though it were lethal poison.
  • If you fell, go to sacramental confession soon.
  • Pray frequently, particularly the Rosary and meditation on Christ's Passion.
  • Perform works of mercy, either in deed, word, or prayer.
  • Preserve a pure heart and avoid the occasions of sin.
  • Bear the sufferings of life with patience.
  • Have a sincere love for the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, and St. Michael.
  • Receive the Eucharist.
  • Wear the Brown Scapular. More info may be found here.

8. Has a contemporary person seen Hell?

Fr. Jose Maniyangat (b. 1949), originally from Kerala, India, and now a priest of the diocese of Jacksonville, Florida, describes the day he experienced death in his body. He was riding a motorcycle to say Mass in northern Kerala (Sunday, April 14, 1985), when he was hit head-on by a drunk driver. His soul left his body and he was immediately greeted by his guardian angel who told him, "I am going to take you to Heaven; the Lord wants to meet you and talk with you." But, the angel said he was first going to show him Hell and Purgatory.

Fr. Jose describes Hell in these terms:

"It was an awful sight! I saw Satan and the devils, an unquenchable fire of about 2,000 Fahrenheit degrees, worms crawling, people screaming and fighting, and others being tortured by demons. The angel told me that all these sufferings were due to unrepented mortal sins. Then, I understood that there are seven degrees of suffering or levels according to the number and kinds of mortal sins committed in their earthly lives. The souls looked very ugly, cruel, and horrific. It was a fearful experience. I saw people whom I knew but I am not allowed to reveal their identities. The sins that convicted them were mainly abortion, homosexuality, euthanasia, hatefulness, unforgiveness, and sacrilege. The angel told me that if they had repented they would have avoided Hell and gone instead to Purgatory."

9. Do all non-Christians go to Hell?

While the Catholic Church teaches that salvation is through Christ alone, the Vatican II Council teaches that non-Christians may be saved by indirect means, such as through the natural law.

"Those also can attain to everlasting salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the gospel of Christ or his Church, yet sincerely seek God and, moved by grace, strive by their deeds to do his will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does divine Providence deny the help necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God, but who strive to live a good life, thanks to his grace." (Vatican II Documents, Lumen Gentium, no. 16).

10. How can I enjoy heaven if some of my loved ones are not there?

Heaven is perfect bliss without any sorrow or pain. Yet, would not the absence of persons we loved on earth translate into clouded happiness? In a manner unknown to us now, God knows how to manage this difficulty. We know, for instance, that God suspends the intellectual faculties of memory and will during mystical prayer, as described by Sts. Teresa of Avila and St. Faustina. These faculties don't function properly because God absorbs the soul entirely into his Being.

While mystics experience this on earth in an imperfect manner, it is fully realized in the Beatific Vision. God will therefore eradicate every cause of sorrow or sense of loss, as Scripture says: "God will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." (Rev. 21:4)

Details from Fra Angelico's painting of the Last Judgment depicting the saved and the damned. San Marco, Florence.

Details from Fra Angelico's painting of the Last Judgment depicting the saved and the damned. San Marco, Florence.

Choose Life

God prefers to be loved as a Father than feared as a judge. He prefers to show mercy rather than punish. Therefore, to entice our wills to choose eternal life and avoid eternal punishment, He made Himself lovable for our sake: as a Child in the manger, as the Good Shepherd, and the ultimate expression, as a victim for our sins on the Cross.

He also explicitly warned of Hell fifteen times and indirectly, over seventy times. He loves souls and does not want their condemnation but He never forces anyone to love or accept Him. He does not violate the free will of his creatures nor predetermine anyone to Hell.

As Scripture says, "God wants all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the Truth." (1 Tim 2:4) He therefore knocks, calls, and opens his arms to allure souls to Himself. However, souls choose their own verdict—eternal blessedness in Heaven or unending pain in Hell. While we have the opportunity, let us choose life.


The Dogma of Hell, by Rev. F.X. Schouppe, S.J., Tan Books, 1989

The Diary of St. Faustina Kowalska: Divine Mercy in My Soul

An article on mortal sin

Fr. Jose Maniyangat's life after death experience

The Fatima vision of Hell

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Bede