The Mystery of Hell

Purgatory (bas relief)

As the world has moved towards a relativistic stance in relation to the existence of objective truth, then the idea of hell, and the full reality of this dogma, is not surprisingly something the secular world wants to be confronted with. If objective truth in the general sense is not acknowledged, then it also follows that objective moral truth, outlining how we should live our lives, will also not be accepted. These are the commandments and beatitudes set out in the gospel. Is it any wonder then that the dogma of hell, the most uncomfortable of all the Church’s teachings, will also not be accepted? This is evidenced by the fact that, in the main, it is a truth “omitted” from the pulpit, and when it is considered, the full reality of hell is often minimized. The wisdom of St. Luke becomes a guiding principle: “Anyone who is trustworthy in little things, is trustworthy in great; anyone who is dishonest in little things, is dishonest in great” (Lk 16:10). This principle, applied to truth, is revealing. If objective truth, in general, and moral truth, in particular, are made relative to the individual person, then it follows that this will also be the case for the most significant truth of all, i.e., the loss of a soul for all eternity in hell. This is not to say that objective and moral truth are not grave matters, but in comparison to the full truth about the doctrine of hell, they are of less magnitude in terms of their seriousness. Sin is serious, and so denying objective moral truth is clearly harmful to the individual who does this. But there is always a path of repentance and conversion open to the individual. For the individual condemned to hell, there is no hope, only despair and eternal misery.

If a person does not exhibit a holy fear of God, then essentially, the full reality of hell is not acknowledged. The Holy Spirit dwelling intimately within us produces the fruit of this gift: a loving fear of God, and conscious awareness of the immensity of his love and, significantly, his justice. But how do we explain the ultimate paradox of all paradoxes? God in his infinite mercy can forgive all the sins of the world, and if they were committed by just one person, he would be able to forgive them. The entirety of mankind’s sin is only a drop in his infinite mercy. Yet, the soul darkened by mortal sin, and therefore repulsed by the light and love of God, can condemn itself to hell for all eternity for sins that are a mere fraction of what have been committed by mankind. Where is the justice in that? Surely, this is unfair, as these are only temporal, finite sins, and in the bigger scheme of things, they are infinitesimal in comparison to the entirety of man’s sins. Yet the soul will suffer for an eternity the horrors of hell. Even more startling is the fact that a person willingly chooses this destiny. While the torments of the damned are truly chosen, they could not truly be wished upon by anyone, as St. Teresa of Avila describes in her autobiography, having herself experienced the full horrors of hell:

For if we see someone on earth whom we especially love suffering great trials or pains, our very nature seems to awaken our compassion, and the more dire his sufferings, the greater our distress. Who, then, could bear to see a soul endlessly tormented in this most terrible trial of all? No heart could possibly endure it without the most hideous affliction. For if earthly tortures which we know have their limits, and end with death, move us to compassion, I do not know how we can look calmly on those others that are endless, and see the devil carrying off as many souls as he does everyday.1

St. Catherine of Siena describes how it was not the sins committed by Judas which displeased God the most, but the despair, and the scorning of his mercy. This led him to judge his own sins greater than God’s mercy.

This is that sin which is never forgiven, now or ever: the refusal, the scorning, of my mercy. For this offends me more than all the other sins they have committed. So the despair of Judas displeased me more, and was a greater insult to my Son, than his betrayal had been. Therefore, such as these are reproved for this false judgement of considering their sin to be greater than my mercy, and for this, they are punished with the demons and tortured eternally with them.2

The despair of Judas is different to that experienced by someone who has taken their own life through a whole set of events and circumstances that were beyond their control. In this situation, if the events had not happened, i.e., illness, abuse, loss of a loved one, loss of livelihood, then in all likelihood, the person would not have given in to feelings of despair, and taken their own life. In stating this, it is not my intention to diminish the gravity of suicide. Judas was in control of the choices he made; he willingly stole money, and betrayed Jesus. His despair was driven by a desire to escape from what he had done, and the punishment which was his due. He exhibited no sorrow or contrition for his sins. The person experiencing despair, through unwanted life events, becomes a victim of circumstances, and it is these external factors which drive the person to despair. Throughout their experience, the love of God is completely hidden from their eyes. It is hoped that when they are confronted with the merciful love of God after having taken their own life, that they offer God a heartfelt and contrite heart. Judas, too, was confronted with the merciful love of God, but he remained obstinate in the face of God’s love, with his refusal to repent meaning that he was handed over to divine justice. Not only was he obstinate, but he also scorned God’s mercy. What does it mean to be scornful? It means to look down upon somebody with ridicule, and indignant anger. In the presence of our all-loving God, we are called to offer heart-felt repentance; anything else is perverse and unjust.

Perverse Judgement
It is the perverse judgement that God is not goodness, love, and mercy itself, which is the hugely significant factor. This is even more significant than the number and types of sins committed. If we judge something to be the opposite of what it actually is, then we cannot experience it as it really is, in the full truth of its being. We can come to understand God’s ways through the analogy of our human experiences. Because he is a divine person, and we are made in his image and likeness, we can gain insights into his mysterious ways by exploring our personal and interpersonal experiences. They resemble remotely the invisible divine operations, and enable us to achieve a greater understanding into God’s will for mankind. If a person rashly judges someone as being spiteful, bitter, and jealous, and this is because their attitude towards them is darkened by a life of sin, then the person will not experience their true qualities. If this judgment about someone is obstinately held onto, then nothing about the truth of the person will be experienced.

We can all judge people rashly, and for periods of time, from a few minutes to a few days, see the person in a particular light. The ugly thoughts and feelings we experience cloud our perception of the person. The script we can play in our imagination about someone, when we do not see them in the flesh, can sometimes escalate to all proportions. Yet, how often when we actually see them again in person, do their words and behavior put our imagined grievances into a different light. We can experience this in the workplace. Emails create a barrier in relation to communication and reality. They can fuel a sense of perceived injustice towards someone who has sent us an email. The hostile thoughts and feelings of anger, triggered by an email we receive, can easily lead us to rashly judge another colleague at our workplace. Yet, when we speak to them on the telephone, or see them in person, how often do the imagined grievances seem like an exaggeration? By speaking and listening to them, we can often begin to see things from their perspective. The real gap between the thoughts and feelings we have experienced, and the reality of the situation, begins to emerge.

The devil will use any conflict, or misunderstanding, to incite us to think the worst of someone, and so feed our imaginations with a script that, for the majority of us, thankfully, we would never act upon. The key thing here is that this is part and parcel of our fallen condition, and when we are confronted with evidence that dispels and puts into perspective our imaginings, we respond to this increased light by reviewing our original rash judgement. Imagine the person who rejects the evidence presented in the flesh, and continues to judge the person’s intentions and actions as being essentially in-line with what they privately imagined. Then they will never experience any of the kindness and goodness that the person has. It does not matter how many times the person is kind or generous, it will not be experienced as such. The person blinded in their darkened attitude will judge their goodness to be evil. God is a divine person, so the blinded soul in a similar way, cannot experience any of God’s goodness and love because they have perversely judged God to be the opposite.

The Torments of Hell
Every person, irrespective of whether they believe in God or not, has the assistance of actual grace. Actual grace is a temporary help given by God at each moment to bring each person closer to doing his will. Since God is absolute love, his will at each moment is to love in a manner that reflects the self-giving love which is his core attribute. It may be an inspiration to help another person who we see in distress, or the sanction of our conscience – the uncomfortable feelings we experience after doing something wrong. It can also be what our neighbors say to us – they see us as we really are, and can often verbally, and non-verbally, reflect back to us the truth about our behavior. It can also be the troubles and difficulties that we experience in life. We get an idea of the actual graces communicated to us in the illuminating passage below:

Tell sinners that I am always waiting for them, that I listen intently to the beating of their hearts…when will it beat for me? Write that I am speaking to them through their remorse of conscience, through their failures and sufferings, through thunderstorms, through the voice of the Church. And if they bring all My graces to naught, I begin to be angry with them, leaving them alone, and giving them what they want.3

The last line of Jesus’ words to St. Faustina in the passage above makes chilling reading. We automatically and naturally think that God’s anger is expressed in the troubles and difficulties that we personally experience, as well as the natural disasters that afflict the world. To experience the anger of God is to lose his divine protection. It is to be left alone without his many graces calling us to wake up to the reality of our situation, and gradually come closer to discovering how much he loves us.

The actual graces communicated by the finger of God, which have been continually rejected in the life of a condemned soul, could be interpreted as representing the tortuous fires of hell. This is the fire of the Holy Spirit that has been offended throughout a person’s life. The person’s guardian angel, who has invisibly sought to protect, guide, and inspire each of soul to do what is good, does not keep them company for all eternity – instead it is the devil which they have willingly sought to follow. Finally, the echo of God’s voice, the person’s conscience, becomes the worm that never dies, crying out to the soul, continually reminding them of the voice of love which they have spurned. These are the three principle torments experienced by the soul in hell. If these three tortures are not enough, the worst torment experienced by the soul is being deprived of seeing the loving God who created each one of us. What is significant here is that every single person born, irrespective of their personal belief, has protection from their guardian angel, the warnings and sanctions experienced from their conscience, as well as the actual graces communicated by the Holy Spirit. Our Father in heaven who lovingly created us, has given every soul born the necessary means to achieve their personal salvation. The souls in hell are acutely and painfully aware of this, and in their rejection of his merciful love, they experience what words can only dimly capture.

The first is that these souls are deprived of seeing me. This is so painful for them that if they could, they would choose the sight of me along with the fire and excruciating torments, rather than freedom from their pains without seeing me. The first suffering revives the worm of conscience, and this is their second torment. For when they see that their sinfulness has deprived them of me, and of the company of the angels, and made them worthy instead of seeing the demons and sharing their fellowship, conscience gnaws away at them constantly. The sight of the devil is their third suffering, and it doubles every other torment. Their suffering is even worse because they see the devil as he really is–more horrible than the human heart can imagine. The fourth torment is fire. This fire burns without consuming, for the soul cannot be consumed, since it is not material (such as fire could consume) but spiritual. But in my divine justice, I allow the fire to burn these souls mightily, tormenting them without consuming them. And the tremendous pain of this torturous burning has as many forms as the forms of their sins, and is more or less severe in proportion to their sins. From these four torments come all the others, with cold and heat and gnashing of teeth.4

How can we understand that the greatest pain of the souls in hell is to be deprived of the sight of God? If they have spurned him their whole lives, and delighted in evil, how can their greatest pain be the loss of his presence? We are all made to love, but as we also know, love can quickly turn to hate. If we consider the break-up of a relationship where the aggrieved partner has lost the love of their life, their love can sometimes quickly turn to hate. They long to be reunited with their loved one, yet any thoughts about them quickly turn to hate and revenge for having been wronged. Even if they are entirely to blame for the break-up of the relationship,, their loss is painful, and they are in a constant turmoil of wanting essentially what they love and hate simultaneously. This contradictory state gives us an idea of what the souls in hell must suffer.

The obstinate soul is still, by its very nature, inclined to love God more than itself, just as the hand loves the body more than itself, and hence exposes itself naturally to preserve that body. This natural inclination has indeed been weakened by sin, but it continues to exist in the condemned soul. Father Monsabre says: The condemned soul loves God, has hunger for God. It loves Him in order to satisfy itself.” On the other hand, the soul has a horror of God, an aversion which comes from unrepented sin which still holds it captive. Continuing to judge according to its unregulated inclination, it has not only lost charity, but has acquired a hatred of God. Thus, it is lacerated by an interior contradiction. It is carried toward the source of its natural life, but it detests the just judge, and expresses its rage by blasphemy. Often, the Gospel repeats: “There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”5

So, the soul that has been created by love itself; and, made for love, it is to endure an eternal agony of being filled with hatred and despair towards their loving creator. This is not how God wants it to be, and when reflecting on the many opportunities a soul has to accept the merciful love of God, hell in all reality should be empty. However, we should not delude ourselves that this is the case as the “Doctor of Divine Mercy” was led down into the chasm of hell to declare both its existence, and the painful fact of “how awesomely large and extensive it is”.

Today, I was led by an Angel to the chasms of hell. It is a place of great torture; how awesomely large and extensive it is! The kinds of tortures I saw: the first torture that constitutes hell is the loss of God; the second is perpetual remorse of conscience; the third is that one’s condition will never change; (160) the fourth is the fire that will penetrate the soul without destroying it – a terrible suffering, since it is purely spiritual fire, lit by God’s anger; the fifth torture is continual darkness and a terrible suffocating smell, and despite the darkness, the devils and the souls of the damned see each other and all the evil, both of others and their own; the sixth torture is the constant company of Satan; the seventh torture is horrible despair, hatred of God, vile words, curses and blasphemies. These are the tortures suffered by all the damned together, but that is not the end of the sufferings. There are special tortures destined for particular souls. These are the torments of the senses. Each soul undergoes terrible and indescribable sufferings, related to the manner in which it has sinned. There are caverns and pits of torture where one form of agony differs from another. I would have died at the very sight of these tortures if the omnipotence of God had not supported me. Let the sinner know that he will be tortured throughout all eternity, in those senses which he made use of to sin. (161) I am writing this at the command of God, so that no soul may find an excuse by saying there is no hell, or that nobody has ever been there, and so no one can say what it is like. I, Sister Faustina, by the order of God, have visited the abysses of hell so that I might tell souls about it and testify to its existence. I cannot speak about it now; but I have received a command from God to leave it in writing. The devils were full of hatred for me, but they had to obey me at the command of God. What I have written is but a pale shadow of the things I saw. But I noticed one thing: that most of the souls there are those who disbelieved that there is a hell. When I came to, I could hardly recover from the fright. How terribly souls suffer there! Consequently, I pray even more fervently for the conversion of sinners. I incessantly plead God’s mercy upon them. O my Jesus, I would rather be in agony until the end of the world, amidst the greatest sufferings, than offend You by the least sin.6

God’s Intense Desire for our Salvation
The grave reality of hell is offset by the fact that God “wants everyone to be saved and reach full knowledge of the truth” (1Tim: 2-4). God also tries in enumerable ways to wake us up from deadly sin in, “so many ways your tongue could never describe them”.

Also, God does not condemn a soul to hell. They choose it freely and willingly.

Oh, how beyond comprehension is God’s mercy! But–horror!–there are also souls who voluntarily and consciously reject and scorn this grace! Although a person is at the point of death, the merciful God gives the soul that interior, vivid moment, so that if the soul is willing, it has the possibility of returning to God. But sometimes, the obduracy in souls is so great that consciously they choose hell; they [thus] make useless all the prayers that other souls offer to God for them, and even the efforts of God Himself…7

Finally, God desires that we too help him save souls by praying for the conversion of sinners.

Today, I heard a voice in my soul: The loss of each soul plunges me into mortal sadness. You always console Me when you pray for sinners. The prayer most pleasing to Me is prayer for the conversion of sinners. Know, my daughter, that this prayer is always heard and answered.8

  1. The Life of St. Teresa of Avila by Herself. Translated by J.M. Cohen. Penguin Books, 1957, p 235.
  2. Catherine of Siena The Dialogue: The Classics of Western Spirituality. Translated by Suzanne Noffke, O.P. Paulist Press New York, 1980 p 79.
  3. Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska: Divine Mercy in My Soul. Marian Press, Stockbridge MA, 2005, Entry 1728, p 610
  4. Catherine of Siena The Dialogue: The Classics of Western Spirituality. Translated by Suzanne Noffke, O.P. Paulist Press New York, 1980 pp 80-81
  5. Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P. Life Everlasting and the Immensity of the Soul: A Theological Treatise on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. Translated by Rev. Patrick Cummins, O.S.B., Tan Books and Publishers, Inc, 1991, pp 120-121.
  6. Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska: Divine Mercy in My Soul. Marian Press, Stockbridge MA, 2005, Entry 741
  7. Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska: Divine Mercy in My Soul. Marian Press, Stockbridge MA, 2005, Entry 1698, pp 600-601.
  8. Ibid: pp 497-498.
Brent Withers About Brent Withers

Brent Withers is originally from New Zealand. He is now living in Farnborough, England, with his wife and three young children. He returned to the Catholic Church about ten years ago after being away for about twenty or so years. He has previously published essays with the Homiletic & Pastoral Review. Presently, he is employed as a commissioning manager for mental health services in an inner London City borough.


  1. Avatar John James says:

    There is a terrible silence, within the Church, about the ‘Last Things’
    I cannot recall a homily about those topics, Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell.
    I confess hell is really disconcerting but Jesus spoke often about it.
    I also grieve at the thought of anyone arriving there, and oddly, I have sometimes wondered about people I have known and loved whose life was not ostensibly good.
    I appreciate God’s mercy, so all I can do is place them in His care.
    One of the most beautiful passages in the Old Testament is that exchange between Abraham and God as Abraham pleads for Sodom.
    May we all have someone to plead for us.
    Our Holy Mother, the Church, will surely do so!
    We must ask Joseph and Our lady for their help at the hour of our death and , of course, all our lives.


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