Scripture makes it quite clear that some people really will go to hell. In speaking of the last judgement, for example, the Gospel of John states, “Those who have done right shall rise to live; the evildoers shall rise to be damned.” Matthew’s Gospel makes the same point. Furthermore, Catholic Sacred Tradition holds that hell begins at the moment of death and that it lasts forever. What is it like in hell?
Hell is spending eternity without Gd. In seven different places in the Gospels, Jesus described one’s state in hell as “wailing and grinding of teeth.” These remarks are a symbolic description of the agony and frustration suffered by those in hell. Other scriptural references to hell mention an unquenchable fire– again, a symbolic description that the suffering endures forever. In addition, hell requires spending eternity with other selfish and wicked spirits– including Satan and his army of fallen angels. “But how can a loving and merciful God consign His children to such a horrible state?” people often ask. Actually, it is not God who sends people to hell; it is people who choose to go there. Catholic teaching on this subject makes it clear that there are indeed people who misuse the freedom given them by God, choosing to live selfishly at the expense of others.
Nevertheless, it is wrong to judge the heart of another solely on the basis of his actions. It may very will be that some people do bad things, buy they are not inwardly free when they do them– such as when people act out of a compulsion rooted in an illness of some kind. The real issue here, you see, is what we do with the freedom God has given us. The Gospel of Luke puts it this way: “When much has been given a man, much will be required of him. More will be asked of a man to whom more has been given.” That is why it is not for us to pass judgement on others, for we do not really know the level of freedom out of which their wrongful behavior– and we should do everything in our power to discourage wickedness; buy only God can judge the heart.
What the doctrine on hell makes clear is that the hearts of many will indeed by antagonistic to God. If that is the case, then God, who is just as well as merciful, will simply allow the soul to suffer the consequences of its own choice: life without Him in eternity. The doctrine of hell provides a strong reminder to us that there are consequences for misusing our freedom. Life is not a joke or a game; still less is it an absurd accident. Life is, instead an opportunity to use our freedom to choose to be God’s children. The stakes are immensely high: eternal life or eternal damnation.
After all is said and done, those are the options which await us in eternity. Furthermore, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus said: “The way that leads to damnation is wide, the road is clear, and many choose to travel it. But how narrow is the gate that leads to life, how rough is the road, and how few there are who find it.” Never, therefore, should we take it for granted that our destiny is with God in Heaven. So long as we remain the custodians of our own freedom, we must continue to choose to live as God has called us to live.