"Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake;
some shall live forever,
others shall be an everlasting horror and disgrace.”

—Daniel 12:2

There is a story about a small country parish with a pastor who used to preach “fire and brimstone” homilies. He was on one of his fiercest streaks ever, preaching on sin, damnation and hellfire week after week, when finally one of the little old ladies of the parish got fed up with it. 

One Sunday, when the pastor was preaching on a Gospel like this weekend’s, and referred to the “wailing and grinding of teeth” that goes on in hell, this feisty parishioner sat up straight in the first pew of the church, looked Father straight in the face, and with her lips curled back over her toothless gums, said, “But Pah-der, what ip I don’t hab any teef?” The pastor, without losing any of his composure, looked down sternly at the woman and said in his characteristically booming voice, “My dear lady, on THAT day, teeth will be provided!”

The fire-and-brimstone preacher is a fixture in the American imagination. But the pastoral situation in the U.S. Catholic Church today is very different from the story above. 

We hardly hear about hell anymore. Yet, even a casual reader of the Gospels can’t help but notice that Jesus talks about hell a lot. And our tradition points our reflections to the four “last things” — Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell — during the month of November, as the liturgical year draws to a close. 

St. John Paul II, in his 1994 book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, writes that too often “preachers, catechists, teachers ... no longer have the courage to preach the threat of hell” (p. 183). There are many reasons for this struggle, and I am certainly not holding myself up as a model of courage. This is just an article written by someone who does not want to go to hell for failing to discuss this topic!

The Gospels, and really, all of Scripture make clear that there are two final possibilities after we die — heaven or hell. Remember, those who go to purgatory prepare there to go to heaven.

The passage from the Book of Daniel above is just one example of the scriptural testimony to hell we find outside the Gospels. In the Gospels, we find Jesus teaching directly and repeatedly about the possibility of eternal damnation. In Mark 9:47-48, Jesus warns us, “[I]t is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, where the worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.” And in Matthew 7:13-14, Jesus says, “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.” In Matthew 25:14-30, the Parable of the Talents, we can see that whether we are among the “few” or the “many” depends in large measure on how well we use the gifts God gives to us — the gift of His grace, especially, and the gifts of life, talent, opportunity and resources. The parable concludes with the fate of the man who wasted his talent: “Throw this useless servant into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.”

Of course, right away the question arises: How can a loving God allow a person to go to hell? Perhaps it’s not so easy for us to think of the question God could legitimately ask: How, when I have loved you so much, and given you so much, could you choose to turn away from me? For every person who goes to hell does so because he or she has chosen to turn away from God.

Of course, right away the question arises: How can a loving God allow a person to go to hell? Perhaps it’s not so easy for us to think of the question God could legitimately ask: How, when I have loved you so much, and given you so much, could you choose to turn away from me? For every person who goes to hell does so because he or she has chosen to turn away from God.  

In 1 Timothy 2:4, St. Paul tells us that God “wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth.” God loves every person and gives to every person an opportunity to choose Him and go to heaven. But in His love, God gives us the gift of freedom. He wants us to love him freely, and this gift comes with the terrible possibility of choosing against him, choosing to listen to the lies of Satan about what will make us happy, choosing ourselves, choosing sin.

Even when we make sinful choices, God always forgives us if we will just turn back to Him in the sacrament of penance. But there are people of persistent resistance, people who choose to live and to keep on living in the way they see fit, who do not think they need God. Even with such people, it is possible they truly do not know what they are doing, or they might somehow be impaired and unable to make a fully free choice against God. Remember that in order to commit the kind of sin that breaks off one’s union with God — the kind that requires confession in order to be healed — a person would have to choose something that is gravely wrong, to know it’s wrong, and to make that sinful choice with deliberate consent (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 1857).

So there needs to be a balance to our understanding here. But the typical difficulty today is a failure to think at all about the possibility of hell. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (par. 1035) reminds us of the following:

The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire.” The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.

If the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the Good News, then we might call this teaching about hell the “bad news” that helps us to appreciate and accept the Good News. If we go through life thinking that heaven is the automatic destination for every person who dies, except perhaps for terrorists and serial killers and history’s worst sinners, then we have stripped away a major part of the motivation for living in a way that is faithful to Jesus. We have also stripped away a major part of the motivation for sharing our Catholic faith with others. But this would be a false way of living. 

We do not believe that heaven is every person’s automatic destination, and that being a Catholic is no more than a nice way to live if that’s what “works for you.” We believe that Jesus Christ is “the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25), and that, “Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:18). Again, there might be factors that excuse a given person’s failure to believe explicitly in Jesus or to live the life of a faithful Catholic, factors beyond his or her control, but that does not change the basic truths of the Gospel or how they apply to us.

We do not know exactly what hell is like, other than the fact that it involves eternal separation from God and punishment for one’s sins. It involves a punishing fire, though Dante famously described its lowest pit as being entirely frozen — not a pleasant alternative. 

And the Church has never definitively taught that any particular number or percentage of people is going there. The late-Cardinal Avery Dulles in 2003 wrote an excellent essay for First Things entitled The Population of Hell. Cardinal Dulles provides a most helpful historical survey of the question, though he might be charged with making too much allowance for certain modern theories that some other theologians would accuse of flirting with universalism. 

What we know is that hell exists, and that it is a real possibility for those who knowingly and freely choose against Jesus Christ and his Church without repenting and turning back to him for mercy. And this brings us to the word that consoles us in the face of the “bad news” — mercy. God loves us and wants us to live with Him forever, even more than we want this for ourselves or our loved ones. There is a healthy and holy fear of the Lord we ought to have, but even this fear is really a sense of awe totally suffused with faith, confidence, and the knowledge of God’s infinite love. 

Jesus didn’t die for nothing. He died to save us, and he gives himself to us in the Eucharist to bring us to heaven. Holy Communion is a kind of divine grappling hook, which we receive into ourselves and which draws us upward, day-by-day, week-by-week, for as long as we live. As long as we make faithful use of the sacrament of penance and remain in communion with our Eucharistic Lord, we have absolutely nothing to worry about. He will bring us home.

Fr. Charles Fox is a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit currently assigned to the theology faculty of Sacred Heart Major Seminary. He is also a weekend associate pastor at St. Therese of Lisieux Parish in Shelby Township and chaplain and a board member of St. Paul Evangelization Institute, headquartered in Warren.