The Reality of Hell (CCC 1033-1037) Church Fathers

A sobering and unpopular doctrine

Most Christians believe in Hell, but there are a number of people (both Christian and not) who do not believe in this doctrine. These people are best described as universalists, named after the heretical doctrine of the same name. This heresy teaches that all men will be saved and that there is no such thing as Hell. Naturally, this teaching is at odds with the truth and the teaching of the Catholic Church.

Why do people believe in universalism?

Many people feel that if God loves us so unconditionally, why would anyone go to Hell? But it is because of that love for that He allows Hell to exist. God wants His people to choose him freely as He chooses to love us freely. The Catechism states, “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.’ (I John 3:14-15) 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 (Matthew 25:31-46). To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God's merciful love means remaining separated from Him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called ‘Hell.’ ” (CCC 1033)

The failure to believe in Hell shows a lack of understanding of God's justice – which is infinite, like His mercy. God does not choose to send people to Hell, but rather allows people to choose to go there. Persons who have rejected God and all He did for humanity (dying on the cross for our sins being the most obvious thing!) will be unable to face God at the last judgment and will choose to exile themselves from God's presence – this is Hell.

A new face on an old heresy

There is a movement both inside and outside the Church called neo-universalism; the belief is that all men, without exception, will go to Heaven. This idea takes any kind of warning about Hell and turns it into empty, hypothetical statements; threats that God will not carry out.

The Church condemned universalism as heretical, so the neo-universalists make sure to specify that they do not assert that there is no-one in Hell, but rather that they “confidently hope” that all humans are saved from eternal damnation, through God’s merciful love, even if it is a repentance at the inaccessible moment of their death. This teaching is blatantly against Scripture, which warns that Hell is not empty and many will not be saved. In some cases, neo-universalism can perhaps be better understood as a denial of the eternity of Hell, rather than a flat denial of its existence per se.

Support for the existence of Hell

Although the church doesn’t teach that any specific person is in Hell, Hell is real and not something to be taken lightly. In the New Testament, when speaking of salvation, Jesus makes it very clear that not everyone will be saved. Luke 13:23-24 says that “a certain man said to Him[Jesus]: Lord, are they few that are saved? But He said to them: Strive to enter by the narrow gate: for many, I say to you, shall seek to enter and shall not be able.” Another example is Matthew 7:22-23 where Jesus says, “Not every one that saith to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of Heaven: but he that doth the will of my Father who is in Heaven, he shall enter into the kingdom of Heaven. Many will say to me in that day: Lord, Lord, have not we prophesied in thy name, and cast out devils in thy name, and done many miracles in thy name? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, you that work iniquity.”

Jesus speaks often of Hell and He speaks as if it is a real place and a real danger. The Church Fathers also make it very clear in several of their writings that they consider Hell to be both real and eternal. The Catholic apologist should always be ready to defend both of these truths about Hell.