April 19, 2006


What exactly is hell?
Does God send people to hell?
Who is in hell?

Friar Jack’s Inbox:

Readers reflect on Friar Jack’s musings

Catechism Quiz—

by Friar Jim Van Vurst, O.F.M.

What exactly is hell?

A lot of people have questions about heaven, hell and purgatory. This column is part of a continuing series. To better understand hell, let’s review a bit.  Everything about God and us centers on relationship. Heaven is complete and perfect union with God for eternity. Purgatory is union with God (through sanctifying grace), which is imperfect and incomplete. Purification from our sins then brings about a perfect union with God. In contrast, hell is complete, total and absolute separation from God for all eternity. Don’t think of heaven, purgatory and hell as physical places. View them as states of existence. Think of the time you fell in love and the total exhilaration you felt. Consider the moment a loved one died unexpectedly and the shock, loss and disorientation you experienced. Each brought about an internal experience that touched your whole being.

Given the above definition of hell, it is absolutely the most unfortunate and frightening eternity that anyone can experience.  We simply have no human language to describe that horror.  Those in the state of purgatory are happy—they know they are saved and will be with God in a perfect union. With hell, there is no hope and no future except eternity without God.

God is not near. God cannot be seen. God is gone. If purgatory’s pain is that of regret for what might have been, the pain of hell is simply indescribable hate and total isolation. People often smile and joke, “Well, if I’m in hell, at least I’ll have plenty of company.” This is wrong. There is no company in hell. There is no loving relationship ever. There is only total hate and isolation. The suffering accomplishes nothing, achieves nothing and is for no purpose. It is the state of the damned.

Does God send people to hell?

You’ll remember from last month’s article on purgatory that we humans make choices during our lives. God created us free. Even though we are wounded, we are still responsible for our actions according to conditions such as our knowledge and the amount of freedom we have. That’s why there is that incomplete union with God—a time of purification: purgatory. We are accountable.

However, there are some choices that people can make that are so anti-God, so anti-humanity and so terrible that the relationship with God is completely severed and cut off.  People say, “Well a good God would not create a hell.” Remember, hell is not God’s creation. God wishes no one to hell. Jesus gave his life so that all would be saved. But every person has the power to love God or to reject God and to reject Jesus’ saving death. Those in the state of hell are there because they chose that separation.

Now, we wonder who would be so foolish to do such a thing. Few would stand in God’s face and say, “I hate and reject you.”  But Jesus said, “What you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do to me” (Mt 25:40). To destroy other people is a also a sin against God.

We don’t know if anyone actually makes that decision. There are people we often assume are in hell, like individuals in history whose actions have brought deliberate pain to millions of people. But we just don’t know for sure. Only God can know the human heart, a person’s responsibility and circumstances of his or her life.  But if there are individuals who do reject God, then they create their own hell by their own actions and choices. The complete and total separation between them and God is of their making.

Who is in hell?

Are there more people saved than in hell?  Well, no one knows. Only God can judge the human heart. The Church itself, while canonizing saints infallibly in heaven, has never said that any particular person is in hell. It can’t because only God judges. What about Judas? We can’t say. All people, no matter who or how bad, have the grace to say, “Lord, I’m sorry. Forgive me.” God’s mercy is never denied. It is our Christian hope that many more people are saved than those who choose hell.

Friar Jack’s Inbox

Readers respond to Friar Jack’s musings on “Opening Ourselves to God’s Abundant Gift.”

Dear Friar Jack: I just want to thank you for your wonderful articles that you send every month. They give me courage to go on. I am working very hard to forgive myself for sins committed years ago, and I have been to confession. It’s difficult, and I am down on myself a lot. I try to not focus on myself and to remember that God loves me. Your articles have helped a great deal. Do you have any advice for me to help me just forget the past and forgive myself? Judie

Dear Judie: The water that Ezekiel saw flowing from the Temple was incredibly abundant, just as the water flowing from Jesus’ side came from the abundance of God’s unconditional love. As great as our sins might be, they are no match when compared to the greatness of God’s mercy. God’s mercy is much stronger than our sins. I pray that you can let God’s abundant mercy flow over you and wash away your tendency to be down on yourself. May the Holy Spirit help you “let go” of that. Think of the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector as they prayed in the Temple. The Pharisee didn’t have a clue about his own words of self-glorification, while the tax collector simply struck his breast and said, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner” (Lk 18:13). Like you, the humble tax collector was aware of his own brokenness and need for Godís healing, and he “went home justified,” as Jesus said. May you return from prayer lightened of your burdens!

I want to thank the others who sent thoughtful e-mails to me this month. You and your intentions are in my prayers. Friar Jack

Send your feedback to friarjack@franciscanmedia.org.

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