April 20, 2018


Does hell exist? What about heaven?

And who inhabits these two places—or states of being—in the afterlife? It’s a mystery.

Our faith tells us that being in heaven is being with God for all eternity. Hell is the opposite—being cut off from God forever through self-exclusion. Our faith also tells us that God’s love and mercy are available to everyone in spite of our sins if only we turn to God and seek his divine mercy. No sinner, regardless of the evil that he or she has done, will be denied God’s forgiveness, which is the gateway to heaven, if only we repent.

So who has been, or will be, condemned to hell? And what will that be like?

Catholic teaching says that those who absolutely refuse to repent and accept God’s forgiveness end up forever damned. “The fires of hell” (an image used by Jesus and many saints as a description of what hell is like) are therefore occupied by those who have resisted God’s every attempt to reach out to them in love and offer them the transformative experience of conversion and reconciliation with God.

Are there people who refuse God’s love to the bitter end? We must admit the possibility—maybe even the likelihood—based on our human experience. But we must also acknowledge that there is a chance (maybe even a good chance) that God’s love, which we know is stronger than death, is also strong enough to overcome (by persuasion, not by force) the stubborn resistance of the most recalcitrant sinners, so long as they renounce their “willful turning away from God” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1037).

This is what Divine Mercy Sunday, which we observed on April 8, celebrates: The amazing grace of God that can save every wretched human being—including you and me—from the powers of hell and which unites us all in heaven.

What if, in the end, every sinner ultimately chooses to repent and be saved? What if they availed thremselves of the Lord’s Divine Mercy? Then the idea that hell is empty would not be such an imagined reality, but a testament to an all-loving and forgiving God.

We have no idea who—if anyone—is in hell. We have only the vaguest ideas about what the experience of eternal damnation might be like. To be cut off from God’s love forever is the unthinkable consequence of the ultimate sin unto death—refusing the friendship of God and remaining persistent in this rejection until the very end. Surely this ultimate sin is not easy to commit or, once committed, to sustain. The saving grace of God surrounds us at every moment of our lives here on Earth and beyond. The Church doesn’t declare anyone to be in hell, including the most evil people in human history, or that such persons could not have, in their last moments, sought the mercy and friendship of God, showing true contrition for their sins.

What has Pope Francis said about the existence of hell?

According to Catholic News Service, the pope was once asked by a child, “If God forgives everyone, why does hell exist?” Pope Francis acknowledged that this was a “good and difficult question.”

The pope spoke of a very proud angel who was envious of God. Tradition calls him Lucifer or Satan.

“He wanted God’s place,” said Pope Francis. “And God wanted to forgive him, but he said, ‘I don’t need your forgiveness. I am good enough!’ ”

“This is hell,” explained the pope. “It is telling God, ‘You take care of yourself because I’ll take care of myself.’ They don’t send you to hell; you go there because you choose to be there. Hell is wanting to be distant from God because I do not want God’s love. This is hell.”

We Catholics believe in the existence of heaven and hell. But except for those whom the Church has canonized as saints, we can never know for sure who inhabits these two “places” of, on one hand, everlasting joy and, on the other hand, eternal damnation. Who are we to judge the ultimate fate of those who die?

Our job is not to judge, but to pray. So, let’s pray that every man, woman and child made in the image and likeness of God will open their hearts to the grace of God—sooner or later—and accept the amazing gift of divine mercy which has the power to free us all from the consequences of our selfishness and sin, and which alone can ensure us a place in the heavenly homeland forever.

We believe that heaven and hell exist. Let’s pray that we will all have the courage and the honesty to confess our sins, to repent of all our wrongdoing and to accept freely the divine mercy offered to us unconditionally by our loving and merciful God.

—Daniel Conway

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