Where did the concept of hell come from? We hear the parlance – “this is hell?” or the threat to someone – “I am going to make your life hell” or “I have been to hell and back?” but what does this mean? Is there really a hell and heaven? Is it a place? And what is this Catholic teaching of purgatory? Is that heaven or hell or something else?
The good thing about the Catholic Church is that ALL we believe in comes from Scripture. Let’s start from the Bible and what the church teaches on hell. Hell is a place. It is called Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek. It is a place where people are denied of the chance to see God. This is seen not only in the old Testament in Isaiah 22:11-14, Psalm 6:6 and Psalm 88:11-13 but also in the New Testament. It is mentioned in Philippians 2:10, Revelations 1:18, Ephesians 4:9 and in several utterances of Jesus in Matthew 8:12, Matthew 25:41-43 and Mark 9:41-48.
This concept gets a bit complex when the Catholic church teaches that Jesus descended into hell when he died to rescue those who were there. So who exactly was there? It is hard to believe that the just such as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were not in heaven before Jesus died but this is what the Catholic church teaches as seen in Hebrews 11:39-40 and 1 Peter 3:18. Think of this place as being part of the underworld where those who had died as righteous ones awaited to see God; a place of limbo. It is only by Jesus’ descent into the realm of the dead, that he opened the gates of heaven and gave access to the righteous in Christ.
WHAT IS HELL
But is hell really a place or a state of being? It is both. It is a place as described above but it is also a state of eternal separation from God. It is anguish in a place which is seen as one of burning flames. This is where the saying “This is hell” comes from which suggests intense agony! Some people describe this place of blazing fire as being such, due to the fact that Lucifer (meaning ‘light-bearer’ or “morning star”) was cast down into this place. His shining dazzling light as a seraphim in heaven became the fiery flaming furnace we call hell, due to his rebellion and decision to be eternally separated from God.
The Catholic Church also teaches that those who end up in hell after Jesus had risen from the end are those who die in a state of “mortal sin.” This sin is a grave sin which is a result of a person deliberately rebelling against God as Lucifer had done and completely separated from God. Such a person does not wish to be in God’s presence and by the exercise of his free will, is condemned to eternal hell fire. It is different from venial sins which is seen in 1John 5:17 and which has a lesser punishment as seen in Luke 12:47-48.
This is where the concept of purgatory comes in. Sin is sin and only those who are pure can see God as seen in Rev 21:27. God is a God of mercy but He is also a God of justice and so in His mercy, he allows us to get purified in order to be saved to see Him in heaven as seen in 1 Cor 3:13-15. Such people in purgatory are not in a state of mortal sin but of venial sins and have to be cleansed before they can see God. It is God’s fiery love which burns away all their impurities until they can enter heaven.
Now, heaven is everything that hell is not. It is eternal bliss and union with God in His eternal presence. It is a place where we become like God and can see Him face-to-face in what the church describes as “the beatific vision” as assured in 1Cor 13:12.
It is a shame that some Christians today still deny the existence of hell. They say it is a mental state and that everyone is going to heaven because we have the grace of God by Jesus dying and setting us all free. My reply to them is from Romans 6:1 – ‘so should we keep sinning so as to let grace abound?’
As a fellow apologetic once said, hell is like gravity – “it’s there whether you like it or not.” Let us not be like the fool whom the Psalmist describes in Psalm 14:1 who says there is no God. Even Jesus Himself acknowledges that there is Heaven and hell in Matthew 25:46 when He says, “And these will go into eternal punishment, but the just, to eternal life.” This is the reality which draws closer to us with each passing day. Anything short of thwarting this reality is the device of the evil one.
Another wise person once advised that we should live our life like there is a heaven because if we do and this is found to be false, then we lose nothing. However, if we live our life as we please and discover upon our death that there is a heaven, it would be tool late to rectify anything. Who do we choose to believe? What are we doing about it? How are we truly living our lives?
O Lord grant that we may be made worthy to gaze upon the beatific vision and see you face to face in heaven. May we be fully purified in this world so as to enjoy full communion and see you as you truly are in the world to come. In Jesus name we pray. Amen.