If enough people stop believing in hell, maybe it’ll cease to exist. No?

Last week I gave a parish mission on the Four Last Things.

As some of you readers might guess, I placed certain emphases on the existence of hell and desirability if avoiding it.

This comes from the acceptable weekly National Catholic REGISTER with my emphases and comments.

As I read, I had in mind the image of a person who covers his own eyes and announces, "You can’t seeeeee meeeee!"

Hell Is Not Hot
by Pat Archbold Tuesday, March 30, 2010

I have heard it said that when a baby closes its eyes, it perceives the entire world has gone away rather than just their ability to perceive it.  I have often wondered how scientists can know such a thing, but I think that now I know.  They must have witnessed this same behavior in adults and merely extrapolated backwards.

Case in point, Newsweek’s religion [just how bad is this magazine, anyway?] editor Lisa Miller has a new book out on Heaven and the various different notions of it.  In an interview with [Washington Post writer] Sally Quinn, Miller is asked whether she believes in Hell, to which she replies with an emphatic “no.”  Asked why, she cites the dwindling polls numbers for hell.  Hell is not hot right now.  [?!?]

Of course, we know that reality is not altered by poll numbers.  President Obama’s poll numbers have likely fallen faster than hell’s, but he is no less real than when most believed in him back in November 2008.

It seems that some people believe that if enough people ditch belief in Hell, that perhaps Hell will be closed for lack of interest.  No such luck.

The Church teaches the existence of hell because Jesus taught the existence of hell.

    [Catechism of the Catholic Church] 1034 Jesus often speaks of “Gehenna” of “the unquenchable fire” reserved for those who to the end of their lives refuse to believe and be converted, where both soul and body can be lost.  Jesus solemnly proclaims that he “will send his angels, and they will gather . . . all evil doers, and throw them into the furnace of fire,“and that he will pronounce the condemnation: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire!”

I would be interested to see how the poll numbers would change if the question changed. [good point]  Instead of “Do you believe in hell?” how about if we asked “Do you believe that all people, no matter what they did in life, go to heaven?”  If you asked them whether Hitler was in heaven, I suspect that the numbers would look drastically different. Most people, I suspect, would exclude Hitler from residency in heaven (whether or not God has is a different question). So, if Hitler is not in Heaven, where is he?  The larger question, I suppose, is “what is not heaven?”  The catechism answers that question as well saying “the chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God.”  [The horror of the "pain of loss".] In other words, not heaven is Hell, to be separated from God forever.

I would suspect that in any society throughout history that Hell’s polling numbers are inversely proportional to the virtue of that society.  In our society, sin polls well.  You can do the math.  Yet I think that when thrown into the everlasting fire, having poll numbers on your side will be of little comfort.

Consider the shock of the soul finding itself in hell. 

Try to imagine the first 15 seconds.

Go to confession, often, and be sure you can explain the Four Last Things.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Maltese says:

    Try to imagine life in a darkened coffin, with the lid closed, six feet underground, but instead of being dead, you have awareness; imagine the utter loneliness, and then imagine spending a billion years alone in that coffin–that does not even begin to explain the loneliness of hell. The utter separation from all that is good.

  2. MargaretC says:

    I was an agnostic for about two years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The loneliness was awful, but it laid the ground for my conversion.

    Two years without God was bad enough. I can’t bear the thought of an eternity without him.

    I go to confession about once a month.

  3. Tradcarlos says:

    These are the truly enlightened who are shaping and forming not only our culture but our faith. It is no longer the Catholic Church! Heck! When you have priests like Father Theodore Hesburgh who worked with Nancy Pelosi to secure the passage of the health care bill, one can only conclude that Priests like these are faithfull disciples of these truly enlightened. Not only do they believe this nonsence but they promote and teach it.

  4. The only difference between a soul estranged from God through mortal sin here on earth and a soul lost forever in hell is that in hell there are no distractions; no rationalizations; no excuses; no ability to repent.
    That is the greatest disaster, the greatest horror that can be imagined. To be eternally frustrated and unable to be fulfilled by the destiny given to us by God: to be with Him, in love, forever, and in the communion of saints.
    Just looking around at all the “hellish” manifestations in every place, the complete emptiness, the distortion and perversion of what it means to be a child of God is only the prelude to an everlasting separation from the True, the Good, the Beautiful, the One.
    Like Padre Pio is reported to have said, “You don’t believe in hell? You will when you get there!”

  5. al007italia says:

    Death, judgement, then Heaven (with a side trip to purgatory to wash up if needed),or Hell.

    As for what Hell will be like, well, Dante’s description will look like a romp in the sun in comparison to reality. Passion gospel mimes, womyn play priestesses, a huge number of Congressmen & women all having eternity to contemplete what they knew they should have done to avoid the place.

  6. Bruce says:

    “[M]an has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to having a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily “true” or “false,” but as “academic” or “practical,” “outworn” or “contemporary,” “conventional” or “ruthless.” Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong or stark or courageous—that it is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about.”
    — C.S. Lewis (The Screwtape Letters)

    “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened. ”
    — C.S. Lewis (The Great Divorce)

  7. MWindsor says:

    “I, Sister Faustina, by the order of God, have visited the abysses of hell so that I might tell souls about it and testify to its existence. I cannot speak about it now; but I have received a command from God to leave it in writing. … What I have written is a pale shadow of the things I saw. But I noticed on thing: that most of the souls there are those who disbelieved that there is a hell.” St. Faustina’s Diary, 741

  8. Bruce says:

    By the way Fr. Z, I went to confession today, first time in 12 months. At first I hesitated, but then your post “Stow the excuses” rang in my head and I went. Thank you. [Thank you!]

  9. Craig says:

    I’ve found the dreams of St. Don Bosco’s visits to Hell to be edifying. I read them every couple years to make sure I’m not backsliding and to work harder to help save souls.


  10. Dr. Eric says:

    The first message received at Fatima was this horrifying vision of Hell:

    The first part of the Secret was a horrifying vision of hell “where the souls of poor sinners go” and contained an urgent plea from Our Lady for acts of prayer and sacrifice to save souls.

    In her Memoirs, Sister Lucy (Lucy Dos Santos) describes the vision of hell that Our Lady showed the children at Fátima:

    “She opened Her hands once more, as She had done the two previous months. The rays [of light] appeared to penetrate the earth, and we saw, as it were, a vast sea of fire. Plunged in this fire, we saw the demons and the souls [of the damned]. The latter were like transparent burning embers, all blackened or burnished bronze, having human forms. They were floating about in that conflagration, now raised into the air by the flames which issued from within themselves, together with great clouds of smoke. Now they fell back on every side like sparks in huge fires, without weight or equilibrium, amid shrieks and groans of pain and despair, which horrified us and made us tremble with fright (it must have been this sight which caused me to cry out, as people say they heard me). The demons were distinguished [from the souls of the damned] by their terrifying and repellent likeness to frightful and unknown animals, black and transparent like burning coals. That vision only lasted for a moment, thanks to our good Heavenly Mother, Who at the first apparition had promised to take us to Heaven. Without that, I think that we would have died of terror and fear.”


  11. albizzi says:

    Is Hitler in Hell? Nobody can say yes with certainty.
    But The famous seer Maria Simma was told by a purgatory’s soul that Marshall
    Herman Goering was saved (quoted in N. Eltz’s book “Let us get out of Here”)
    Here is how infinite is God’s Mercy.

  12. gambletrainman says:

    Two thoughts. A lady I know who has been married 3 times, and is contemplating a 4th, told me that she would rather go to hell in order to save her daughter the problems she herself was having. “I think God would understand” was her reasoning. Secondly, you’d be surprised of the number of modern Catholics who believe hell doesn’t exist, except for those who attend the TLM. Many times mother and I would be told, when we said we were going to a TLM, “Oh my, you’re going to wind up in hell”.

  13. Jack Hughes says:

    Reading Don Bosco’s dream I realise that my confession tonight was a bad one, I shall go to Confession rather than the Chrism Mass tommorow. Also I’ve been meaning to be enrolled in the Brown Scapular for months- Will be so on Monday

  14. catholicmidwest says:

    You’d be surprised how many people think that things are so because they think so, or not so because they deny them. It’s a very peculiar thing and a direct outcome of relativism.

    Many people believe that there is no truth, no state of affairs that isn’t dependent on their own perception of things. It makes you wonder if they comprehend their own impending death or the event of their own birth. But then, some people live like cats and dogs with no real thought of such things–amazing but true.

  15. catholicmidwest says:

    There are a lot of Catholics who don’t believe in hell, or the devil for that matter. Makes it easier to use birth control or get that abortion, I expect. Catholics have about the same statistics for both of those sins as the general population.

  16. deborah-anne says:

    My mother was catechised in the 1930s and I was catechised in the mid-1950s from the same catechism entitled, A Catechism of Christian Doctrine, Arthur J. Scanlan, STD, Censor Librorium; and Patrick Cardinal Hayes, Archbishop, New York, 1929.

    This is something from that little book that stuck with me.

    What is Hell?
    “Hell is a state to which the wicked are condemned, and in which they are deprived of the sight of God for all eternity, and are in dreadful torments.”

    It still works for me!

  17. catholicmidwest says:

    The Church never talks about hell anymore. This is the first place I’ve been in ages where it’s even been mentioned.

  18. lux_perpetua says:


    upon reading those dreams of Don Bosco i have only this to say:

    “My good sweet Jesus have mercy on me.”

    i am thinking of all the funerals, all the viewings i have ever been to where Hell was not even mentioned. what a travesty. what a terrible injustice to our beloved dead.

  19. Eoin Suibhne says:

    My wife and I were involved (we are unhurt) in a multi-car accident this evening in which an SUV was sent flying through the air in a ball of flames. Miraculously, after several people failed to break her free, a woman extricated herself from the vehicle and eventually was brought to the hospital. I do not know whether she survived. Pray for her. To be so be so close to the thin line between life and death still has me shaking. I already was planning to go to confession this week (thanks for the kick in the rear, Fr. Z.); now the sooner the better.

  20. skellmeyer says:

    On a related point, the most recent handbook of indulgences takes GREAT pains to point out that pastors are supposed to frequently preach on the Apostolic Pardon contained within the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick.

    A reminder to pastors to do this – or at least mention it in passing – on, say, Good Friday, All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints’ Day, All Souls’ Day, the Chair of St. Peter, the Feasts of Sts. Peter and Paul, etc., might be appropriate.

  21. kiwitrad says:

    I was at a Catholic women’s discussion group last year when the subject of hell came up. I was the only one who believed in it although the group contained 2 Eucharistic Ministers, the wife of a deacon, a reader ,the chairperson of the Parish council and a Mass Organiser!

  22. Mike says:

    In our strictly trendy NO parish, last year, a young priest preached for about 10 minutes on hell.

    He put it in a context about the radical possibility to fail to love.

    It was excellent.

    Sadly, he was moved elsewhere before year’s end.

    Now we only hear about such things from a retired priest working for our parish.

  23. Subdeacon Joseph says:

    There seems to be a common experience in the teachings of the Saints and Church Fathers concerning the immediate state of the soul after death. Angels and demons will meet the soul. All deeds of righteousness and sinfulness will be “weighed” and a “trial” will occur. If the soul still has attachment to passions while no longer possessing the bodily means to gratify them then the soul will burn from the inability to satiate them and thus will not be able to enter Paradise. Finally, the Particular Judgment will take place.

    Because God is Love and His Love permeates all of the cosmos St. Isacc of Syria says:
    “I say that those who are suffering in hell, are suffering from being scourged
    by love…It is totally false to think that the sinners in hell are deprived of
    God’s love. Love is a child of the knowledge of truth, and is unquestionably
    given commonly to all. But love’s power acts in two ways: it torments
    sinners, while at the same time it delights those who have lived in accord
    with it.”

  24. Dr. Eric says:

    I find it interesting that in the dream of St. John Bosco that Craig posted the boys who were running headlong into hell were running from the wrath of God and hell was their only “respite.”

  25. Subdeacon Joseph says:

    God is like a loving River of Fire for both the good and the bad in death. Paradise and Hades are actually the same place where God’s loving fire flows over, covers, and embraces the dead with the same loving intent for the salvation of their souls. For those souls who loved God on earth, this fire is a Love which enriches, warms, and perfects them. For the souls that did not love God or neighbor on earth, this same Love burns them because they rejected it on earth, and, now burn from their own passions also and from the pure Love of God.

    This explains why the Rich Man could see Lazarus in Hades and begged him to quench his thirst and to explain the mysteries of the afterlife to his brethren who had not passed over.

  26. Dr. Eric says:

    Not in Latin Theology. Hell is the complete separation of the sinner from God.

    From the recent Catechism:

    “1035 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.'(617) *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.”

  27. Subdeacon Joseph says:

    As Byzantine Christians we are not bound by Latin theology. One of the only good and just verdicts of Vatican II I might add.

  28. Subdeacon Joseph says:

    Also, hell and the new heaven do not exist until after the Last Judgment in Byzantine Theology. This is not a dogma but it is by far the general consensus held by the Fathers and theologians of the East.

  29. Dr. Eric says:

    Subdeacon Joseph,


    Are you Ukrainian, Ruthenian, Romanian, or Russian? Or are you Orthodox?

    I used to worship in a Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and later a Byzantine Catholic Church so I am well aware of the differences in Theology. I was commenting on the dream of St. John Bosco.

    I wish you a Holy Pascha. :-)

  30. Subdeacon Joseph says:

    Greetings in the Lord Dr. Eric.
    I am Orthodox, however I am a member of a diocese that could be described as “Greek Catholic” in union with Constantinople. We have a very close working relationship with our Ruthenian counterpart. In fact our Metropolitan blesses many of his seminarians to attend the Byzantine Catholic Seminary in Pittsburgh for graduate studies. I complete seminary next year and hope to attend Byzantine Catholic Seminary the following semester in order to obtain my M.Th with a concentration in Byzantine dogma. Half the profs. there are Orthodox and the other half Byzantine Catholic. It’s nice that all the fighting is over.

    I really love the T.L.M. and go as much as possible. I’m one of the Orthodox that hopes for union with Rome and really enjoy Fr. Z’s page.

    Have a most joyous Pascha!

  31. PostCatholic says:

    Of course, there are plenty of those who believe that heaven is just as imaginary, too.

    There is nothing new in this article. (That it’s a bit odd for someone to justify their eschatology with an argumentum ad populum, I’ll grant you. Though it’s a common theme in atheism that all deities are a sort of argumentum ad populum.) Ideas of universal salvation within are as old as Clement of Alexandria and Origen’s apo and as recent as the Vatican’s first Divine Mercy Congress and statements by Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor. There’s also a very antique strand of Universalism in protestant America which likely informs the culture.

  32. PostCatholic says:

    within Catholic academe, I meant to say.

  33. PostCatholic says:

    If anyone’s interested the original conversation between Sally Quinn and Lisa Miller (who is not a Christian, by the way) here it is. I now disagree with the assertion that “asked why, she cites the dwindling polls numbers for hell”; she was not asked why, nor did she offer poll data as her personal reason for not believing in hell.

  34. cicada380 says:

    I have been a firefighter for several years until recently. So many of my close calls of almost not coming back from a response were more than enough to drive home my own mortality and concern for the last things. I saw far too many of those who died, both young and old, and I’m sure they never expected to die when they woke up that morning. I have learned to go to Mass and confession when I can, because I don’t know when it will be my last. I have learned to pray “on the go” on the way to a scene and on the scene. And I’ve learned to just trust and fall into the arms of a loving God, especially when I’m scared and not really sure if our team will make it back from a call. What made me capable of doing this job without hesitation and with courage was the understanding that I was ready to meet God if it was my time.

  35. Dr. Eric says:

    So, Subdeacon Joseph, may I guess that you are A.C.R.O.D.?

  36. Subdeacon Joseph says:

    Bingo Doctor.

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