We Can't Afford to Forget the Place 'Where Bad People Go'

One thing I always looked forward to as a novice in 1985 was teaching CCD — catechism class.

But I wasn't prepared for this. Weekly, I had a chance to teach at a nearby parish. To prepare my confirmation class for Ash Wednesday that year, I talked about the four last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell. I started the class by asking the kids this question:

“What happens to our soul after we die?” All hands shot up. I called on a girl in the back row of the class called Cathy. She replied with an air of authority:

“We all go to heaven to be with Jesus.”

“Thanks Cathy,” I said looking around the room, “Are there any other possibilities where our souls might go?” No hands.

“Not everybody at once.” All the kids laughed nervously. A chubby kid named Mark slowly raised his hand.

“Yes, Mark.”

He spoke in a secretive tone, pointing down at the floor:

“Bad people go down there, Brother?”

“Down where?”

He smiled at me and yelled: “Hell!”

Everybody burst out in laughter. Smart kid.

Yet those of us who know something about hell know it isn't a laughing matter. Hell is serious. Nonetheless, it is something we rarely talk about nowadays.

Lent begins this week with Ash Wednesday. It's an excellent opportunity to reflect on hell. Here's what you need to keep in mind:

Hell exists. It has nothing to do with the bogeyman. Jesus himself taught the doctrine on many occasions. The word hell appears 15 times throughout the Gospels. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reaffirms the fact that “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 he ‘will send his angels, and they will gather … all evildoers and throw them into the furnace of fire,’ and he will pronounce the condemnation: ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire!” (No. 1034).

The problem most people have with hell is not its existence. According to a Gallup poll last year, 71% of adults nationwide believe in hell. The difficulty with hell is so few want to hear anything about it.

Our existential outlook on life can explain this. What's important is the here and now. Tomorrow is uncertain. Enjoy life. If there is a hell, we will deal with it when it comes. Harvey Cox Jr., a religious historian and professor at Harvard Divinity School, says, “There has been a shift in religion from focusing on what happens in the next life to asking, ‘What is the quality of this life we're leading now?’ You can go to a whole lot of churches week after week and you'd be startled even to hear a mention of hell.”

Then there's consumerism to keep us distracted from thinking about the possibility of hell. We use our time thinking about how to make more money. Larger homes, better cars, longer vacations and successful careers top the to-do list, not avoiding hell. The watering down of hell has affected not only Catholics but also members of mainstream Christian denominations.

Bruce Shelley, senior professor of Church history at the Denver Theological Seminary, put it this way: Hell is “just too negative. Churches are under enormous pressure to be consumer-oriented. Churches today feel the need to be appealing rather than demanding.”

Before people write off hell completely, they should know something:

Hell is eternal. There's no parole or early release for good behavior. The catechism defines hell as “definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed.” This definitive self-exclusion is not the equivalent of solitary confinement. It's much worse. The eternal loss of God triggers an indescribable agony in body and soul beyond anything we could ever imagine.

The Bible describes hell in terms of fire. Yet we shouldn't understand the term fire in a material sense. Jesus uses the term fire to stress the incomprehensible suffering in hell. This truth about hell raises a question everybody wants to know:

Who goes to hell? The Church holds that those who die in mortal sin without repenting merit damnation. Furthermore, Jesus has this to say to those who dismiss the demands of charity and justice:

“Go away from me, with your curse upon you, to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you never gave me food; I was thirsty and you never gave me anything to drink. I was a stranger and you never made me welcome, naked and you never clothed me, sick and in prison and you never visited me … Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty, a stranger or naked, sick or in prison, and did not come to your help? … I tell you solemnly, insofar as you neglected to do this to one of he least of these, you neglected to do it to me.”

Does all this talk about hell mean that our faith is based on fear? No. It simply means we are accountable to God's love by keeping his commandments.

Many pastors don't preach on hell in their homilies. Our CCD programs also tend to sidestep the issue of hell. Kids grow up thinking hell is something imaginary, like the bogeyman. It's certainly much easier to talk about God's fatherly love, his mercy and his kindness. Nonetheless, it's only fair that we know the whole truth about our faith.

And that includes hell.

Legionary Father Andrew McNair teaches at Mater Ecclesiae International Center of Studies in

Greenville, Rhode Island.