It is never enjoyable to talk about hell. It is certainly quite out of vogue in our current situation as we see the evisceration of Christianity by secular states, which might yet prove to be a great gift. It is also true that more and more people have only a vague and passing familiarity with Christianity, often possessing only a grotesque caricature of what Christians believe. I will be the first to acknowledge that a message of fear is probably not the most effective method of evangelization (see "Evangelization means to 'Open the doors to Christ'"), but the stakes are high and will remain so until Christ returns in glory to judge the living and the dead. After all, eternal life is not the life begins after mortal death. Eternal life begins at Baptism, through the waters of which we die, are buried, and rise with Christ. Living sub specie aeternitatis ("under the aspect of eternty") is a very different way of living than quasi Deus non daretur (as if if there is no God). As human beings lovingly made in the image of God we have an end for which we are made and for which we are redeemed, that is, a destiny.
As I did last time I posted on universalism (see "Seeking clarity about heaven and hell") there are some necessary caveats that I need to state up-front. First and foremost, I personally desire the damnation of nobody and try to evangelize in the different milieux in which I find myself. I am content to let God be God, even as we know from Scripture that there are damnable activities (1 Cor 6:9-10 and Gal 5:19-21- I encourage you to read these in context to see this is no exercise in proof-texting). Second, while there are situations in which explicit faith in Christ Jesus is not possible and so does not preclude the possibility of salvation, I believe wholeheartedly that following Christ as a member of His Body, the Church, is the surest means of salvation. One of the surest signs of Christian discipleship is evangelizing others. In his Letter to the Romans, St Paul wrote about the law written on our hearts:
For when the Gentiles who do not have the law by nature observe the prescriptions of the law, they are a law for themselves even though they do not have the law. They show that the demands of the law are written in their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even defend them on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge people’s hidden works through Christ Jesus (Rom 2:12-16)Third, anyone who is saved is saved by Jesus Christ, without whom there is no salvation for anyone (Acts 4:12). A person who has never heard the Gospel is neither automatically saved nor automatically damned. If people who had never heard the Gospel never became accountable to God then we would actually do people a disservice by sharing the Gospel with them. After all, why risk automatic salvation for something that is not a sure thing?
Given all of the above, it is important to know what the clear teaching of the Church is when it comes to hell. We are blessed to have a sure guide - the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Catechism allows us to determine in clear, precise language the Church's teaching on this very solemn matter. For those familiar with the structure of the Catechism one can read about hell in Part One, Section Two, Chapter III, Article 12. IV, which consists of paragraphs 1033-1037:
1033 We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves: "He who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him." [1 John 3:14-15] Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren. [Matt 25:31-46] To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God's merciful love means remaining separated from him forever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called "hell."You must know your faith in order to live it fully.
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. [Matt 5:22] Jesus solemnly proclaims that he "will send his angels, and they will gather . . . all evil doers, and throw them into the furnace of fire," [Matt 13:41-42] and that he will pronounce the condemnation: "Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire! and that he will pronounce the condemnation: "Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire!" [Matt 25:41]
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." [there are a number of references in this footnote, not least of which is from Bl Pope Paul VI's Credo of the People of God- #12 "He will come again, this time in glory, to judge the living and the dead: each according to his merits-those who have responded to the love and piety of God going to eternal life, those who have refused them to the end going to the fire that is not extinguished"] 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.
1036 The affirmations of Sacred Scripture and the teachings of the Church on the subject of hell are a call to the responsibility incumbent upon man to make use of his freedom in view of his eternal destiny. They are at the same time an urgent call to conversion: "Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few." [Matt 7:13-14]
Since we know neither the day nor the hour, we should follow the advice of the Lord and watch constantly so that, when the single course of our earthly life is completed, we may merit to enter with him into the marriage feast and be numbered among the , blessed and not, like the wicked and slothful servants, be ordered to depart into the eternal fire, into the outer darkness where "men will weep and gnash their teeth." [Lumen Gentium par 48 and scriptural references]
1037 God predestines no one to go to hell; [Citations of canons from the Councils of Orange and Trent] for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end. In the Eucharistic liturgy and in the daily prayers of her faithful, the Church implores the mercy of God, who does not want "any to perish, but all to come to repentance":[2 Peter 3:9]
Father, accept this offering from your whole family.
Grant us your peace in this life,
save us from final damnation,
and count us among those you have chosen.[Roman Missal, EP I (Roman Canon) 88]