Recently I have had the pleasure of talking to Jehovah Witnesses. I must have been feeling the Holy Spirit that day. When they knocked on my door, I decided to engage them rather than being dismissive. After all, they only want to talk about the bible right? Don’t worry I’m not naive enough to believe their pitch. They gave me a pamphlet about knowing the “truth.” Of course, it is based on their interpretation of the Bible. One sentence caught my eye, “at death humans cease to exist.” Paradoxically they seem to believe that only the righteous will be raised. From the same pamphlet, it says, “most who have died will be resurrected and will live on a paradise earth.” So for Jehovah Witness, there is no hell or heaven, but a kingdom for the righteous that will come when Jesus comes back.
Unfortunately, It seems that Catholics are equally confused about hell. I almost didn’t become Catholic over a misunderstanding regarding hell. One Sunday in RCIA class, the topic of hell came up. This older woman stated that she did not believe in hell for God was love. Confusingly I asked well doesn’t hell exist? What does the church teach? The debate went back and forth. Opinions flew around the room, but nobody could tell me what the church taught. Finally, the older lady looked me in the eye and say, “why do you need to believe in hell?” With that, the class ended. Racing home I vowed to look up what the Catholic Church taught.
Peace washed over me. I smiled as I read the paragraph because It was exactly what I had thought the Church taught. Let me explain.
The Truth About Hell
First, the Jehovah Witnesses are not wrong. There will be a resurrection and final judgment and a new kingdom and new earth. The problem is they deny particular judgment. They also deny hell’s existence. This goes against Catholic teaching.
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.”615 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.
So sorry lady from RCIA. We must believe in Hell because the church tells us it exists. Of course, that reasoning isn’t going to work for my Jehovah witness friends. They need biblical proof.
When Jesus speaks of Hell, he uses the word Gehenna (the Greek word for hell). Here are just a few passages:
But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna. Mt 5:22,29
Another common image is a fiery furnace.
The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all who cause others to sin and all evildoers. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth. Mt 13:42, 50
My point is that Jesus spoke of hell or Gehenna. To deny the existence of hell, you have to say Jesus was misquoted or Jesus is lying. Now you could argue that hell will exist when Jesus comes in power. Thus hell exists after the final judgment. Yet this does not line up with all passages in the Bible.
Biblical Proof of Particular Judgement
The most obvious passage begins on Luke 16:22, which describes the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. Lazarus lived a life full of suffering and hardship. It describes how when Lazarus dies he is carried to Abraham’s bosom. The story goes on to say that the rich man also died. He was being tormented in the netherworld. While the rich man begs Abraham to relieve him, Abraham cannot because there is a gap between them.
If Jesus did not want us to believe in life immediately after death, why did he tell this parable? Clearly, Jesus was okay with immediate judgment after death.
Jesus also acknowledges life right after death when speaking with the thief. In Luke 23:43, Jesus tells the thief that today he will be with Jesus in paradise. Thus we do not have to wait for the kingdom of God to be fully here. Our place is decided by our actions in this life.
Thus we must say diligent and awake.
Catholic Church and Hell Now.
Having examined the Catechism and the scriptures, it has become clear that Hell exists. Likewise, we know that souls enter heaven and hell immediately. So the only loophole now is who is in hell. The Catholic Church has this to say regarding who is in hell.
God predestines no one to go to hell; 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”:619
The fact that no-one is predestined has led some Catholics to speculate that hell might be empty.
Bishop Barron has famously said that we may have a reasonable hope that hell will be empty. In other words, God wants to save everyone. If anyone is in hell they have chosen to be there, Bishop Barron optimistically believes that nobody chooses to go to hell.
Yet the Bible paints a different picture
“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few
Few find the road that leads to life. Thus I believe hell to be full; although, I trust in the mercy of God
My Final Thoughts on Hell
Hell is not a pretty picture. Nobody wants to imagine anyone eternally suffering. Thus I used to have beliefs similar to Jehovah witnesses. I thought God destroyed the souls in hell. Maybe over a long period, but one day there would be no more evil souls. One day I was meditating on this idea when a voice spoke in my mind. It said, “I could never destroy a beautiful soul no matter how wicked.” If you are a mother, I think you understand. You could never destroy your child no matter how bad they are. Sure you may separate yourself from them, but you still love them. God is a good father and he acts the same way. He separates himself from us, which cause us enormous pain, but he wouldn’t dare destroy us.
To Learn more about Bishop Barron’s opinion watch this