Jean-Paul Sartre once claimed, “Hell is other people.” But he was a philosopher, not a theologian. He also didn’t know some of the heavenly people I do. Witty and notorious Oscar Wilde declared more objectively, “We are each our own devil, and we make this world our hell.” Shakespeare seemed to agree with him in The Tempest: “Hell is empty, and all the devils are here.” Civil War General William T. Sherman was briefest: “War is hell,” while church father Saint John Chrysostom was perhaps the most provocative: “Hell is paved with priests’ skulls.”
So what’s the church’s official word on the subject? Hell is the "state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1033). That underscores that hell is a deliberate choice; no one falls into it by accident. Hell is realized immediately upon death for those who die mortally (fatally) sinful. The irrevocability of this decision is a “call to responsibility” and “to conversion” (CCC no. 1035-36) for the living. No one is predestined for condemnation, and it’s not God’s intent that anyone should perish in this way (CCC no. 1037).
What impresses me is that more folks concern themselves with hellish details than seek to learn about heaven. If hell unnerves us, there’s an easy solution: Remain on the path of love. If hell is self-chosen alienation from God, then heaven is self-selected union. God is love, so stick with love and hell becomes literally a dead subject. Because God never rejects us but aims most passionately and personally at forgiving us, we alone can reject God and choose the suffering that is the fruit of sin and pavement of hell—priests’ skulls notwithstanding.
For this reason Jesuit Father John Sachs calls hell an “anti-creation”: not the world divinely engineered and ordained “good” from the start, made of the fabric of peace and plenty, but a realm of disorder, evil, anguish, and want. If we don’t care to live in God’s world, we’re free to fashion another epitomized by God’s absence as much as creation is charged with the grandeur of Sacred Presence.
Sachs cautions against imagining heaven and hell as equal-and-opposite attractions. The gospel presents hell as an ultimate possibility and heaven as an absolute reality. The apocalyptic language used to express these realms isn’t a snapshot of their literal aspects but a means of conveying the seriousness of what we, ultimately, do with our freedom.
• “The Descent into Hell: Abandonment or a Victory over Death?” by Jerry Ryan, Commonweal, 4/11/97
• 101 Questions and Answers on the Four Last Things by Joseph T. Kelley (Paulist Press, 2006)
• What Are They Saying About the Universal Salvific Will of God? by Josephine Lombardi (Paulist Press, 2008)
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