Top 5 Reasons To Avoid Hell 

How can God allow anyone to burn in a lake of fire for all eternity?

If iron sharpens iron, the Church is filled with too many dull instruments. We live in a spiritually apathetic society and that apathy extends into Christian culture and practice. Some committed Christians can hardly be bothered with practices like regular fasting, Bible study, meditation, and prayer. We want it to be enough to go to Mass on Sunday and holy days of obligation, be generally good people, and be allowed to keep our pet sins as pets. Our Christian culture has been infected by a practical universalism. It’s easy to tell by the way that most Christians live their lives; they believe that if you are generally a good person you will certainly go to Heaven — how could God allow anything else? Our beliefs about sin and salvation have implications for how we live and how we evangelize (if we evangelize at all). If I’m probably going to Heaven anyway, do I really need to work that hard in this life? I’m busy and stressed after all. If I am probably going to Heaven anyway, why embarrass myself by evangelizing? When we think these ways, we forget the Scripture: “Strive to enter by the narrow gate; for many, I say to you, shall seek to enter, and shall not be able” (Luke 13:24), and “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!” (1 Corinthians 9:16).

In 1997 Archbishop Daniel Buechlein presented his findings to the bishops of the United States regarding a study of modern catechesis. The entirety of the document is worth looking at, but his last 3 points hit home: 

We have seen a pattern of deficiency in the teaching on original sin and sin in general…

We have found a meager exposition of Christian moral life. …

Finally, we have found an inadequate presentation of eschatology.

Archbishop Daniel Buechlein, Oral report to the general assembly of bishops, June 19, 1997

Due in part to poor catechesis and a lack of evangelization we see more and more Catholics claiming to hold to different forms of universalism. Universalism is the belief that in the end, all will share in eternal life. Sure — it’s hard to accept that God would allow anyone to burn for all eternity in a lake of fire as a punishment for any sin. For example, is it a just punishment for missing Mass on Sunday? Or for any sin really? On the face of it, it’s absurd. But such arguments come from an inadequate understanding of salvation history, faith, the function of grace in the life of the sinner, and mortal sin. 

While we can sympathize with such arguments, there are good reasons to warn people about Hell today. Here are our top 5 reasons to avoid Hell.

Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels…And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

Jesus (Matthew 25:41, 46)

The Son of man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.

Jesus (Matthew 13:41-42)

Maybe Jesus was just speaking figuratively. Except that he wasn’t. It is not just the Scriptures that we follow, but the Tradition which interprets the Scriptures. And if he wasn’t speaking figuratively but there will be no one at his left hand, then how bizarre that would be! 

There are different levels of doctrine in the Catholic Church. The highest level is dogma. That Hell exists is a dogma, professed by the Catholic Church from the beginning. It’s part of Divine Revelation and the story of salvation. For Catholics, there is no legitimate reason to deny its existence. Jesus talked about Hell a lot. And if Hell doesn’t exist or isn’t a serious concern … awkward. 

The souls of those who die in the condition of personal grievous sin enter Hell. (De fide.)

Lugwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, 4th edition

The Church firmly rejects the idea that the souls of the wicked will be destroyed.

The Athanasian Creed declares: “But those who have done evil will go into eternal fire.” … Benedict XII declared in the Dogmatic Constitution “Benedictus Deus”: “According to God’s general ordinance, the souls of those who die in personal grievous sin descend immediately into hell, where they will be tormented by the pains of hell.”

Lugwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, 4th edition

For the faithful Catholic, it should be enough to point to the faith passed on an believed throughout the ages, and to solemnly defined dogmatic teachings, that Hell is a real place. It is one of the foundational teachings of Christianity. 

If Hell exists, what is it like? Hell is a bad place. You don’t want to go there. I don’t want to go there. Just as the reality of Hell isn’t figurative, the fire of Hell isn’t merely figurative either, as if we could simply make Our Lord’s choice of words without purpose. Yes, in some real way, Hell involves fire. No, I don’t know how hot it burns, or the answers to many other questions about it, because we don’t fully understand the nature of Hell. But consider how we experience fire in this life as an analogy for the fire of Hell. When I was a pre-teen I sat in my parents’ car playing with the cigarette lighter because I didn’t know what it was. After popping it all the way in for a few seconds I touched my finger to the part that lights the cigarette. It didn’t even look hot. But it burned for hours. Just the tip of my finger. I went through every ice cube in the house trying to get it to stop hurting so bad. That was just a small burn on my finger and surely can’t compare to the pain of Hell. I would very much not like to be dunked into a lake of fire forever. 

There are two principal punishments in Hell. The first sense is the pain of loss or poena damni. Specifically the loss of the Beatific Vision. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes:

It is accompanied by the loss of all supernatural gifts, e.g. the loss of faith. The characters impressed by the sacraments alone remain to the greater confusion of the bearer. The pain of loss is not the mere absence of superior bliss, but it is also a most intense positive pain. The utter void of the soul made for the enjoyment of infinite truth and infinite goodness causes the reprobate immeasurable anguish.

Catholic Encyclopedia (1917), “Hell”

Even if all your friends are in Hell, it’s not fun. There is no party. 

The second type is the pain of sense or poena sensus. Again, the Catholic Encyclopedia states:

It is quite superfluous to add that the nature of hell-fire is different from that of our ordinary fire; for instance, it continues to burn without the need of a continually renewed supply of fuel. How are we to form a conception of that fire in detail remains quite undetermined; we merely know that it is corporeal. The demons suffer the torment of fire, even when, by Divine permission, they leave the confines of hell and roam about on earth.

Catholic Encyclopedia (1917), “Hell”

Hell is not tolerable, and never will be. 

(By the way, demons hate you. They are willing to suggest a few temporary comforts from illicit pleasures here on earth to get you into Hell forever.)

The punishment of Hell lasts for all eternity. (De Fide.)

Lugwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, 4th edition

The Caput Firmiter of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) declares: “Those (the rejected) will receive a perpetual punishment with the devil.” … A Synod at Constantinople (543) rejected the Apocatastasis doctrine of Origen.

Lugwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, 4th edition

Hell exists, it’s bad, and it’s forever. Many universalists believe that some people will end up in Hell. It’s just Hell’s eternity that they don’t accept. They believe that no personal sin (actual sins we commit, compared to original sin that we are born into) deserves an eternity of punishment. Viewed solely from this lens they are correct. The just penalty in a court of law for any particular offense against God is not an eternal punishment.

However, the damned are not punished forever on the account of one sin only, but on account of their final rejection of Jesus Christ as Savior. In the order of grace it is true that one sin, such as missing Mass on Sunday, with full consent and knowledge of the gravity, is a mortal sin, and that we cannot go to Heaven in mortal sin. However, the story of our soul isn’t written at the end of one personal sin. God is just and merciful. God desires our salvation more than we desire our salvation. God is ready to forgive our sins and awaits our repentance. It’s ultimately blasphemy against the Holy Spirit —the final refusal to repent and accept God’s grace— that condemns to Hell. That’s what makes both pride and despair so deadly to the soul. Perseverance in such sins, in the face of God’s repeated offers of mercy, can achieve a finality, at the moment of death, that makes repentance impossible.

The soul that thinks about these things, the soul that is sensitive to sin, the soul that fights against its vices, that continues to go to Confession, that continues to humble itself before God — that soul is on the right path. It’s just as problematic to live in a state of constant morbid fear of Hell (as if God isn’t powerful enough to save us), as it is to presume God’s mercy and sin freely. God wants us to know Him and to be known by Him. He wants us to live with supernatural joy. 

Hell is bad forever. That’s a scary thought. But it should be scary. It should motivate us to repentance and conversion —  if our love for God alone isn’t strong enough to do the job at all times. And that’s okay. God understands our weakness, and such “imperfect contrition” is enough for God to forgive our mortal sins in the Sacrament of Confession. Understood in the fullness of salvation history, we can see how eternal punishment is just. The souls of those who hate God are allowed to leave His presence. 

Most people today are perfectly content with their sin. Telling them that they need to love God more than their sin will fall on deaf ears. They would rather fornicate, get drunk, blaspheme, and commit all manner of offenses against God and enjoy the temporary pleasures their sin brings than follow the difficult path of denying themselves and picking up their crosses. 

While there are exceptions, most souls are moved to conversion first by a “servile” fear of God. The fear of the numinous being, the great other in the universe, is built into our very DNA. One of the common experiences of man throughout all natural religions (which in some way points us towards St. Paul’s unknown God of Acts 17) is a fear of God. We are humbled before the divine power. 

Servile fear of God is the fear of God because of God’s just punishments. That includes being afraid of Hell. We don’t want to be punished for our sins. So we turn to God, we go to Confession, out of that fear. Most people are motivated towards conversion by the warning of Scripture about what happens to the wicked after death, and we know that we will die. 

This has great implications for evangelization. If Hell exists, if it’s bad, and if it’s forever, we can help people avoid Hell by helping them examine their own conscience. We have found great fruit when, in charity and humility, we ask the right questions to help people know where they stand before God. Many people end up wanting to go to Confession immediately. It’s only later, in Christian maturity, that we consistently love God more than we fear Hell, and our fear becomes more “filial” (child-like) and less servile (slave-like). 

It is not reasonable to hope that every single person will respond to God’s grace and choose Heaven.

God, by an Eternal Resolve of His Will, predestines certain men, on account of their foreseen sins, to eternal rejection. (De Fide.)

The Synod of Valence (855 AD) teaches: fatemur praedestinationem impiorum ad mortem [We acknowledge the predestination of the ungodly to death].

Lugwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, 4th edition

As a street evangelist I hope that every person I talk to will go to Heaven. There is no one that I want to go to Hell. Likewise, there is no one that God wants to go to Hell. Yet, there are some people who will choose to go to Hell. But there are no anti-saints. The Church hasn’t declared that anyone, even Judas, is in Hell. 

God also does not, in the common understanding of the term, “predestine” certain men to Hell. In the quote from the Synod of Valence in 855 above, it is not saying that no matter what they do, God has determined that some people will go to Hell. Only that God foresees that some men will reject his offer of salvation and freely choose Hell. “By an eternal resolve of the will,” He then affirms their foreseen choices to reject Him.

We know, dogmatically, that some angelic persons are in Hell. They were presented with an option and freely, with perfect intellects and no sin, made the choice to rebel against God. While some are allowed to roam the earth now, they will all eventually be locked up in Hell forever. 

Given the testimony of Scripture, Tradition, human history, the Saints, the Early Church Fathers, and most importantly, the words of Jesus in Scripture, it’s not reasonable to believe that all human persons will ultimately choose Heaven. 

Jesus sternly warns us that going to hell is a real possibility. Hell exists. Hell is bad. Hell is bad forever. Jesus came to save us from Hell.

But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me.

Jesus (Luke 19:27)

If Hell isn’t a possibility then Jesus’ whole ministry and his words become absurd. His ministry and his teachings focus on warning people about Hell, casting out demons, healing the sick, calling people to repentance and conversion, choosing God. If Hell isn’t a real possibility, then free will is a farce. Ultimately then, we can’t say no. The warning loses its power. Maybe, some propose, the warning is a real warning, hell is a real possibility, but all human persons, in their free will do end up choosing mercy and all human persons will be in Heaven. Yet, Jesus never said “if there are any at my left hand,” “if anyone does end up choosing Hell.” Jesus seemed to operate his ministry with the assumption that many people would choose Hell. 

It is too much of a stretch to interpret the Scriptures in such a way as to leave open the possibility that all will be saved. Our Lord seems clear on this matter in many places. One of the most straightforward examples is in Matthew 22. After telling the parable of the Wedding Feast, which concerns entrance into the Kingdom of God, Jesus concludes: “Many are invited, but few are chosen” (Mt 22:14). Ben F. Meyer argues that this passage reflects an Aramaic idiom and essentially means, “All are called, but not all are chosen.”[1] If this is accurate, then Jesus is saying directly that there will, in fact, be people in both categories — the saved, and the damned.

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.

Jesus (Matthew 7:13-14)

We don’t, however, know the numbers of people who will choose Hell. In His wisdom Jesus, and by extension the Church, avoids giving us any numbers because He doesn’t want us to fall into despair or presumption. If it were revealed that 95% of people will go to Hell, most people would be inclined towards despair. If it were revealed that 95% of people will go to Heaven, most people would be inclined towards presumption. The fact is, we simply don’t know who will be saved and who won’t. Salvation is a work of grace and free will. Given this, we need to be diligent in both our own relationship with God and also our efforts to evangelize out of true love of neighbor.

There are a lot of reasons, apart from fear of Hell, to do good and avoid evil. However, man is naturally drawn towards God and away from evil because of the fear of bad consequences, of which (revelation tells us) Hell is the worst. Only with time, grace, and maturity do Christ’s faithful grow in faith and charity. 


[1] Ben F. Meyer, “MANY (=ALL) ARE CALLED, BUT FEW (=NOT ALL) ARE CHOSEN”, in Christus Faber: The Master-Builder and The House of God (Allison Park, PA: Pickwick, 1992), 88.

Author: Adam Janke

Adam is the Chief Operating Officer of St. Paul Street Evangelization. After converting to Catholicism from biblical fundamentalism in 2005, Adam obtained a BA in Theology and Catechetics and an MA in Theology and Christian Ministry from Franciscan University of Steubenville. He resides in Michigan with his wife and seven children.

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