Why Do Catholics Believe That a Loving God Sends People to Hell?*
Jesus' teaching about hell--that is, the state of eternal separation from God--includes a quote from Isaiah: "Their worm shall not die, nor their fire be extinguished" (Is 66:24; Mk 9:48). The prophet was describing the immense garbage dump in a valley called Gehenna outside Jerusalem, where worm infested refuse was heaped on a fire kept continually burning. In ancient times this valley had been the site of ritual child sacrifice to a diabolical pagan god (see Lv 20:1-5; 2 Kgs 23:10).
No wonder, then, that in Jewish culture this hellish place gave its name to the fate of the damned. Its ceaseless flames symbolized the horrors of sin and its consequences, the inner torment of those who remain in sin, and the justice of an evil at last thwarted and abandoned in contempt.
Our contemporaries often dismiss the very idea of hell as a myth tied to belief in a cruel and vengeful god. they may even attempt to contrast the doctrine of hell with the teaching of Jesus, insisting that he spoke only of the Father's love and mercy. Yet Jesus actually spoke more often about hell in the gospel accounts than he did about heaven. Though he insisted that God loves the world and desires that no one perish eternally, he also insisted that we stand in danger of damnation if we reject God's offer of reconciliation (see Jn 3:16-18).
To deny the possibility of hell is in fact to deny the reality of human free will. God has created us as persons who can choose to return his love. But love that is coerced is not love at all. If we are to be more than mere programmed robots, we must have the capability of rejecting God, both now and forever. And if we reject him, we are in fact choosing hell, the state of eternal separation from him (see 2 Thes 1:8-9).
Our loving Father wills that all be saved (see 1 Tm 2:4; 2 Pt 3:9). But he respects the free will he has given us. "I have set before you life and death, " he says, "the blessing and curse. Choose life" (Dt 30:19). (See also " Why Do Catholics believe Strange Things about Heaven?")
Other related scriptures: Lv 18:21; 1 Kgs 11:7-8; Mt 5:22, 29; 7:13-14; 10:28; 13:41-50; 18:8-9; 22:13; 25: 30,41,46; Mk 9:43-48; Acts 7:43; Heb 6:2; 12:29; 1 Jn 3:14-15; Jude 7; Rv 1:18; 7:12, 14:11; 20:10, 14-15.
Catechism of the Catholic Church: 633; 1033-1037; 1056-1058; 1861.
*Quoted from The New Catholic Answer Bible. Wichita, Kansas, Fireside Catholic Publishing, 2005. www.firesidecatholic.com
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