Seven Teachings on Hell From St. Thomas Aquinas

The teachings of the Lord on Hell are difficult, especially in today’s climate. The most difficult questions that arise relate to its eternal nature and how to square its existence with a God who is loving and rich in mercy.

1. Does God love the souls in Hell? Yes.

How could they continue to exist if He did not love them, sustain them, and continue to provide for them? God loves because He is love. Although we may fail to be able to experience or accept His love, God loves every being He has made, human or angelic.

The souls in Hell may have refused to empty their arms to receive His embrace, but God has not withdrawn His love for them. He permits those who have rejected Him to live apart from him. God honors their freedom to say no, even respecting it when it becomes permanent, as it has for fallen angels and the souls in Hell.

God is not tormenting the damned. The fire and other miseries are largely expressions of the sad condition of those who have rejected the one thing for which they were made: to be caught up into the love and perfection of God and the joy of all the saints.

2. Is there any good at all in Hell? Yes. Are all the damned punished equally? No.

While Heaven is perfection and pure goodness, Hell is not pure evil. The reason for this is that evil is the privation or absence of something good that should be there. If goodness were completely absent, there would be nothing there. Therefore, there must be some goodness in Hell or there would be nothing at all. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches,

It is impossible for evil to be pure and without the admixture of good …. [So]those who will be thrust into hell will not be free from all good … those who are in hell can receive the reward of their goods, in so far as their past goods avail for the mitigation of their punishment (Summa Theologica, Supplement 69.7, reply ad 9).

This can assist us in understanding that God’s punishments are just and that the damned are neither devoid of all good nor lacking in any experience of good. Even though a soul does not wish to dwell in God’s Kingdom (evidenced by rejection of God or the values of His Kingdom), the nature of suffering in Hell is commensurate with the sin(s) that caused exclusion from Heaven.

This would seem to be true even of demons. In the Rite of Exorcism, the exorcist warns the possessing demons, “The longer you delay your departure, the worse your punishment shall be.” This suggest levels of punishment in Hell based on the degree of unrepented wickedness.

In his Inferno, Dante described levels within Hell and wrote that not all the damned experience identical sufferings. Thus, an unrepentant adulterer might not experience the same suffering in kind or degree as would a genocidal, atheistic head of state responsible for the death of millions. Both have rejected key values of the Kingdom: one rejected chastity, the other rejected the worship due to God and the sacredness of human life. The magnitude of those sins is very different and so would be the consequences.

Heaven is a place of absolute perfection, a work accomplished by God for those who say yes. Hell, though a place of great evil, is not one of absolute evil. It cannot be, because God continues to sustain human and angelic beings in existence there and existence itself is good. God also judges them according to their deeds (Rom 2:6). Their good deeds may ameliorate their sufferings. This, too, is good and allows for good in varying degrees there. Hell is not in any way pleasant, but it is not equally bad for all. Thus God’s justice, which is good, reaches even Hell.

3. Do the souls in Hell repent of what they have done? No, not directly.

After death, repentance in the formal sense is not possible. However, St. Thomas makes an important distinction. He says,

A person may repent of sin in two ways: in one way directly, in another way indirectly. He repents of a sin directly who hates sin as such: and he repents indirectly who hates it on account of something connected with it, for instance punishment or something of that kind. Accordingly, the wicked will not repent of their sins directly, because consent in the malice of sin will remain in them; but they will repent indirectly, inasmuch as they will suffer from the punishment inflicted on them for sin (Summa Theologica, Supplement, q 98, art 2).

This explains the “wailing and grinding of teeth” in so far as it points to the lament of the damned. They do not lament their choice to sin without repenting, but for the consequences. In the Parable of Lazarus, the rich man in Hell laments his suffering but expresses no regret over the way he treated the beggar Lazarus. Indeed, he still sees Lazarus as a kind of errand-boy, who should fetch him water and warn his brothers. In a certain sense the rich man cannot repent; his character is now quickened and his choices forever fixed.

4. Is eternal punishment just? Yes.

Many who might otherwise accept God’s punishment of sinners are still dismayed that Hell is eternal. Why should one be punished eternally for sins committed over a brief time span, perhaps in just a moment? The punishment does not seem to fit the crime.

This logic presumes that the eternal nature of Hell is intrinsic to the punishment, but it is not. Rather, Hell is eternal because repentance is no longer available after death. Our decision for or against God and the values of His Kingdom values becomes forever fixed. Because at this point the will is fixed and obstinate, the repentance that unlocks mercy will never be forthcoming.

St. Thomas teaches,

[A]s Damascene says (De Fide Orth. ii) “death is to men what their fall was to the angels.” Now after their fall the angels could not be restored [Cf. I:64:2]. Therefore, neither can man after death: and thus the punishment of the damned will have no end. … [So] just as the demons are obstinate in wickedness and therefore have to be punished for ever, so too are the souls of men who die without charity, since “death is to men what their fall was to the angels,” as Damascene says (Summa Theologica, Supplement, q 99, art 3).

5. Do the souls in Hell hate God? No, not directly.

St. Thomas teaches,

The appetite is moved by good or evil apprehended. Now God is apprehended in two ways, namely in Himself, as by the blessed, who see Him in His essence; and in His effects, as by us and by the damned. Since, then, He is goodness by His essence, He cannot in Himself be displeasing to any will; wherefore whoever sees Him in His essence cannot hate Him.

On the other hand, some of His effects are displeasing to the will in so far as they are opposed to any one: and accordingly a person may hate God not in Himself, but by reason of His effects. Therefore, the damned, perceiving God in His punishment, which is the effect of His justice, hate Him, even as they hate the punishment inflicted on them (Summa Theologica, Supplement, q 98, art 5).

6. Do the souls in hell wish they were dead? No.

It is impossible to detest what is fundamentally good, and to exist is fundamentally good. Those who say that they “wish they were dead” do not really wish nonexistence upon themselves. Rather, they wish an end to their suffering. So it is with the souls in Hell. St. Thomas teaches,

Not to be may be considered in two ways. First, in itself, and thus it can nowise be desirable, since it has no aspect of good, but is pure privation of good. Secondly, it may be considered as a relief from a painful life or from some unhappiness: and thus “not to be” takes on the aspect of good, since “to lack an evil is a kind of good” as the Philosopher says (Ethic. v, 1). In this way it is better for the damned not to be than to be unhappy. Hence it is said (Matthew 26:24): “It were better for him, if that man had not been born,” and (Jeremiah 20:14): “Cursed be the day wherein I was born,” where a gloss of Jerome observes: “It is better not to be than to be evilly.” In this sense the damned can prefer “not to be” according to their deliberate reason (Summa Theologica, Supplement, q 98, art 3).

7. Do the souls in Hell see the blessed in Heaven?

Some biblical texts say that the damned see the saints in glory. For example, the rich man in the parable can see Lazarus in the Bosom of Abraham (Lk 16:3). Further, Jesus says, There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves are thrown out (Lk 13:28). However, St Thomas makes a distinction:

The damned, before the judgment day, will see the blessed in glory, in such a way as to know, not what that glory is like, but only that they are in a state of glory that surpasses all thought. This will trouble them, both because they will, through envy, grieve for their happiness, and because they have forfeited that glory. Hence it is written (Wisdom 5:2) concerning the wicked: “Seeing it” they “shall be troubled with terrible fear.”

After the judgment day, however, they will be altogether deprived of seeing the blessed: nor will this lessen their punishment, but will increase it; because they will bear in remembrance the glory of the blessed which they saw at or before the judgment: and this will torment them. Moreover, they will be tormented by finding themselves deemed unworthy even to see the glory which the saints merit to have (Summa Theologica, Supplement, q 98, art 9).

St Thomas does not cite a Scripture for this conclusion. However, certain texts about the Last Judgment emphasize a kind of definitive separation. For example, in Matthew 25 we read this: All the nations will be gathered before [the Son of Man], and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. … Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life (Mat 25:32, 46).

Clearly, Hell is a tragic and eternal separation from God. Repentance, which unlocks mercy, is available to us; but after death, like clay pottery placed in the kiln, our decision is forever fixed.

Choose the Lord today! Judgment day looms. Now is the time to admit our sins humbly and to seek the Lord’s mercy. There is simply nothing more foolish than defiance and an obstinate refusal to repent. At some point, our hardened hearts will reach a state in which there is no turning back. To die in such a condition is to close the door of our heart on God forever.

Somebody’s knocking at your door.
Oh sinner, why don’t you answer?
Somebody’s knocking at your door!

34 Replies to “Seven Teachings on Hell From St. Thomas Aquinas”

  1. These teachings are both stupid and evil. Shame on you for disseminating them. You’re not “doing the will of God.” You’re just making life on earth a little more hellish. Focus on feeding and clothing and housing the poor. Stop spreading pernicious nonsense.

    1. I think your argument is with Jesus who talked a LOT about hell. 21 of the 38 Parables are not he topic. And we warned that hell was a wide road and many followed it. The shame will be on you for ignoring this.

    2. By your logic you are claiming Jesus was “stupid” and ” evil”. It is His teaching. The Catholic Church for centuries has been, and still is, feeding, clothing, educating & providing medical care for the poor. If not , how do you explain the Little Sisters of the Poor founded by Teresa of Calcutta?

    3. I guess you’ll find out the truth when you get there. God help you James Black. This is a loving thing to share. Truth is loving even when at first it makes us hurt or angry. God help you.

    4. I am shocked that St Thomas Aquinas
      Was interpreted by you in that way.
      So sad, you will be in my thought guts and prayers.🙏❤️

  2. Thank you for your insights. Out of curiosity, given this concept of hell, that there is good in hell and that there is free will in hell. For those like me who do not have a belief in god, and am a happy person, would it be possible that I would enjoy hell?

    1. Dear Monsignor- you are one I always look to for insight into the Hard but Necessary Sayings of Christ and Scripture. I want to follow up on Chas Q above. As many are subjectively happy in their sins here on earth, they perhaps will not for God’s Will be done but desire for their own will be done. Will they have a selfish kind of “happiness” in Hell which is misery from the perspective of Perfect Joy in Heaven? I’m thinking about how I was mostly “happy go lucky” in my days before taking up a serious Christ following. Now I look back and cringe and when I see people enjoying sinful lifestyles I see the contradiction and wish not to be in such myself. Hoping to find the perfection that Jesus commands us to seek. But if I was once happy as a notorious sinner in subjective terms is that a sign that eternal Hell is a place where subjective happiness rules but it is a pathetic thing next to the Eternity offered in Heaven adoring the Beatific Vision and Communion of Saints?

      1. Thanks for your thoughts Tim. I think you are making some assumptions regarding my lifestyle that are not the case. I do not think you would find me to be a morally sinful person, outside of not believing in God. I was celibate until I met my wife, I have never done drugs and I do not drink. I work a job that focuses very much on helping others, at times to my personal detriment. I, however do not believe faith in the existence of God is justified, and for that reason I seem to vulnerable to damnation if I am wrong on that position. This has always been concerning to me, but Msgr.’s words have made me wonder if he’ll would not be so bad. What are your thoughts with that context? Thanks for your response and I hope that you are well.

        1. Chas. I totally wasn’t commenting on your lifestyle. Your comment just made me think about how my own subjective happiness which featured a good bit of sinful pleasures. How that may indicate that if I had persisted in an unconverted state and died and perhaps was Judged as one for whom Hell was my rightful place. Would there be subject happiness in Hell in a manner like there is subject happiness in sinful lives experienced in the here and now? I truly wasn’t speculating on your situation. Sorry if it came across that way. I do always recommend the conversion of heart to the Catholic Faith to everyone I can. But I’m not your Judge!

        2. Chas,
          I would like to tell you why I believe in God’s existence.
          At night I look up at the stars, and I see millions of stars. Recently scientists have discovered that many of those stars have one or more planets orbiting them. I also believe the scientists who espouse the “Big Bang Theory” But I gotta say, where did that big rock come from? Was it just there forever and then it decided to blow up? I would have had to be immensely huge since it was big enough to contain all those millions of stars and planets that now exist. How could this have happened without a Supreme Creator who lives outside of time?
          Some folks believe that Earth was seeded by extraterrestrials. I think this is a possibility. But where did they come from? I’ll tell you. God made them just like he made everything else.
          Look at the stars and think about this. Then examine your conscience and see if there isn’t a little bit of you that believes.

    2. Only if it were possible to be happy while your body burns alive in a physical fire. See my quotes from St. Thomas below.

      Also, Thomas had the curious view that once you are dead, you are sort of frozen for eternity in the state in which you died. So you won’t have free will, he thinks. Free will was for when you were alive on earth.

      He also thinks hell is in the center of the earth, so you can take all this with grain of salt, to say the least.

      1. Burning in literal fire would certainly not be fun, that is for sure. See my comments below on my thoughts regarding the morality of an I find punishment for a finite crime.

        1. 🤔if hell’s fire is in the center of the Earth, could that account for the molten core burning for thousands of years? And could the stars in the heavens above be the souls in heaven reflecting the Son’s light ?🤔🤔🤔

  3. One solar flare from the sun is as high as 40x the height of the earth, it is extremely massive. You can call it a solar flare all day long and reduce the import of it, but it is still a fire that is so immense that we cannot comprehend it, and for the most part don’t want to. Concerning sinners, Isaiah said, ” Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings?” Isaiah 33:14. To lessen the severity of God’s Judgement because it is so fearful to think about is a grave mistake and gives the illusion to sinful men that Hell is not all that. God poured out His wrath on His only begotten Son, to reject the Son has terrifying consequences; And the devil that deceived them (nations) was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.

  4. I enjoyed this article. I accepted Jesus as my Savior in the six grade. My faith definitely has been tested at times and I’ve really struggled with some things but I know that God has saved me from what I really deserve. I don’t claim to have all the answers to why terrible things happen to people and other beings (animals, etc.) but I cling to my faith that God has the answers and understands the suffering. Thank you for being faithful and thank you for this wonderful website.

  5. Thomas says that the blessed will see the damned being tormented in real fire (yes, he says the fire is real) and that seeing this will ADD TO THE JOY OF THE BLESSED.

    Thus, my own daughter could be in hell, burning alive for all eternity, while I luxuriate in heaven, watching her writhe in agony.

    Here is where Thomas says the blessed will see the torments of the damned: “I answer that, Nothing should be denied the blessed that belongs to the perfection of their beatitude. Now everything is known the more for being compared with its contrary, because when contraries are placed beside one another they become more conspicuous. Wherefore in order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned.” ST, Supplement, Question 94

    Here is where he say the fire will be real fire, not some sort of self imposed “spiritual fire” or some other invented nonsense (please read carefully; the teaching is unambiguous):

    “On the contrary, He says (Dial. iv, 29): “I doubt not that the fire of hell is corporeal, since it is certain that bodies are tortured there.”

    Further, it is written (Wisdom 5:21): “The . . . world shall fight . . . against the unwise.” But the whole world would not fight against the unwise if they were punished with a spiritual and not a corporeal punishment. Therefore they will be punished with a corporeal fire.

    . . . whatever we may say of the fire that torments the separated souls, we must admit that the fire which will torment the bodies of the damned after the resurrection is corporeal, since one cannot fittingly apply a punishment to a body unless that punishment itself be bodily. Wherefore Gregory (Dial. iv) proves the fire of hell to be corporeal from the very fact that the wicked will be cast thither after the resurrection. Again Augustine, as quoted in the text of Sentent. iv, D, 44, clearly admits (De Civ. Dei xxi, 10) that the fire by which the bodies are tormented is corporeal. And this is the point at issue for the present. We have said elsewhere (Supplement:70:3 how the souls of the damned are punished by this corporeal fire.

    ST, Supplement, Q 97

    1. As an add on here. Prior to the Resurrection of our bodies at the End of Time. The bodies we have in the afterlife are not our physical bodies we know now. So the real fires will be in proximity to our afterlife “bodies” which are not physical as we know our bodies in this life. At least until the End of Time

    2. Thanks for that information Doran. Very interesting. That form of eternal punishment for any finite crime seems disproportionate to the crime, and there for an immoral punishment. That is why I have become convinced that someone advocating that hell is a just idea is advocating an immoral position.

  6. Doran, you seem to suggest that should that happen it will reduce rather than increase your happiness in heaven. It won’t, but the thought of that possibility should inspire you to do all that you can to prevent your daughter ending up in hell.

    1. No, Peter, I am pointing out that according to Thomas, watching my daughter physically burn alive in fire will increase my joy. I am saying that that is a morally demented position.

      1. I think your position merely casts worldly realities and experiences into heaven. In addition I think you reduce hell to one thing only. THomas’ main point is that the saints in heaven are able to see things in the pure light of God’s justice. Now, God’s justice is not merely about punishment. Rather it includes his respect for our freedom to accept or decline what he is offering. The souls in Hell have declined God’s offer of his Kingdom on His terms. They prefer something else and he lets them make their bed in Hell. The saddest truth is that the souls in hell would be more miserable in heaven. Hell is hot but heaven is hotter because it glows intensely with his love. Further to those who prefer the darkness the lightsome quality of God’s truth is glaring and painful. The saints in heaven accept their loved ones choice and understand God’s justice in permitting them to live apart from him since they have preferred something other than his Kingdom. They realize that their loved ones would be even more miserable in Heaven

        1. Msrg. Pope. If you can spare a moment to comment on my question about how subjective happiness found in pursuing sinful pleasures in this life may have a continuance in Hell? As I indicated I wasn’t miserable as a lavish sinner but I am miserable when I recall that happiness now that my eyes have opened. So is their subjective happiness in Hell that looks to Holy souls as torment and misery. Like how a Holy person sees pornography as ugly while an unrighteousness person would find it as a pleasing viewing of attractive bodies?

  7. Please please please consider giving your life to Jesus please. It was the best decision I have ever made and I have never been more happy and I live with a sense of peace that I have never felt in my 42 years of life and knowing that I get to spend eternity with our Lord in Heaven gives me no fear of death whatsoever especially right now because we are very close to the end I will be praying for you. One thing I would suggest would be to not go the Catholic route because they are very misled and they don’t realize it but they are going down that wide road themselves so pray to Jesus himself and nobody else.

  8. I would like everyone to ponder this: God is Love. What does that mean: TO WILL THE GOOD OF ANOTHER. Now when we will the good of ourselves then we do OUR will not the WILL of GOD. By doing our will we become self centered. The motto becomes ME, MYSELF AND , screw the other person. Ponder this if you want to avoid eternal consequences.

  9. I really don’t understand in philosophical or theological terms or thoughts all of the above or below….but I do know this. That I trust in Jesus. That all of history was about him. Pointing to him. I know that I have sinned against him. That it took 68 years for me to truly repent and say to myself and God that I hate my son and lay it down…I no longer desire it above what God wants for me. That the greatest dinner I KNOW…is myself. That the greatest human being was our mother Mary and her YES is what I try to say now. Chaz…Jesus said, “if you don’t believe in me then believe in the works I do.” May your eyes see Him and his love which surrounds you and what blinds you fall like scales. May I never be separated from God’s love.

  10. I find it interesting that man tries to bend and change the conditions of hell through various means, from Faust to current cheesy films and television programs. While i don’t doubt that St. Thomas was making an honest effort on his comments about the afterlife, I imagine that in fact they were little more than shadows of the actualities.

  11. It would seem that the Rich Man’s desire to have Lazarus return to warn his brothers is further evidence that a degree of good remains within those in hell; otherwise, the Rich Man wouldn’t be moved in charity to warm his brothers…

    1. This needn’t be the case. For one, it is not mentioned whether this warning is forced. If one believes in the truth of “A Letter from Beyond,” then this is certainly possible. It may not be done out of charity, but of coercion.

  12. I have listened to several near death accounts of people who were cast into Hell and were rescued by Jesus Christ after they called His name. The story is always the same: Jesus reaches down and literally grabs the soul and releases them from Hell. All the people I have heard who have told this story break down crying when they talk about Jesus rescuing them. I believe the stories because of the emotion and intensity of the people who lived the experience. However, these stories would seem to suggest that God’s love and mercy through Jesus is available even after death to those who reach out to Jesus for help. I would appreciate the Monsignor ‘s thoughts of these near-death experiences.

  13. I’ve always been taught that whether you go to Hell or to Heaven is entirely up to God, and God alone. You can’t earn a place in Heaven just like you can’t earn a place in Hell. All you can do is love God and be the best person you can be, and when you die, it’s completely up to God where you go.

Comments are closed.