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The souls in Hell may have refused to empty their arms to receive His embrace, but God has not withdrawn His love for them.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!

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

  1. Dear Msgr. Pope,
    Are there definitive Catholic Church teachings on the eternal damnation of the demons and/or the permanent damnation of at least some portion of humanity such that if Hell is one day empty of demons or humans then it would mean Christ permitted his Holy Church to teach error?

  2. Although I respect Dante’s writings on hell, his account thereof, although venerated in the Church, does not meet the criteria for Magisterium, ordinary or extraordinary. When one sees the penalty in hell Dante describes for those who die in the mortal sin of lust, they are simply blown around by the wind like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz for all eternity, a kind of permanent wing-suit outing. The devil himself is merely partially encased in a block of ice from which he can’t escape. Given that he’s ultimately responsible for all sin & its concomitant suffering, I would think that perfect justice demands (& will require) far worse. Rev 20:10 details a lake of fire for him. If Heaven is blissful happiness beyond our wildest imagination, hell has to be torture beyond our darkest nightmare, exponentially worse than even the most excruciating earthly suffering. The visions of hell St.’s John Bosco, Faustina Kowalska & Teresa of Avila IMHO provide a better idea of how horrific the torments of hell are.

  3. Thank you, Monsignor. I have a question: Since we know that we merit nothing if we are in a state of unrepented mortal sin and therefore any good that we do while being in this state is counted as nothing, how is it then that the goodness the damned have done while on earth is considered when determining their place in Hell?

    1. Well, Merit is about salvation and it is Catholic teaching, as you note, that we can have merit. St. Augustine teaches that in his love God allows his graces to become our merit.

      But as for the damned, merit is not a relevant topic though justice is. Hence God who is just judges us by our deeds (see Romans 2:6-11) and justice requires that punishments be somehow commensurate with the degree of sin. Hence it follows that an unrepentant Mass murderer suffers a different punishment than an unrepentant adulterer, even though both are mortal sinners.

  4. That the god you are talking about would get so angry at my eating a meat pie on a Friday that he would send me to hell for all eternity, seems to me you have an anthropomorphic god like Zeus, who has a justice problem, since even the meanest father on earth would not punish a child for such a minimal offence with such a huge punishment. Such a god would, with all the sin being committed all the time, would be angry 24/7, and never have a moment of peace and happiness. Better to believe in a transcendent God, who cannot get angry but exists serenely with compassion for his creatures.

    1. I wonder if you read the piece, since St. Thomas addresses your objection to wit: it is not the sin that makes Hell eternal but rather, that repentance is no longer possible after we die, our disposition for or against God and his kingdom is forever fixed. As for eating a meat pie in a lenten Friday, I rather doubt that such a sin alone would bring someone to Hell. Rather, it is ultimately pride manifest as defiance that lands people there. There are many people who defiantly scoff at some or all the moral vision of the Scriptures and therefore refuse to repent. I effect they do not value what God values and prefer the darkness to light. God does not force them to love what or who he loves and lets them live apart in that place called hell. The saddest truth about them is that they would be more miserable in heaven.

  5. First of all Brian, God spells His name with a capital “G.”

    Second of all, He’s not going to cast you into hell for “eating a meat pie.”

    If you eat that meat inadvertently, no problem. If you eat that meat just wanting the meat on Friday, and you give in, though knowing you shouldn’t, and have that pepperoni pizza, well, venial sin.

    But if you eat that meat in utter contempt for Christ’s sacrifice on Good Friday, which abstention of meat is meant to commemorate and unite you, and if you do it with a cynical grin and a great big middle finger to the Church, well, then it’s hell for you.

    Mortal sin requires three things:

    Serious matter (the Church’s disciplinary laws on penance and diet aren’t such)

    Full knowledge of the nature of the sin

    Full and deliberate consent of the will

    I’m guessing by your last name and your reference to “meat pies” that you’re British. Your misconception of Catholic doctrine and belief in this matter is very typical of British Protestant prejudice against Catholicism.

    I pray you might pick up a catechism, speak to a priest, and God touch your heart.

    1. A Father who made his children free and respects that freedom since he wants sons and daughters, not puppets or slaves

  6. In #4 you write that “at this point the will is fixed and obstinate.” It seems like people lose their free will once they get to heaven or hell. But to no longer have free will is to lack a fundamental aspect of humanity. One might say that the good that people experience in heaven (i.e., God Himself) is so good that they simply won’t ever choose anything other than that ultimate good, even with free will, once they have experienced it. But that doesn’t explain why the people in hell also seem to lose their free will.

    1. The souls in heaven do not lack free will, having been fully perfected and conformed to the will and Good of God, they no longer desire to sin. As for the damned, neither do they lack free will but are not configured to something other than God.

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