What does Jesus Mean by the Fire of Hell?

052014In the Church’s Liturgy of the Hours (in the Office of Readings) we are getting close to the great culmination of the Book of Revelation, when the victorious Christ is united with his bride forevermore. Just prior to this great victory is the casting down of Satan into fiery hell and the sealing over of the great abyss.

Central to the imagery of Hell is fire, along with some other unpleasant things such as worms that never die, etc. We do well to ponder these images, but also to be careful about them. For while many take them literally, they are probably meant to be understood more richly. To be sure, most of the Fathers and tradition understand the fire of Hell to be an actual, physical fire, but it remains a question as to what effect physical fire would have on fallen angels who have no physical bodies. And while fallen human souls will eventually have their bodies, it seems hard to imagine how physical fire can affect their souls prior to the resurrection of the bodies of the dead.  Hence fire and other physical descriptions most likely speak also to deeper spiritual realities.

Let’s take a look at an excerpt from the Book of Revelation, and also consider some other descriptions of our Lord regarding Hell. Perhaps we can ponder what the images are trying to teach us of the nature and reality of Hell for those who choose to live there by rejecting the Kingdom of God and its values.

Next I saw a large white throne and the One who sat on it. The earth and the sky fled from his presence until they could no longer be seen. I saw the dead, the great and the lowly, standing before the throne. Lastly, among the scrolls, the book of the living was opened. The dead were judged according to their conduct as recorded on the scrolls. The sea gave up its dead; then death and the nether world gave up their dead. Each person was judged according to his conduct. Then death and the nether world were hurled into the pool of fire, which is the second death; anyone whose name was not found inscribed in the book of the living was hurled into this pool of fire (Rev 20:11-15).

A pool of fire is a dramatic metaphor. It is so dramatic in fact that it causes many moderns to reject the teaching of Jesus on Hell outright. Even many who are otherwise believers in Jesus reject His consistent teaching on Judgment and Hell by either conveniently forgetting it, or by espousing some artful theories that deny He said it or that suggest that He was just trying to scare people who lived in “less mature” times. Some who do not believe in God say this teaching is one of the reasons they do not believe. I have addressed many of these objections elsewhere. But for our purposes here, let’s keep the focus on what the metaphor is likely trying to teach us.

First, to be clear, the metaphors of fire and worms are very consistent features of Jesus’ descriptions of Hell. For example,

  1. If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame, than, having your two feet, to be cast into hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched (Mark 9:45-46).
  2. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. (Matt 5:22).
  3. So [the rich man] called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire‘ (Luke 16:24).
  4. Then the Son of Man will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat … (Matt 25:41).

Allow these to suffice. Jesus in His description draws rather heavily from Isaiah wherein God says of those who are unrepentant, “And they [the faithful] will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind” (Isaiah 66:24).

But though tradition does largely see the fire as indeed a physical fire, we must still ponder the deeper reality of this fire. For fallen angels without bodies (and for whom the fire was prepared) do experience its pain. But how? And for fallen human souls (at least before the resurrection of the body), how is the fire experienced and to what does it point?

Perhaps a remark by Origen can assist:

Wonder not when you hear that there is a fire which though unseen has power to torture, when you see that there is an internal fever which comes upon men, and pains them grievously Origen (quoted in the Catena Aurea at Mat 25:41).

And thus we gain some insight into the “inner” fire that rages in the fallen angels and in the souls of the damned. For even now, we often speak metaphorically of how our own passions can burn like fire. We speak of burning with lust, or of seething with anger, or being furious (fury being related to the word for fire). We speak of the heat of passion, of boiling over with anger, or of seething with envy. Even good emotions like love can burn like fire if they are not satisfied. How our thirsts and passions can rage like fire in us if they are not slaked and satisfied by the only One who can truly satisfy us!

And as for worms—worms that die not according to Jesus—we often speak of being devoured by our passions or consumed by them. There is less consensus on the worms being physical, but surely here too, physical or not, they speak to a deeper spiritual reality as well.

And thus the fire of Hell, though physical, speaks also to deeper spiritual struggles. We were made for God, and God alone can satisfy us. To choose anything less than God is to remain gravely unfulfilled and to be burning with a longing that has refused to seek its proper goal. Thus one burns (whether fallen angel or fallen soul) with desire but has rejected the “one thing necessary” to satisfy that desire. The fire seethes and the fury grows.

Bishop Sheen once told a parable showing how frustrating Hell must be since the “one thing necessary” is lacking:

There is not a golfer in America who has not heard the story, which is theologically sound, about the golfer who went to hell and asked to play golf. The Devil showed him a 36-hole course with a beautiful clubhouse, long fairways, perfectly placed hazards, rolling hills, and velvety greens. Next the Devil gave him a set of clubs so well balanced that the golfer felt he had been swinging them all his life. Out to the first tee they stepped, ready for a game. The golfer said: “What a course! Give me the ball.” The Devil answered: “Sorry….we have no golf balls. That’s the hell of it!” (Three to Get Married, Kindle Edition, Loc. 851-57).

Yes, that’s the hell of it: to lack the one thing necessary.  And oh the fiery fury and the seething indignation it must bring to have definitively rejected the only One who could ever satisfy the fire of our desire!

Finally St. Thomas, or the Thomistic tradition, adds the insight of the fire as “burning” in the sense that it limits the fallen angels and fallen souls:

But the corporeal fire is enabled as the instrument of the vengeance of Divine justice thus to detain a spirit; and thus it has a penal effect on it, by hindering it from fulfilling its own will, that is by hindering it from acting where it will and as it will….that as the instrument of Divine justice [fire] is enabled to detain [a spirit] enchained as it were, and in this respect this fire is really hurtful to the spirit, and thus the soul seeing the fire as something hurtful to it is tormented by the fire (S.T. Supplement, Q 70, art 3, respondeo).

In other words, there is a seething indignation that must come from a fallen spirit who is hindered and can no longer live the lie of following its own will in order to find satisfaction. Such apparent satisfaction is a lie, for it is rooted in the willful rejection of God and the values of God’s Kingdom. The fire is a limiting fire that attests to the fact that nothing outside God will satisfy, and that roaming about seeking satisfaction in anything other than God must now end. The fire burns and is unquenchable, for only God can quench it. But the fallen souls and fallen angels have forever refused Him.

And thus the fire of passion forever burns, unsatisfied, and like worms their desires devour and consume them. In a word, Hell is to be forever “unfulfilled,” as one burns with desire but has rejected the only One who can satisfy that desire.

This song says “God and God Alone … He will be our one desire, our hearts will never tire of God and God alone.”

42 Replies to “What does Jesus Mean by the Fire of Hell?”

  1. Our backyard faces a golf course fairway. We get golf balls in our backyard on a weekly basis. I have no clubs or a passion for the game. I would think it must be frustrating when they hit their ball in our yard and can’t play through. We throw them back over the fence whenever we find one and I somewhat feel fulfilled. After watching the preacher in the movie Caddy Shack get struck by lightning for falling to temptation and challenging God to try and stop his perfect game with a thunder storm, I pity those people charging the golf course like they are on a mission.

  2. I think my father, an old-time Episcopal priest who would have converted if not for his pension had the best definition of hell I ever heard. He said he believes hell is a place where you can do whatever you want. That sounds like a good thing on the surface, but my addition to it it is that you would see a bunch of people wearing t-shirts that say “been there, done that” sitting staring off into an infinite eternity.

  3. Really, does it matter if there is fire (hot as we know it here in life) in hell? The thing that is real about hell is that is a very, very unpleasant place to be. It is totally void of love. Things we take for granted here, things like the medicinal rays of sunlight, are in part, the love poured out from God.

  4. Thank you for this beautiful reflection on the reality of hell, so needed in our day. I am reminded of the teaching that with God, being One, there can only be one fire, which burns with purification (purgatory), punishment (hell) or love (heaven). As you stated so eloquently, it is the fire of longing. We even see His own sacred heart on fire.

  5. If there is any doubt about there truly being fires in hell and worms that do not die, I would highly recommend the reading of “A Divine Revelation of Hell” by Mary Baxter. Jesus took her to Hell for 30 nights in a row and then to Heaven for 10 nights. Jesus told her to write about her experiences. After reading this book, you will have no doubt, whatsoever, that what Jesus said, He meant. Jesus suffered and died so we may avoid going to hell.

    The book contains very good scripture references to refresh our memories of what Jesus said and meant.

    1. RE: Mary Baxter´s experience of hell

      Extremely difficul to believe that JESUS actually went to hell??????????????????????

  6. Thanks Monsignor for another fine teaching.
    Many times I though of hell of what is not. No peace, No love, No tranquility, No hope, No serenity, No health, No communion. No sincerity, No truth, NO! NO! NO! ETERNAL DENIAL. THE ETERNAL NEGATIVE. May the good Lord have mercy on our souls.

  7. I live near a golf course too! And I agree with you the golf course is a religious event, over here the golfer don’t go to Church on Sunday, because their golfing is their religion. Oh, the parking lot is packed! And these old people are completely distracted, they got a few years left (5-20 years). For some wisdom don’t come with age. They just don’t care! It must be the theology of Universalism!

    1. Well, you never know. There may be one saint among the crowd. You never know. One might go to Mass Saturday night then take God with him (or her) for the game. While I can’t stand golf, it seems to be the kind of game that allows a lot of thinking or contemplation, which would give any person an opportunity to spend time with God in prayer while doing something that that person truly enjoys. See? Not all is lost. Let’s hope there are cases like that. 🙂

      1. A Pastor who liked golf told this joke:
        A Catholic golfer decided one Sunday to skip Mass so he could enjoy the links which were usually deserted on Sunday mornings. His guardian angel was indignant and asked Our Lord to punish the man. “All right,” says God, “Watch.” The angel was dismayed to see the man hit a hole-in-one, and complained that this was not much of a punishment. “Ah”, says Our Lord, “notice that he has no witnesses; so he can’t brag about it to his friends.”

        As the proverb runs, “Beware ye get what ye desire, — and with it, Hell fire!”

  8. Lots of people nowadays want to somehow explain away the physical fires of hell. Scripture is plain, Tradition is clear on the matter, and Private revelation to the saints confirms both Scripture and Tradition. If you want to know how the stuff works just read and believe rather than scoff.

  9. Some years back I was laid low by a deep depression. I went to work, I ate, I read, I watched tv — nothing gave pleasure. At the time, I was not going to any church, although I was nominally Catholic. Nothing mattered much, nothing interested me for long, nothing moved me. I think your description of Hell sounds much like that — a truly miserable place where nothing satisfies, nothing delights — it simply is. Ugh! I have no interest in going back, having rediscovered my faith and having found great joy in my life.

  10. There are many instances of people returning from hell (and purgatory) and leaving scorch marks and other proof of hellfire. Couple that with the loss of all goodness, the loss of the ultimate good, God, for whom we were made, and the company of all those who are in a similar state, and hell becomes horrific. It is unfortunate that in 57 years of life I cannot recall a single sermon on the reality of hell, though scripture seems to infer (as does the Church prior to Vatican II) that many, if not most, go there.

  11. This homily, to use a golf simile, is far above par. Super well done for the Washington metropolitan area crowd.

  12. Well I believe hell exists fire and all. Why else would Jesus tell us about it in plain words? I am Catholic and my thinking is how can anyone take God’s word and give it another slant or to interpret it differently? After all the 10 commandments are straight forward so why would God make it difficult to understand what He means. Surely many of the prophets and language of their day need to be explained so that their meaning could be known to us.

  13. – The Warning Second Coming Forums – God the Father, Jesus Christ, Virgin Mary – http://www.thewarningsecondcoming.com

    Explain the horror of Hell to those who are blind to existence of Satan

    September 24, 2011 @ 10:15 pm

    My dearly beloved daughter, why does man persist in denying the existence of Hell?

    Many of My children, who consider themselves to be modern in their outlook, publicly deny the existence of Hell, when proclaiming their belief in God the Eternal Father. They mislead My children when they use the excuse that God is Ever-Merciful. By convincing My children that all will go to Heaven, they unwittingly become responsible for those who follow their faulty doctrine.

    Satan exists and therefore so does Hell. Hell is a place where Satan takes those souls who show allegiance to him on Earth. These are the souls who push aside all thoughts of God and promote the acceptance of evil acts in the world. In some cases people can even sell their souls to Satan, in exchange for a life of wealth, celebrity and power. Many in the music industry have done this over the years. Little thought is given as to the way in which their allegiance is made, very often through group inaugurations carried out through occult practices.

    On the other side there are those who live what they consider to be simply fun-filled, carefree lives, where they constantly crave self-gratification. They are just some of the souls, who, on arrival at the gates of Hell, are shocked and shake their heads in disbelief at the fate that awaits them. They cannot accept that this terror they face is of their own making. The freedom given to them on Earth was abused in favour of everything that offends God.

    Children of Mine, please explain the horror of Hell to those who are blind to the existence of Satan. No matter if they laugh and hurl abuse at you. It is your duty to warn them of the terrifying fate that awaits any poor soul who ends up there.

    Atheists, who on their deathbed, believe that their suffering will end on their last breath, hear Me now. For those of you who deny the Existence of God on this Earth, although the Truth has been revealed to you during your lifetime, your suffering in the fires of Hell will be only the beginning of eternal damnation. You, My poor souls who commit grave sin through your own free will, reject Me. Instead, you chose Satan. He awaits you after death. I will be nowhere to be found. For, by then it will be too late to show you My Mercy.

    Pray, pray, all of you, so together we can save these souls. Satan must not be allowed to steal their souls. Help Me save them while they still live on Earth.

    Your beloved Jesus

    1. This is trash thewarningsecondcoming and all trash associated with it has been condemned. Please don’t post that trash here.


  14. The “worm that ever turns” is also a symbol of the regret and remorse the damned soul feels knowing it can never go back to ask forgiveness of God or undo its rejection of Him.

  15. Oh, Vatican II is quite clear on the reality that many go to Hell, cf. Lumen Gentium #16 “…But OFTEN men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator.(129) Or some there are who, living and dying in this world without God, are exposed to final despair (emphasis added).”

    For an excellent, in-depth treatment of the pop-theological heresy of Salvation Universalism (“Everybody–or virtually everybody–goes to Heaven”) see Ralph Martin’s October 2012 release “Will Many Be Saved?” From the perspectives of Scripture & Tradition he pretty much pulverizes any attempts to support that pernicious school of (non) thought. His main working text for his doctoral dissertation on soteriology is the above Vatican II text.

  16. This is a very good analysis and explanation. Thank you for prayerfully considering, writing and posting this.

  17. We experience the fullness and goodness of life when we enter, through Jesus, the heavenly Kingdom of love. Those who choose to go another way will be so frustrated when they realize that they have forever lost this wonderful opportunity. That’s Hell!

  18. Look no farther. Just read the writing of St Teresa of Avila, a doctor of the church. God sent her to see the place reserved for her in Hell if she did not reform. And reform she did, including the Carmelite order.

  19. Jesus` love is so great, and His salvation so necessary that He threatens to throw us into the fire and burn us forever if we refuse to try and bear abundant fruit. (John 15:6)

  20. Monsignor, You seem to think that perhaps the Supplement to the Summa Theologiae added after the Summa was left unfinished by St Thomas’s death might not have been composed by Thomas himself. It was. The Supplement was put together from Thomas’s early Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard.

  21. Thanks Monsignor for this well reasoned and written article. I’m reminded of the vision of hell given to the three children at Fatima. They saw the fire coming out of the damned, rather as you describe.

  22. @ Zeny:
    thewarningsecondcoming website is false prophecy. The bishop of Dublin in Ireland has confirmed this. It claims that Pope Francis is not God’s chosen one, which has to be a sign that these words are not coming from Heaven.

  23. While not widely known, it is a fact that most experienced medical professionals will tell you that burns are the most painful of all wounds to heal. They often scar terribly, and the healing process sometimes involves removing layers of skin repeatedly to achieve “final” healing. And even with our modern technology, and skin grafts, really serious burns permanently disfigure people. Pain from the inside out, that never really heals? That sounds like hell to me . . .

  24. I am curious if the words associated with the description of “Hell” are accurate translations of the original Greek & Hebrew. Hell is the absence of God’s love. Surely that is the ultimate punishment.

  25. Our Lady Of Fatima showed hell to the 3 young visionaries and there was FIRE INDEED THERE. Our Lady also
    gave us A prayer to recite after each decade of the Rosary which says ” O my Jesus forgive us our sins. Save us from THE FIRES OF HELL lead all souls to Heaven especially those most in need of thy mercy”. No one can deny this truth that came from Our Lady.

    1. Our Lady of Medjugorje, Queen of Peace took Vicka and Jacob to “SEE” hell.
      Their descriptions of what hell is like is identical to what the 3 young Fatima children saw !

  26. It has been clarified that those who continue in their ways that go against the Bible teachings will end up in hell which is for eternity. They know not repentance and their ways prove this.

  27. I am unable to understand a deeper reality that denies the reality so often spoken about by Jesus. Why not just write that that The Early Church Fathers were wrong about Fire as were The Apostles who taught them that as was Jesus who taught the Apostles.

  28. So we will turn to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel and not be numbers.

  29. For those who truly strive to be holy according to their state in life, will be saved. As scripture tells us, God’s mercy is stronger than His justice.

  30. Lorna, the election of pope Francis is not valid because prior to being elected pope, pope Francis condoned same-sex sexual unions as long as they were private, did not include children, and were not called marriage, and thus, according to pope Francis, do not effect society; this does not change the fact that there will be some, like The Good Thief, who, at the moment of his death, recognized Christ in all His Glory, and came late to The Fold. (See page 117 of the book, On Heaven and Earth).

    One cannot condone same-sex sexual unions and thus same-sex sexual acts and remain in communion with Christ, and His One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. (See Catholic Canon 750)

  31. Our call to Holiness, is a call to be chaste in our thoughts, in our words, and in our deeds. To reorder man as an object of sexual desire/orientation in direct violation of God’s Own Commandment regarding lust and the sin of adultery, is to deny the inherent personal and relational Dignity of the human person, who, having been created by God, male or female, is a son, daughter, brother, sister, husband, wife, father, mother. Let no one deceive you.

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