“Ask a Priest: After Death, Is There One Last Chance to Avoid Hell?”

Q: I am trying to understand eternal damnation and why it is just. My understanding is that God longs for every soul to go to heaven, so it must be at great pain that his justice has to send some to hell. Can you help me understand that and why it would happen? Also, after physical death, do souls get a final chance to repent (in purgatory) before they go to hell? Why is hell eternal? It seems that some would learn their lesson and repent. Some things like murder do seem to warrant eternal separation though, because murder destroys God’s plans, including future children that will never be born. – S.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: What heavy questions! Let me try to address them briefly.

True, God longs for every soul to reach heaven. But he doesn’t force heaven on anyone. He doesn’t force his love and grace on people. He gives them free will, and he respects that free will.

So if people sin grievously, they put their souls at risk. It isn’t God who sends souls to hell as much as it is they choose it for themselves.

Why would people reject a loving God? The short answer is: pride. But that doesn’t quite capture the senselessness and foolishness behind the decision to reject the Almighty.

You ask about justice. In justice God didn’t have to go as far as he did (and has) to save sinners.

Do souls get a final chance to repent in purgatory before they go to hell? No. The only souls that go to purgatory are those that need purification from venial sin and from the temporal punishment still owed for sins. They go on to heaven afterward. Souls that are damned go to hell immediately.

The Catechism in No. 1035 says:

The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire.” The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs. [end quoted material]

“Why is hell eternal? It seems that some would learn their lesson and repent.” When we die, we step out of time. The time to make decisions is up. We enter a kind of eternal “now.” The good thing is that heaven will never end; that is part of what makes it heaven.

The time for repentance is in this life. Jesus makes that clear in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). When we die, the time for repentance has passed.

Notice, too, that the sin of the rich man wasn’t murder; rather, it was the sin of omission. He ignored the poor man outside his gate. There are all kinds of mortal sins: adultery, fornication, lust, serious theft, calumny, abortion, etc. There are varying degrees of punishment associated with each sin. But all of them can doom a soul nonetheless.

For more reading, you might check out Cardinal Avery Dulles’ sobering article “The Population of Hell.”

And you might benefit from our Retreat Guide on these topics: “Fire of Mercy.”

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