“Ask a Priest: How I Can Explain the Eternity of Hell?”

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Q: I was talking with my sister about hell, and I was wondering if you could help me with some questions. I know that an all-loving God doesn’t send people there, but rather they choose to go there by their free will, but I want to be able to explain that better. Also, I told her about how this life doesn’t really mean anything if we will all end up in heaven eventually. But she asked, What if people feel truly sorry for what they have done? I know that the Church teaches that hell is eternal, but if God is truly mercy itself, if someone really repents after death, wouldn’t God want them with him? Why would God take away one’s free will to choose him after the person died? Doesn’t he want them to be with him forever? Thanks for the help. – S.P.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: You and your sister seem to go well beyond the realm of casual chit-chat.

As you mention, hell is something that people basically choose. The Catechism in No. 1033 calls it the “state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed.”

People might not think, “I want to go to hell.” But they can sin grievously and so reject God and in effect choose perdition. Hell is simply what the soul experiences if it rejects God and dies in that state.

The fact that God is all-loving is precisely why hell is so terrible. That is when a soul fully realizes what rejecting a loving God means.

None of this detracts from God’s goodness. Maybe an analogy will help.

Imagine Julie meets Boris, a young man who is uncouth, disrespectful, irresponsible (and not very good-looking, to boot). Julie turns down his offer of a date. Does she later regret her decision? Probably not.

Now imagine that Julie meets Stan, a young man who is kind, respectful, hardworking, responsible, mature and of good comportment. In a hasty moment Julie turns down Stan’s offer of a date. Perhaps Julie gives in to a bit of human respect simply because her college roommate doesn’t like Stan’s brand of aftershave.

Eventually, Stan marries another woman. Julie, years later, having met one dud after another, regrets that she ever rejected Stan. But her chance to reach out to Stan is past. The window of opportunity is closed.

If she called Stan now, he might not respond. Why? Because he is nasty? No. He won’t return the call because of his uprightness and his faithfulness to his wife. Julie is left for the rest of her days feeling the consequences of her decision to spurn Stan.

Where the analogy breaks down is if Stan becomes a widower, and he bumps into Julie again. There is a second chance for her. But with us, our time to make decisions is in this life. There is no second chance after death (see the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31).

Now, if a person — even a non-Christian — repents of his sins somehow, he could attain salvation. God’s grace can work in mysterious ways.

It’s not that God takes away free will after death as much as we simply come face to face with the consequences of what we have freely chosen. When we die, we step outside of time, so to speak. Things settle into an eternal now.

Souls that have rejected God in this world are stuck with that decision, just as the souls of the righteous can be confident that they won’t lose heaven, ever. Jesus is quite clear about the reality of eternal bliss and eternal punishment (see Matthew 25).

Yes, God “is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9), but he won’t force his love on anyone.

And lest anyone think that no one will end up lost for eternity, they would do well to meditate on Matthew 25.

The possibility of hell might be one reason why God chose the passion and death of his Son on a cross as the means for our redemption. He wanted to show us that sin is very serious stuff.

You and your sister might want to continue your conversation by watching together our Fire of Mercy: A Retreat Guide for All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days, which touches on the subject.

I hope some of this builds your confidence in God’s goodness, rather than just a fear of you-know-where.

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