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Blaze News original: Understanding hell — Part I
Engraving by Gustave Dore, Canto XXXII, Inferno. (Getty images)

Blaze News original: Understanding hell — Part I

Blaze News digs deep into infernal matters with the help of clerics, scholars, and others with penetrating views in this multipart series.

The Pew Research Center indicated in a December report that 71% of Americans believe in heaven, 61% believe in hell, and 60% believe in both. Gallup and AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research surveys conducted last year turned up similar results. American Christians appear to be keeping these numbers north of 50%.

A 2021 Pew survey revealed that 92% of American Christians signaled a belief in the existence of heaven and 79% said they believed in the existence of hell. By way of comparison, 37% of the unaffiliated camp — which included atheists, agnostics, and "nothing[s] in particular" — said they believe in heaven and 28% said they believed in hell.

A survey now 10 years old indicated that American Jews, meanwhile, are on the whole far more skeptical than even the unaffiliated camp concerning the existence of hell: 22% said they believed in hell, and 70% said they didn't subscribe to the notion.

While many Americans believe that the moral choices they make today could prove eternally consequential for their immortal souls, there are some resistant to the possibility that they might one day face judgment and be found wanting. There are others yet who have taken an active role in reassuring believers that they have nothing to worry about in the way of eternal damnation.

David Bentley Hart, the philosopher who penned "That All Shall Be Saved," is among those keen to discount the existence of hell and shame Bible-citing cautioners. Hart suggested in the New York Times that the corresponding belief is not only biblically unjustified but an anachronistic "instrument of social stability."

Derek Ryan Kublius, an ordained elder in the East Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church, similarly figures the belief in hell to be a means of controlling people, blaming the belief largely on alleged biblical mistranslations.

While the likes of Kublius and Hart figure that when it comes to hell, it's more than just the gates that won't prevail, psychologists and bloggers working on eudemonistic presumptions about earthly priorities have warned that a belief in hell might adversely affect mental health and moods.

Given the stakes and the enduring controversy about hell, it is worthwhile reviewing what is meant by "hell" — is it a place, a state of being, or both? Is hell eternal or a temporary means to purification? What action could guarantee a man's placement "where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched"?

Blaze News put these and other questions to a Catholic cardinal; a British Old Catholic priest; a high-profile conservative member of the Presbyterian Church in America; an Anglican bishop; the executive minister of the Christian Universalist Association; a professor of Jewish studies; an Australian rabbi; and an American Reform rabbi.

In what follows, the accomplished constituents of this octet provide their respective views on the thing of nightmares that haunts the bottom of many a Renaissance painting and perhaps existence itself: Gehenna, the inferno, Hades – hell.

Archbishop Emeritus Cardinal Thomas Collins

After earning degrees in theology and English in 1973 and becoming a priest the same year, Cardinal Collins studied at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, specializing in sacred scripture and the Book of Revelation. He received his licentiate in sacred Scripture in 1978 and a doctorate in theology in 1986.

Cardinal Collins has held various academic appointments and leadership roles in the decades since. In addition to his appointment to the College of Cardinals by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012, Cardinal Collins ran Canada's largest archdiocese from 2007 until last year.

'Dogma takes its stand on solid ground when it speaks of the existence of Hell and of the eternity of its punishment.'

At the outset of his phone interview with Blaze News, Cardinal Collins referenced three writers with penetrating insights into hell whom he indicated were worth readers' consideration.

The first: St. Thomas Aquinas, whose supplements 97-99 to "The Summa Theologica" detail the nature and physicality of hell and its torments; the will and intellect of the damned; and the endlessness of hell.

The second: the late American Jesuit priest James V. Schall, who noted in "The Modern Age," "Hell, in its original teaching, was a final guarantee of justice. If rightly understood, it is rather a positive teaching, even a freeing one. Hell has too few defenders, not that we advise anyone to choose the place."

The third: Pope Benedict XVI's 1977 book, "Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life," wherein the late pope, then Joseph Ratzinger, noted, "No quibbling helps here: the idea of eternal damnation, which had taken ever clearer shape in the Judaism of the century or two before Christ, has a firm place in the teaching of Jesus, as well as in the apostolic writings. Dogma takes its stand on solid ground when it speaks of the existence of Hell and of the eternity of its punishment."

Hell exists and is eternal

'The second death is a death over which we have some choice by how we live, and we would call that hell.'

Cardinal Collins confirmed to Blaze News that the Catholic Church believes that hell exists, that it is a place, that it is "eternal punishment for those who are guilty of what we call deadly or mortal sin," and that this understanding is supported by the sacred scriptures.

The cardinal highlighted several biblical passages referencing hell, including:

  • Chapter 16 of Luke, where the poor man Lazarus dies, then goes to the bosom of Abraham, whereas the rich man dies and goes to hell;
  • Matthew 25:31-46, which notes that Christ the judge will separate all the nations as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats and will say to those at his left hand, "Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels"; and
  • Chapter 20 of the Book of Revelation, which says "Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; and anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire."

Cardinal Collins noted that whereas we all experience the first death, which is unavoidable, "the second death is a death over which we have some choice by how we live, and we would call that hell."

Infernal physicality

When asked about the physicality of hell, Cardinal Collins said that most of the imagery in the scriptures is natural and "comes from something physical on earth like Gehenna."

"So the imagery is there. It is fire. But immediately after death, we're spirits. We know the body is not there. At the resurrection, however, it is," said Collins. "I think the imagery [of hell as a fiery, physical place] is like angels' wings. It expresses something profoundly true, but the imagery being used is natural, it's earthly. It speaks to a truth, but we don't know."

Cardinal Collins underscored that "when we're talking about the ultimate things, the resurrection of the body, we're talking about something we don't understand. Even the risen body. What is it? What do we mean? The only example we have is Jesus after the resurrection, which we have descriptions of. So our mind is really not quite prepared to figure out what it means."

Choosing hell

Cardinal Collins indicated that hell is chosen.

'The collateral side effect of having the freedom to love is, obviously, we also have the freedom not to, and that can lead us away from God.'

"[Life on earth] is a time where we are challenged to make choices. We have free will. That's at the heart of the Catholic teaching on the existence and reality of hell — is free will," said Collins. "If we are to be free to love God, we have to be free to the alternative. Freedom is a key point here."

"The collateral side effect of having the freedom to love is, obviously, we also have the freedom not to and that can lead us away from God," said Collins.

While God wants us to be with Him forever and gives us His grace, Collins indicated sinners can nevertheless "swim against the stream" of His grace and love toward hell.

The unholy trinity

The sinners' damning rejection of the holy Trinity often takes the form of self-worship.

'We get caught up in these little islands of autonomy. Ego.'

Reflecting back on 51 years of hearing confessions, Cardinal Collins said that one of the common penances he gives is, "Say one Our Father and think on the words: 'Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,' because most frequently we say, 'My kingdom come, my will be done.' We get caught up in these little islands of autonomy. Ego."

"Instead of worshiping the blessed Trinity in whose image we're made — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: three persons, one God, joined together in love — we worship the unholy trinity of me, myself, and I. We implode into ourselves. And that moral spiritual black hole is hell. That's what leads to hell," said Collins.

Just as worship of this unholy trinity amounts to a pre-emptive descent into hell while still alive, Collins said heaven similarly begins on earth.

"It's not completed, but it begins on earth when we love other people with a generous love, when we live in the imitation of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — the way the second person of the Trinity showed us how to do it in the midst of this wicked world," said Collins.

Guaranteeing real estate in hell

Cardinal Collins told Blaze News that Catholics believe that sinners can secure their spots in hell by committing "what's called deadly, fatal, or mortal sin."

For an action to qualify as deadly sin, Collins noted three criteria must be satisfied: the action must be seriously evil; the actor must know that the act is wrong; and the actor must commit it freely.

'If any of those things are missing, we're not talking about mortal sin.'

Cardinal Collins referenced the Hamas terrorist attacks on Oct. 7 and other such massacres as "unspeakably evil" acts fulfilling, at the very least, the first criterion. He noted that extra to non-defensive killing, other actions that would qualify as intrinsically evil would be adultery and abortion, adding that Pope John Paul II provides great clarity on this matter in his encyclical "Veritatis Splendor."

In terms of the second criterion, Cardinal Collins raised the hypothetical of a child who unwittingly kills a number of people after picking up a gun. While the act itself is evil, the absence of knowledge means it is not a mortal sin. After all, even with conscience present, the child had no idea what effect the weapon would have.

The third criteria, that the act must be executed freely, might not be satisfied in cases of mental and medical compromise or coercion.

"So mortal sin is serious evil, knowingly done with complete knowledge, and freely done. If any of those things are missing, we're not talking about mortal sin," said Collins.

The hell-bound society

Blaze News sidetracked the conversation to press Cardinal Collins about whether a society that regularly commits intrinsically evil acts, abortion in particular, would be hell-bound if its population was propagandized into thinking the acts amoral or even good, thereby putting a mortal sin criterion into question.

"Would somebody growing up with a society having their mind twisted by false teachings — swimming through a sea of lies — can they be held morally accountable as they should be for a mortal sin? I would say that's a very good point. I think that is a limitation on their freedom," said Collins.

'We have within us — everyone does, not just people of faith — a basic understanding of right and wrong.'

The cardinal said that on the one hand, "I think our society is so corrupt in its valuation that people can honestly, to some degree at least, they cannot know these things are wrong and/or they might have pressure to do them if they don't have the freedom."

On the other hand, Cardinal Collins emphasized that "there is still conscience."

"We have within us — everyone does, not just people of faith — a basic understanding of right and wrong," said the cardinal. "Now, it can be weakened and corrupted by society, but I think we can’t simply say, 'Oh well, society made me do it.'"

Heaven's antechamber

While Cardinal Collins said Catholics noted that while there are ultimately two destinations after death, there is also a purification process for heaven-bound souls.

"Purgatory is another part of Catholic teaching. It's not — some think of it as a temporary hell, you know, like fire and stuff like that, but just for a short time. That's not the way to look at it. It's not true," said Collins. "Purgatory, purification, is part of heaven. You might call it the antechamber to heaven, and it's a state of purification."

'There's no use praying for people in heaven because they don’t need it or in hell because they can't use it.'

Cardinal Collins indicated that purification can begin long before stepping foot in heaven's antechamber and can take the form of "the struggles of this earth."

Regarding the post-death variety of purification, Collins indicated Catholics pray for the souls of the dead who may not have been fully purified.

"There's no use praying for people in heaven because they don’t need it or in hell because they can't use it. We pray for people who have died and that's found in the Old Testament, in Maccabees," said Collins. "It's a good and noble thing to pray for the dead. That’s what we do at our funerals."

"That's why I don't like it, it's so wrong — I mean, it's understandable, but it's so inadequate — when our funerals are canonizations of people. ... We pray for people that if they are not fully in communion with God yet, they will be purified and they will be with the Lord," added the cardinal.

Hell's relevance

"Hell is part of our faith, but it's not the heart of our faith," Collins told Blaze News. "It's sort of an obvious corollary to freedom, and it's all over the scriptures. It's there in the faith of the church. Yeah, there it is."

In terms of his ministry, Cardinal Collins indicated that hell comes up quite frequently, as he regularly says Leo XIII's prayer to St. Michael and asks Christ to "save us from the fires of hell" when praying the Rosary. However, he insisted that the Catholic faith is not centered on fear of hell but rather on the love of God.

"If we're dwelling on hell all the time, I think that's not spiritually healthy. But if we ignore it, I think we're naïve, and that’s also not spiritually healthy. The focus of our life is the love of God and living that way," said Collins.

Cardinal Collins summarized the matter thusly:

I would simply say that freely loving God is what God makes us for. If we're going to freely love God, the alternative has to be there that we don't. I think history and simple common sense reveal to us that that happens in life — that people totally go against the love of God.

Look at the horrible things — just look at the last century, at reality, at the horrible things done. And that reality to have the freedom to say no to God is the foundation for the fact, the reality of hell. But hell is not the main thing. We focus on the love of God.

Rabbi Aron Moss

Rabbi Aron Moss is the rabbi at Nefesh Center in Sydney, Australia. He is the author of "Can I Name My Dog Israel: Life Questions That Aren't So Black & White" and a prolific writer whose insights into a broad range of topics, including Jewish mysticism, frequently appear on Chabad.org as well as on his podcast entitled, "Two Jews, Three Opinions."

Rabbi Moss spoke to Blaze News over the phone about the Jewish beliefs regarding the afterlife and the idea of hell, specifically Gehinnom — alternatively pronounced "Gehenna" — as a "great kindness."

Hell exists by another name — but it's neither physical nor eternal

'To be able to get there you need to cleanse yourself of any negative residue that you accumulated during your lifetime.'

Rabbi Moss indicated that he and his congregation "certainly do believe in hell" but noted that hell is an English word with its own connotations. When responding to questions about hell, Rabbi Moss specifically referred to Gehinnom.

Unlike the hell described by Cardinal Collins, Rabbi Moss indicated that Gehinnom is a temporary state that prepares souls for heaven.

"So almost every human being leaves this world with some residue of negativity from their sins, the things they've done wrong in this lifetime," Rabbi Moss told Blaze News. "In order to be able to reach the afterlife, which we call the Garden of Eden, paradise — a place where we enjoy the closeness to God — to be able to get there you need to cleanse yourself of any negative residue that you accumulated during your lifetime."

Bodiless and on the go

Gehinnom serves as a "spiritual washing machine to rid the soul of the residue of negativity that accumulated while in the body," said Moss.

Despite its physical description in sacred texts, Gehinnom is completely spiritual, as is the rest of the Jewish afterlife.

'It's a good exchange rate that we have: A bit of suffering in this world is worth a lot in the next world.'

"The body turns to the dust where it came from, the soul returns to God and on the way to its return to God may go through that cleansing, and it's a purely spiritual state," said Moss. "Any physical terminology we use, like, you know, the fires of Gehinnom or anything like that, are purely metaphorical to understand what that cleansing is."

What is described as fire may instead reflect the feeling that results from a soul's confrontation with its earthly past.

"One depiction of Gehinnom is that the soul has to face its behavior that it's done over its lifetime and by looking back at your behavior from the perspective of truth, when you're in the world of truth," said Rabbi Moss. "So just the shame and the embarrassment of looking back at our misdemeanors and our wrongdoings — that shame itself is like the fire of Gehennim, the heat that we feel in the embarrassment. The soul feels that embarrassment, and that itself is the cleansing."

Like Collins, Rabbi Moss indicated that purification can also take place on earth.

"If we go through pain and suffering in this world, then that is a cleansing of our soul, and a small amount of suffering in this world will exempt us from a large amount of suffering in the next world," said Moss. "It's a good exchange rate that we have: A bit of suffering in this world is worth a lot in the next world."

Some souls too dirty to launder

Rabbi Moss indicated that there are some souls too wicked to be allowed into Gehinnom.

'Once you've studied in Kabbalah, you can see it in the Hebrew Bible.'

"They may be sent back down in a form of reincarnation to fix things on earth. There may be unfinished business that rather than being cleansed, you maybe need to go back down and reverse it in another lifetime," said Moss.

When pressed about the nature of that reincarnation, Rabbi Moss noted that the Hebrew Bible does not go into great detail about what happens to the soul or discuss Gehinnom at length but does, however, provide hints.

"These ideas are much more found in the Kabbalah, the mystical side of Judaism," said Moss. "But once you've studied in Kabbalah, you can see it in the Hebrew Bible."

Rabbi Moss noted that the story of Jonah and the whale serves as a prime example.

"So the Kabbalists understand that as talking about the process of reincarnation. The soul that has a mission to fulfill in this world, and if you don't fulfill that mission, so you can be reincarnated in non-human form," said Moss. "You might find yourself in the belly of a fish. Eventually, you'll be spat up on dry land to be reincarnated in human form and to fulfill the mission that you didn't do last time."

While some souls too wicked initially for Gehinnom may be afforded the opportunity to settle their earthly affairs and try again, Rabbi Moss indicated there are other cases of people whose "evil is so entrenched, so connected to them, that Gehinnom — the sort of external cleansing is not enough."

"The [person's] soul would have to be completely destroyed," said Moss. "And that's a very extreme thing. We're not talking about the garden-variety person who may have done wrong. We've all done wrong. We're talking about somebody who is evil incarnate. I guess Hitler is the one we always use as the example. So someone of that level of evil: It's not enough for them to go through some time of cleansing. That's a different story.

Hell as a great kindness

Blaze News asked Rabbi Moss why hell was a "great kindness," which he has previously suggested elsewhere. He underscored that unlike the hell of eternal torment, Gehinnom is a short route to paradise.

Rabbi Moss noted that "ultimately, the journey of the soul is to reunite with God and to connect deeply and profoundly with our Divine source. That's really where the soul is headed to. In order to get there, we have to get rid of all of the blockages that would prevent us from joining that union with God."

Gehinnom is a kindness for aiding souls in that regard.

"It's not an idea of eternal damnation, and it's [in] order to get to a higher place," said Moss.

More prayers for the dead

Just as Catholics pray for the souls of the dead, so too do Jews. But instead of praying for souls believed to be in purgatory, they pray for the souls transitioning through Gehinnom.

"Jewish tradition believes that the average wicked person has twelve months of cleansing. So in our Jewish tradition, if somebody passes away, their friends will pray for the departed, and we actually say those prayers called Kaddish. It's a prayer that allows the soul to be elevated," said Rabbi Moss.

The rabbi noted that it is customary to pray for the departed for 11 months and not 12, to signal an understanding the decedent was not wholly wicked.

Gehinnom's relevance

While Jews generally believe in the afterlife, Rabbi Moss indicated they don't place great emphasis on heaven or hell.

"We do see it as an important element of faith, but it's not central to our belief system, meaning we do good because it's good, not because we're going to get rewarded," said Rabbi Moss. "We avoid evil because it's wrong, not because we're going to get punished."

Rabbi Moss acknowledged that the prospect of eternal punishment or reward can serve as an incentive and is "necessary for our moral structure" but, again, is not central — especially not a great deal more focus assigned to the here and now.

"We believe that being good and doing good is much more about this world — making this world into heaven rather than going to heaven, and also that the bad that we do makes a hell down here and creates suffering down here," said Moss. "That's much more our purpose — is the here and now."

In "Blaze Originals: Understanding hell – Part II," Rev. Fr. Calvin Robinson discusses the reality of hell from a British Old Catholic perspective; Rev. Dr. Lance Haverkamp discusses the Christian Universalist belief that all souls will ultimately be saved, possibly negating the need for hell; Bishop Stephen Andrews provides an Anglican perspective on the darker side of the afterlife; and Dr. Kenneth Green provides historical insights into Jewish views on Gehenna.

In Part III, Rabbi Shana Goldshein provides some Reformed Jewish thoughts on the prospect of hell and the afterlife; and American conservative talk radio host and writer Erick Erickson goes deep on the Presbyerian Church in America's views on perdition.

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Joseph MacKinnon

Joseph MacKinnon

Joseph MacKinnon is a staff writer for Blaze News.
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