Why are We so Afraid to be Afraid of Hell?



By Ralph Martin, president of Renewal Ministries

As I’ve taught classes and given talks on the “New Evangelization,” I’ve been struck at how both Jesus and the Apostles make a regular part of their message not only the positive proclamation of the Good News that Christ has, by his sacrifice, won redemption for the whole world, but also the terrible consequences of neglecting such an offer: namely, Hell.

Yet seldom is this foundational part of the New Testament’s message heard in the contemporary Church. Why are we so afraid of speaking about Hell?

Some common reactions: “Our religion is a religion of love, not of fear.” “People already have a bad self-image, and this could make them feel worse.” “Fear of Hell is an unworthy motive for being a Christian.” “We shouldn’t be trying to frighten people into being good.”

While in a short article I can’t respond to reactions like these, I do want to affirm the necessity of making sure that, in our thinking, preaching and teaching, we stick with what Jesus and the apostles have told us to communicate to people. They must have good reasons.

When only the positive offer of salvation is taught and proclaimed, and we are silent about the consequences of not responding to this amazing offer of mercy, it is very easy to see the call to the New Evangelization as an “optional extra” — nice but not really necessary. After decades of silence about the consequence of not responding to the mercy of God by a life of faith, repentance and obedience — namely, Hell — an alien worldview has colonized the minds of vast numbers of our fellow Catholics that presumes that virtually everyone will be saved, except perhaps a few really notorious mass murderers.

But, of course, murder is only one of a whole number of grave sins that, if unrepented, will exclude people from the Kingdom of God: “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the Kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts, nor thieves, nor the greedy nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the Kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).

This is not an isolated text; similar lists of sins that will exclude people from Heaven are contained in Galatians 5:13, 19-21; Ephesians 5:5-6; Revelation 22:14-15 — and many other places as well.

Jesus is particularly emphatic about the absolute necessity of turning away from serious sin if we are to enter the Kingdom: “And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire” (Matthew 18:9). He clearly tells us to not fear those who can kill the body, but to fear the eternal punishment due to unrepented sin in Hell (Luke 12:4-5).

It isn’t just a wide range of unrepented immorality that will exclude people from the Kingdom — but perhaps the gravest sin of all: unbelief:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life. God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:16-18).

Father Francis Martin, in one of his biblical/theological essays, calls unbelief in the revelation of Jesus “the root sin of the world.”

“Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath,” John 3:36 states.

There are literally dozens of New Testament passages that speak of the eternal consequences of not repenting, of not believing, of not living a life of obedience as a disciple of Jesus.

It is manifest that Jesus and the apostles thought it important that the negative consequences of failing to respond in thought, word and deed to the message of salvation were clearly communicated to their hearers. Jesus knew what was in the hearts of human beings and knew that the fear of Hell, while not the end point of the Christian life, is a very good beginning if it motivates repentance.

And while “perfect love casts out fear” of punishment and of the Day of Judgment (1 John 4:17-18), the spiritual wisdom of the Church makes clear that we can’t jump to the end of the journey without a good beginning, patiently working through each step of purification and cleansing.

St. Catherine of Siena notes how the initial stage of the journey is characterized by a very useful fear of Hell, a “slavish fear,” as she puts it, which later moves on to what she calls “mercenary love” and, finally, on to “perfect love.” You don’t jump to perfect love without a good beginning.

St. John of the Cross presupposes that before people are really ready to undertake the spiritual journey they have been deeply struck by the shortness of life, the narrowness of the road leading to life (Matthew 7:14), the strictness of the judgment, how “the just one is scarcely saved” (1 Peter 4:18), how “perdition is very easy and salvation very difficult” and the need for profound repentance from sin and wholehearted surrender to God (The Spiritual Canticle, Stanza 1;1).

St. Ignatius of Loyola, in his Spiritual Exercises, acknowledges that the most important motivation for serving God is pure love, but he also cites the useful role of “servile fear” in the spiritual journey (as also does St. Francis de Sales):

We should also strongly praise fear of his Divine majesty. For not only is filial fear something pious and very holy, but so also is servile fear. Even if it brings a person nothing better or more useful, it greatly aids him or her to rise from mortal sin, and once such a one has arisen, one easily attains to a greater filial fear (370).

If we are to have a strong Church and a dynamic evangelization, we need to pass on to everyone all that Jesus and the apostles have commanded us to pass on, including the consequences of failing to believe and obey. “If then the light that is in thee, be darkness: the darkness itself how great it shall be!” (Matthew 6:23)

We need not be so afraid of people being afraid of Hell. It’s an excellent beginning to the spiritual journey — and continues to be of value even as the spiritual life progresses.

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12 Responses to Why are We so Afraid to be Afraid of Hell?

  1. Toadspitttle says:

    How can anyone make a logical, let alone morally justifiable, case for limited beings (us) meriting unlimited anything at all – reward or punishment?

    Nevertheless, I can understand a God saying, “I’m going to reward you with unlimited and eternal happiness. You don’t deserve it – but I’ll do it because I love you.”
    But when a God says:
    “I am going to give you punish you with unlimited and eternal pain. You don’t deserve it, but I’ll do it because I love you,” …that’s harder to grasp.
    But no doubt I will be put right.


  2. kathleen says:

    But Toad, God doesn’t say,“I am going to give you punish you with unlimited and eternal pain. You don’t deserve it, but I’ll do it because I love you,”.

    More likely something like: “Do you not want to be with Me for all Eternity? Are you adamant you wish to refuse My Love and Friendship forever? It saddens Me greatly for I have Loved you from the Creation of the World, but if it is so, I will respect your Free Will.”

    See the difference? Hell is the destiny for those who, one could say, chose it.

    But hey, who are we to try to fathom the ways of God?


  3. shieldsheafson says:

    Dear Toad,
    If you have time on your hands, both St. Thomas and Reg. Garrigou-Lagrange OP have something to say about eternal damnation:



  4. Toad, as Kathleen correctly points out, God does not punish us with hell. God offers us the grace to be with Him and the communion of saints for eternity. It is up to us whether we accept that offer. As the Catechism of the Catholic states:

    “This state of definitive [self-exclusion] from communion with God and the blessed is called ‘hell.’ . . . [H]ell 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.” – (CCC 1033, 1035) [emphasis on self-exclusion].

    As humans, we are aware of the broken world that we live in. Mixed with the joys of our humanity is also the pain and sorrow of our isolated existence. If we live our lives striving to be with God and others, God offers us the grace be with Him in heaven. As Pope Benedict points out, God so wants us to be with Him that the second person of the Trinity became Incarnate to save us from the isolation of hell:

    “Faith sees in Jesus the man in whom—on the biological plane—the next evolutionary leap, as it were, has been accomplished; the man in whom the breakthrough out of the limited scope of humanity, out of its monadic enclosure, has occurred; the man in whom personalization and socialization no longer exclude each other but support each other; the man in whom perfect unity—“The body of Christ”, says St. Paul, and even more pointedly “You are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28)—and perfect individuality are one; the man in whom humanity comes into contact with its future and in the highest extent itself becomes its future, because through him it makes contact with God himself, shares in him, and thus realizes its most intrinsic potential. From here onward faith in Christ will see the beginning of a movement in which dismembered humanity is gathered together more and more into the being of one single Adam, one single “body”—the man to come. It will see in him the movement to that future of man in which he is completely “socialized”, incorporated in one single being, but in such a way that the individual is not extinguished but brought completely to himself.” — Pope Benedict XVI, “Introduction to Christianity”, Kindle Edition, Kindle Locations 2873-2881 (citing Pierre Teilhard de Chardin).

    W. Ockham


  5. johnhenrycn says:

    Some of the dead may have led such irredeemably (in their own eyes) evil lives they cannot bear to remain in the presence of God. Lakes of fire and brimstone may be metaphorical, but the excruciating torments of Hell may be chosen by some, perhaps even with relief, over what might for them be the unendurable pain of remaining in the presence of Infinite Beauty and Goodness. They might prefer annihilation over Hell, but apparently, according to my understanding of Christian, let alone Catholic, doctrine, that’s not an option.


  6. Toadspitttle says:

    This is very good, and thanks to those above, who are not simply parroting that Toad is stupid, platitudinous, full of excrement, etc. (Which is all true, but gets us nowhere.)

    …But it seems God is not saying, “If you want to be with me, you can, but if you don’t, that’s OK – go your own way, and have a nice day.”
    …From what I gather from CP&S – it seems as if He is saying: “If you don’t accept me, you will be physically punished eternally with hideous torments far worse than anything even daily life has to offer – and that for all eternity.” Or is that not so?
    It has also been said on here that in order to go to Hell, it is necessary to “hate” God.
    That would automatically indicate that only believers qualify. Is that so, too?
    Big topic.
    The quote by Pope Benedict – citing Teilhard, makes no mention whatever of eternal damnation, which is what we are talking about here.
    Is that significant? What did Teilhard think about that?
    There is a mighty ,hefty disjunction between merely rejecting someone, as William puts it – and castigating them horribly forever.
    Or so it seems to me.
    But that is what we are told God does – or to quibble – allows to happen.And that seems evil to me.


  7. Toad, I am certainly not a theologian so take everything I say with a truckload of salt but I can cite the Catechism which clearly defines hell as definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed. This eternal loneliness and isolation is hell. As Kathleen correctly points out, God is not an ogre that keeps a scorecard on our activities; we either choose to love God and others or not love God and others. As the Catechism states:

    “We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves: “He who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.”612 Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren.613 To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called “hell.” (1861, 393, 633)” [Catechism of the Catholic Church, Section 1033].

    As Pope Benedict elaborated in his book “Credo for Today”:

    “We are told that in this article of the Creed, the word “hell” is only a wrong translation of sheol (in Greek, Hades), which denoted in Hebrew the state after death, which was very vaguely imagined as a kind of shadow existence, more nonbeing than being. Accordingly, the statement meant originally, say the scholars, only that Jesus entered sheol, that is, that he died. This may be perfectly correct, but the question remains whether it makes the matter any simpler or less mysterious. In my view, it is only at this point that we come face to face with the problem of what death really is, what happens when someone dies, that is, enters into the fate of death. Confronted with this question, we all have to admit our embarrassment. No one really knows the answer because we all live on this side of death and are unfamiliar with the experience of death. But perhaps we can try to begin formulating an answer by starting again from Jesus’ cry on the Cross, which we found to contain the heart of what Jesus’ descent into hell, his sharing of man’s mortal fate, really means. In this last prayer of Jesus, as in the scene on the Mount of Olives, what appears as the innermost heart of his Passion is not any physical pain but radical loneliness, complete abandonment. But in the last analysis what comes to light here is simply the abyss of loneliness of man in general, of man who is alone in his innermost being. This loneliness, which is usually thickly overlaid but is nevertheless the true situation of man, is at the same time in fundamental contradiction with the nature of man, who cannot exist alone; he needs company. That is why loneliness is the region of fear, which is rooted in the exposure of a being that must exist but is pushed out into a situation with which it is impossible for him to deal.”

    Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal (2009-07-13). Credo For Today (pp. 86-87). Ignatius Press. Kindle Edition.

    Anyone who has been in a human relationship and then separated, whether it be marriage, friendship, etc. has experienced the briefest of glimpses of this loneliness and knows that this loneliness is far scarier than the fire and brimstone images of Dante.


  8. kathleen says:

    Some truly great comments here. Shieldsheafson’s link is very informative. (Hope Toad takes the time to read it.)

    William’s excellent comment at 16:19 yesterday, quoting this pertinent passage of the then Card. Ratzinger from “Credo for Today”, adeptly underlines the essence of Hell. Yes, it is exclusion, loneliness, being separated from the One for whom we were created. And it is forever.

    johnhenry, you explain so well how the souls who are damned* would prefer Hell to being in God’s presence. (This is often a mystery for many, asking, “why would anyone in their right mind chose Hell over Heaven?”)

    * “damned” – that’s a word that sends shivers down my spine.

    O my Jesus, save us from the fires of Hell. Lead all souls to Heaven, especially those most in need of Your Mercy. Amen


  9. Adrian Meades says:

    When atheists die, and they find out that God exists, they will instantly become believers. Problem solved!


  10. kathleen says:

    It doesn’t work like that Adrian.

    All men are given the chance to find God in their lives on Earth. Whereas it is true that some are given many more “talents” (facilities to learn the True Faith) than others, Man is created with an innate knowledge of God in his heart, for we were made “in His Image and Likeness”. This will enable him (or her) to find God through Faith within the possibilities of their circumstances.

    Among the many “enemies” to Faith in God, which includes the lack of any type of guidance or catechesis, or an anti-God education (like atheistic communism), the greatest enemy of all to Faith in God is Sin. A sinful life will blot out the vision of God from the heart and lead to a disbelief in His existence.
    Even then, there will always be opportunities placed in the path of the sinner to lead him back again – such is God’s Love and Mercy for all Men – but these become more and more obfuscated the more they are refused.

    Remember the parable about the Rich Man and Lazarus? (Luke 16 19-31).
    In the story, the Rich Man from the pit of Hell cries out to Abraham whom he sees in Heaven with the beggar Lazarus at his side: “for I have five brothers; that he [Lazarus] may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment.”
    And what does Abraham reply? “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.” “No, father Abraham,” he said, “but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.”
    He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

    This is our time to believe and thus follow Christ Who suffered and Died to Redeem us. This is our time to make amends for past sins, to work at saving our souls (by the Grace of God) and as many others as possible. After our deaths it will be too late.


  11. GC says:

    Toad 10:16

    I demand the right to go to Hell if I choose to.


  12. Toadspitttle says:

    …But why should I want to?
    Sounds even worse than being on earth.
    And no dogs.


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