A lot of people have questions about heaven, hell, and purgatory. To better understand hell, let’s review a bit. Everything about God and us centers on relationship. Heaven is complete and perfect union with God for eternity. Purgatory is union with God (through sanctifying grace), which is imperfect and incomplete.
Purification from our sins then brings about a perfect union with God. In contrast, hell is complete, total and absolute separation from God for all eternity. Don’t think of heaven, purgatory, and hell as physical places. View them as states of existence. Think of the time you fell in love and the total exhilaration you felt. Consider the moment a loved one died unexpectedly and the shock, loss and disorientation you experienced. Each brought about an internal experience that touched your whole being.
Given the above definition of hell, it is absolutely the most unfortunate and frightening eternity that anyone can experience. We simply have no human language to describe that horror. Those in the state of purgatory are happy—they know they are saved and will be with God in a perfect union. With hell, there is no hope and no future except eternity without God.
God is not near. God cannot be seen. God is gone. If purgatory’s pain is that of regret for what might have been, the pain of hell is simply indescribable hate and total isolation. People often smile and joke, “Well, if I’m in hell, at least I’ll have plenty of company.” This is wrong. There is no company in hell. There is no loving relationship ever. There is only total hate and isolation. The suffering accomplishes nothing, achieves nothing, and is for no purpose. It is the state of the damned.
Does God send people to hell?
God created us free. Even though we are wounded, we are still responsible for our actions according to conditions such as our knowledge and the amount of freedom we have. That’s why there is that incomplete union with God—a time of purification: purgatory. We are accountable.
However, there are some choices that people can make that are so anti-God, so anti-humanity and so terrible that the relationship with God is completely severed and cut off. People say, “Well a good God would not create a hell.” Remember, hell is not God’s creation. God wishes no one to hell. Jesus gave his life so that all would be saved. But every person has the power to love God or to reject God and to reject Jesus’ saving death. Those in the state of hell are there because they chose that separation.
Now, we wonder who would be so foolish to do such a thing. Few would stand in God’s face and say, “I hate and reject you.” But Jesus said, “What you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do to me” (Mt 25:40). To destroy other people is also a sin against God.
We don’t know if anyone actually makes that decision. There are people we often assume are in hell, like individuals in history whose actions have brought deliberate pain to millions of people. But we just don’t know for sure. Only God can know the human heart, a person’s responsibility and circumstances of his or her life. But if there are individuals who do reject God, then they create their own hell by their own actions and choices. The complete and total separation between them and God is of their making.
Who is in hell?
Are there more people saved than in hell? Well, no one knows. Only God can judge the human heart. The Church itself, while canonizing saints infallibly in heaven, has never said that any particular person is in hell. It can’t because only God judges. What about Judas? We can’t say. All people, no matter who or how bad, have the grace to say, “Lord, I’m sorry. Forgive me.” God’s mercy is never denied. It is our Christian hope that many more people are saved than those who choose hell.