US Supreme Court Justice Antonin says he believes in hell and the Devil and gets mocked. But Scalia’s allies are more important than his critics: aside from the majority of Americans, Jesus the Son of God, and his Vicar, Pope Francis, talk about both of those things in their teachings constantly.
Yes, hell is real, and for Catholics, it’s existence is a matter of dogma. The Council of Florence in 1439 taught: “We define…[that] the souls of those who depart this life in actual mortal sin, or in original sin alone, go down straightaway to hell to be punished, but with unequal pains.”
Since it’s only a place for those who have died, hell cannot be accessed by those of us still living – at least under ordinary circumstances. Many saints and non-saints throughout the history of the Church have claimed to have had vivid mystical experiences of hell and written about it. Below are three such descriptions.
The Catechism makes clear that private revelations do not “improve or complete” the deposit of faith but instead are meant “to help [us] live more fully by it in a certain period of history.” So read these visions with a grain of salt, seeing if they can help inspire you to take more seriously the reality of the eternal realm of the damned.
“All Was Thick Darkness”: St. Teresa of Avila
The great 16th century saint, Teresa of Avila, was a Carmelite nun and theologian. One of only 35 Doctors of the Church, her book The Interior Castle is considered to be one of the greatest books on the spiritual life. In her autobiography, she describes a vision of a hell she believed God gave her to help her turn away from her sins:
“I felt a fire in my soul. I cannot see how it is possible to describe it. My bodily sufferings were unendurable. I have undergone most painful sufferings in this life… yet all these were as nothing in comparison with what I felt then, especially when I saw that there would be no intermission, nor any end to them. […]
“Left in that pestilential place, and utterly without the power to hope for comfort, I could neither sit nor lie down: there was no room. I was placed as it were in a hole in the wall; and those walls, terrible to look on of themselves, hemmed me in on every side. I could not breathe. There was no light, but all was thick darkness. […]
“Afterwards I had another most fearful vision, in which I saw the punishment of certain sins. They were most horrible to look at… […] I have read of the diverse tortures, and how the devils tear the flesh with red-hot pincers. But all is as nothing before this; it is a wholly different matter. In short, the one is a reality, the other a picture; and all burning here in this life is as nothing in comparison with the fire that is there. I was so terrified by that vision,–and that terror is on me even now while I am writing,–that though it took place nearly six years ago, the natural warmth of my body is chilled by fear even now when I think of it. […]
“It was that vision that filled me with the very great distress which I feel at the sight of so many lost souls, especially of the Lutherans,–for they were once members of the Church by baptism,–and also gave me the most vehement desires for the salvation of souls; for certainly I believe that, to save even one from those overwhelming torments, I would most willingly endure many deaths.”
“Caverns and Pits of Torture”: St. Maria Faustyna Kowalska
St. Maria Faustyna Kowalska, most commonly known as St. Faustina, was a polish nun who claimed to have had a series of visions which included Jesus, the Eucharist, angels, and various saints. It is from her visions, recorded in her diary, that the Church received the now-popular devotion the Divine Mercy Chaplet. In one entry from late October of 1936, she tells of a vision of hell:
“These are the tortures suffered by all the damned together, but that is not the end of their sufferings. There are special tortures destined for particular souls. These are the torments of the senses. Each soul undergoes terrible and indescribable sufferings, related to the manner in which it has sinned. There are caverns and pits of torture where one form of agony differs from another. I would have died at the very sight of these tortures if the omnipotence of God had not supported me. Let the sinner know that he will be tortured throughout all eternity, in those senses which he made use of to sin. I am writing this at the command of God, so that no soul may find an excuse by saying there is no hell, or that nobody has ever been there, and so no one can say what it is like.
“I, Sister Faustina, by the order of God, have visited the abysses of hell so that I might tell souls about it and testify to its existence. I cannot speak about it now; but I have received a command from God to leave it in writing. The devils were full of hatred for me, but they had to obey me at the command of God. What I have written is but a pale shadow of the things I saw. But I noticed one thing: that most of the souls there are those who disbelieved that there is a hell. When I came to, I could hardly recover from the fright. How terribly souls suffer there! Consequently, I pray even more fervently for the conversion of sinners. I incessantly plead God’s mercy upon them. O my Jesus, I would rather be in agony until the end of the world, amidst the greatest sufferings, than offend You by the least sin.” (Diary of St. Faustina, 741)
“A Vast Sea of Fire”: Sr. Lucy of Fatima
Sister Lucy isn’t a saint, but she was one of the visionaries of one of the most important private revelations of the 20th century in Fatima, Portugal. In 1917, she was one of three children to claim to have experienced several visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She says Mary showed her a vision of hell, which she later described in her Memoirs:
“The latter were like transparent burning embers, all blackened or burnished bronze, having human forms. They were floating about in that conflagration, now raised into the air by the flames which issued from within themselves, together with great clouds of smoke. Now they fell back on every side like sparks in huge fires, without weight or equilibrium, amid shrieks and groans of pain and despair, which horrified us and made us tremble with fright (it must have been this sight which caused me to cry out, as people say they heard me).
“The demons were distinguished [from the souls of the damned] by their terrifying and repellent likeness to frightful and unknown animals, black and transparent like burning coals. That vision only lasted for a moment, thanks to our good Heavenly Mother, Who at the first apparition had promised to take us to Heaven. Without that, I think that we would have died of terror and fear."
Inspired at all? May we all cast ourselves on the mercy of God in Christ, and so avoid anything even close to these descriptions, and instead spend eternity in union with God in heaven.