An eternal fire is nothing compared to this haunting feature.
One of the most popular descriptions of Hell comes from the Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent. In it Hell is described as a “most loathsome and dark prison in which the souls of the damned are tormented with the unclean spirits in eternal and inextinguishable fire. This place is called gehenna, the bottomless pit, and is hell strictly so-called.”
This particular image of Hell is likely derived from the words of Jesus in the Gospel, “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire” (Mark 9:43).
In biblical terms, Gehenna is the Greek name for a valley southwest of Jerusalem. It was a place where pagan sacrifice occurred, including the burning sacrifice of children. During Jesus’ time it was a garbage dump where refuse was continually burned. Thus, Hell is associated with a place of perpetual fire and pain.
However, while the Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms Hell as a place of “eternal fire,” it also highlights the greatest punishment of all.
The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire.” The chief punishment of hell 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 1035)
When Sister Lucia of Fatima saw a vision of Hell, she noted how the souls there were not only suffering great pain, but immense “despair.” Hell is a place of utter desolation, a lonely place that is anything but a “party of sinners.”
Dante wrote about this aspect of Hell in his Inferno. In contrast to a place of pure fire, he describes it as a lake of ice. In particular, Satan is waist-deep in ice and is seen crying.
The Emperor of the kingdom dolorous
From his mid-breast forth issued from the ice;
With six eyes did he weep, and down three chins
Trickled the tear-drops and the bloody drivel (Canto XXXIV).
Instead of a place of burning, it is seen as a place of darkness, cold and despair. These images from Dante display the reality of eternal separation from God and the resulting extreme loneliness.
Separation from the source of all light and love should be terrifying. It means an eternity of being alone, away from humanity and away from all that is true, good and beautiful. Hell is the opposite of Heaven, where the blessed experience eternal communion, joy, love and friendship. The “flames” of Hell are nothing when confronted with this stark reality.