Hellfire - can we really interpret it metaphorically?

Hello, that’s my first post on this forum :). Glad to be able to write with you all.

In this thread I’d like to consider the notion of hellfire. I know there have been like plenty threads on that. In all of them the majority of users claimed that hellfire is a metaphore for the psychological torments of the damned. I, too, did (because now I don’t know if still do) consider it in the same manner, i.e., resulting from the mere knowledge of losing God forever (although still distinct from ‘poena damni’, the pain of loss).

I read a bit on the topic, and although in many, especially ‘traditionalist’ Catholic places I saw statements on the fire of Hell being material, I also found information that – being a minority opinion of the theologians – it is still possible to interpret Hell fire metaphorically, as did, for instance, Ambrosius Catharinus, a 16th century Dominican. He might have been considered controversial, but was apparently never criticised for that particular view. So I held to my private opinion – I think that it is shared by many Catholics, among them JP2 and B16 – until recently.

Because recently I found out that certain theologians, while admitting that the material Hellfire is not de fide, said that to deny this view would be ‘harsh’ and even constitute a mortal sin. Elsewhere I also found a passage in which the author mentioned the reply of Sacred Penitentiary from the 19th century, where a priest was said to reprimend his penitent, who interpretted the fire of Hell metaphorically, under pain of denying absolution. Moreover, Cardinal Gasparri had this to say on that matter:

It is theologically certain, though not “of faith,” that the fire of Hell is a real or corporeal, not a metaphorical fire, see Hugon, O.P., De Novissimis, qu. III, i, no. 7: “The Church has nowhere defined the nature of the fire but the teaching of theologians who speak of this fire as real and not a figure of speech has been so accepted by the Church that to hold the contrary would be intolerably rash.” The same is held by Cardinal Lepicier, De Novissimis, qu. IV, art. 2; also by Cardinal Billot, De Novissimis, qu. III, thesis 4. There exists also a reply given by the Sacred Penitentiary to the question “whether penitents can be absolved if they only allow of a metaphorical and not a real fire of Hell”; the Reply runs: such penitents are to be carefully instructed and if obstinately holding to their views cannot be absolved,” April 30, 1890.

He mentions the opinion of the Penitentiary I referred to above.

So, given all those opinions, what are we to make of hellfire? My guess is that, like, 80% of modern Catholics do not believe in literal, material fire of Hell. Or perhaps we might ignore the Penitentiary as it was not dogmatic but disciplinary? If so, would the theological censures (‘rashness’) no longer be valid?

For the sake of argument let’s say that I do not side with either opinion right now. I just wonder what a Catholic must believe about the topic in question, having taken into consideration all the facts mentioned.

Here is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says about Hell:

"1034 Jesus often speaks of “Gehenna,” of “the unquenchable fire” reserved for those who to the end of their lives refuse to believe and be converted, where both soul and body can be lost.614 Jesus solemnly proclaims that he “will send his angels, and they will gather… all evil doers, and throw them into the furnace of fire,”615 and that he will pronounce the condemnation: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire!”616

“1035 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.”617 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. (393)”

But these two points don’t address the question whether this ‘fire’ is metaphorical or material.

I like the Eastern interpretation of Hell,

If you’re not familiar with it, research it,

God bless

The Catechism certainly does not say what hellfire is. Therefore I think you can believe it to be either metaphorical or literal. How does it really matter? The suffering in Hell is more horrendous than we can imagine. It will even get worse after the resurrection of our bodies at Jesus’ second coming! The important thing to do is live a holy life so that we do find out what the fire is by own experience of it.

Certainly Jesus isn’t speaking of a metaphorical fire. Jesus doesn’t state: It’s a lake like a fire, but he is quite clear that it is a lake of fire.
The question is what kind of fire? Physical, spiritual, psychological? Since it is spoken of it after the resurrection of the body, then it is most likely physical. It’s not necessarily just physical. Most likely that it will burn, both body and soul, as Jesus stated: Fear he, who can loose both body and soul in the Gehenna. And, of course, conscience, too.
When Jesus speaks of the Gehenna, he is referring to the garbage pit outside Jerusalem, where waste is being burnt, night and day. He uses the image of Gehenna to point to the fires of eternal damnation.
So, it will be a lake of fire, but a blazing napalm storm here on earth would pale in comparison. As st Augustine put it: the pain caused by fire, here, on earth, compared to the pain of eternal fires, is like the pain between looking at a picture of a fire and the pain of actually being in it.

Thanks for the replies. :slight_smile: However, I think that you misunderstood the point of my OP. I know all the theories about what Hell might be like. I now that we’re told we can believe either way: that fire is material or that it’s a metaphor (cf. John Paul II’s speech on Hell). In my life I haven’t met a Catholic priest or faithful for that matter who would say that yes, there is really material fire in Hell. When we go back, say, 60 years, most priest and faithful would be of opinion that it is really material. Doesn’t it suggest it’s a bit modern understanding? Perhaps not: I wrote that there were theologians who interpreted Hellfire as metaphorical; for instance, Catharinus, Heinrich Klee and some more. As far as I can tell they were not silenced for teaching so.

But, the question is, whether the ‘metaphorical’ interpretation is at all allowed? Or is it a mistake to understand Hell this way? The existence of theologians who held to metaphorical interpretation, and their not being censured, would imply that we indeed may believe either way. However, the answer of the Penitentiary is the most important issue here. Can we ignore it? If yes, why so?

I am very well familiar with it, my hearing of it is one of the reasons I begun searching for dogmatic statements of the Church I belong to (to be clear: Catholic Church). I have to admit that I’ve always had problems with understanding God as not only depriving the mortal unrepentant sinner of His sight (which is fully understandable), but also adding certain punishment, although without it Hell would still be the worst thing ever and more horrible than anything. And for some time I thought the Orthodox view can be, with some effort, reconciled with the teaching of the Catholic Church from before the second half of the 20th. But the answer of the Penitentiary seems to negate it. So the real question for this thread is:

What rank does a decision of the Sacred Penitentiary have? And if it can be considered fallible, on what grounds?

From what I’ve read I guess that the traditionally allowed interpretation is physical and/or spiritual. But not psychological. In this thread I repeatedly wrote ‘material fire’ but traditionally it didn’t have to be seen as necessarily material (could be ‘spiritual’ if that makes any sense): what had to be believed was that it was a punishment inflicted from the outside; in other words, that it wasn’t ‘burning’ the soul from within but from the outside. Still, it would seem, the ‘psychological’ fire, for the reason named, was considered a ‘rash’ understanding of this theological issue.

The Catechism does not say, but other statements from the Church from previous centuries seem to say something more or less definite on that matter. Like I wrote in the OP.
Also, it does not really matter, but due to the thing I mentioned earlier (that I find it very hard to imagine God adding punishment to a sentence that is absolutely terrible, eternal and irreversible without it) I don’t know whether, holding to that opinion, and despite it is the vast majority’s opinion nowadays, I belong to the Catholic Church or whether I should convert to Orthodoxy (I wouldn’t have to believe something considered ‘harsh’).

Once again: What rank does a decision of the Sacred Penitentiary have? And if it can be considered fallible, on what grounds?

The fire of Hell is a spiritual fire. I’ve read that it is made of God’s anger, but from another source that it’s made up of God’s absence; in any case, it is an actual fire.

Exactly. The exact nature of the “fires of Hell” have not been revealed to us. We can use conjecture, if we are really interested. What we do know are a handful of facts about Hell, and a lot of what many individual Catholics, some even Saints, have had as their conjecture about Hell through the centuries. Just because the Twenty-first Century ideas have the greatest experience of the past to draw on does not make our ideas better or worse than those before. Surely, a few generation from now, we will seem foolish in many ways.

I think before we can even guess if there is actually fire, we ought to know what fire really and substantially is. That in itself has been quite a journey for Man. Is spiritual “stuff” even capable of oxidation? :shrug:

No, it is not one of the four elements.

Father John Hardon’s Modern Catholic Dictionary:

FIRE OF HELL. The physical reality, outside the person, by which those in hell are punished besides their loss of the vision of God. It is called fire in the Scriptures to emphasize the excruciating pain it causes, and to identify it as some external agent tormenting the lost. But it is not ordinary fire, since it does not consume what it burns, and, although material, it can affect the purely spiritual substance of the soul.

Okay, I know how they define it.But is that the only allowable interpretation? If yes, 90% of modern Catholic theologians are at least ‘rash’ in their opinions.

The only possible understanding that I could make of this is as follows: the mere information that the soul is eternally damned makes her self-ignite (in the manner analogous to real-life spontaneous human combustion). Or perhaps the ‘tension’ between the soul and the ‘hand of God’ that moves it away from Him causes this ignition (I found this ‘theory’ in a booklet written by a priest who himself called the metaphorical interpretation ‘rash’). But I don’t know how God could, in addition to denying Heaven (that the sinner did not deserve, granted), bind fire to the soul of the damned. She’s miserable without it.

Good explanation! The Old Catholic Encyclopedia says it is a spirtual burning fire. Anyone who has lost a kid knows, psychological pain HURTS

I have a question though. Wouldn’t God be SAD for all eternally with the reprobates decision? Its not resolved…

Apparently, both beliefs are acceptable, since there is no definitive description of what actually constitutes ‘hellfire’, given to us in the Catechism. No one really knows for sure, but there has always been ‘heated’ debate about it. The Church allows us to draw some of our own conclusions, because of that. I tend to believe that it is both material (physical) fire and spiritual fire, as well as a metaphorical description of all the ‘pains of hell’. I believe the ‘pains of hell’ are as varied as the sins that cause them.

Why are you insisting that it has to be 100%, either one way or the other? Are you trying to find a way to prove that the Church is contradicting itself by it’s teachings in the Catechism, now, as opposed to what was taught in years past? Most people don’t like the thought of there being actual fire in hell, so they tend to not want to believe that it could be real. In fact, many, if not most people, would rather believe that there is no hell, at all. The devil loves those people, because they tend to think they will somehow all be saved, no matter what they do, or don’t do. That makes it much easier for him to convince them that God would never punish anyone, so they have nothing to worry about.

Hell scares people. Hell being described as a lake filled with real fire, scares them even more. Hell fire is supposed to scare the ‘hell’ out of us. That’s the whole point of it. When we take the thought of there being real fire out of our minds when we contemplate hell, then we leave ourselves room to believe that going to hell for our sins might not be so bad, after all. I think, for some of us, it’s a good deterrent to keep us from falling into complacency, and becoming ‘lukewarm’ in our faith. I’m sure we all know where the Bible tells us that will lead us to, in the end.

I totaly agree that for general purposes it is prudent to present Hell as a lake of fire, if only to make us be more scared of sinning. That’s one thing. But when we go deeper then I think it is allowable to draw some personal conclusions. Believe me, I’m not trying to present Hell as ‘not that bad’. Certainly not. All theologians without exception insist that the most horrible pain of Hell is pain of losing God. So it alone is enough to make Hell the worst torture ever. Someone could say: ‘Oh, but I don’t care about God now, so I won’t be sad when I don’t see Him after death’. To this I answer: ‘But you will see Him at your personal judgment and I guarantee you that this mere sight of Him will make you burn forever.’ So you see it’s not watering down the dogma.

And I’m not trying to show that the Church is contradicting herself. Apparently the opinion of the Penitentiary is not binding now. Okay, I accept it and even am relieved. But still I want to know: why it’s not binding.

Now as you can see from my previous post I don’t have that much issue with this fire being material (although if I could believe otherwise, I would) as with the source thereof. As I said several times: I have problems imagining God being so vengeful as to add fire so that Hell, already the worst punishment, is even less bearable. I suppose it’s not modernist to have such reservations. I can quote the passage from this priest (who condemns the metaphorical explanation):

[quote=“Fr Joseph Rickaby, SJ. ‘Everlasting Punishment’. London 1916”]The fire of hell is real fire: that is to say, the word fire is the most proper and exact word which human speech affords to tell us what that terrible thing is. ‘Everlasting fire’ is not a figurative expression; it occurs in a judicial sentence. Judges in passing sentence do not use figurative or metaphorical language; not in any figurative or metaphorical sense shall you be ‘hung by the neck till you are dead.’ At the same time we have no exact and certain knowledge of the precise nature of the fire of hell. Is it exactly like the fire of earth? But what exactly is the fire of eart?

to be continued on the next page

[quote=“Fr Joseph Rickaby, SJ. ‘Everlasting Punishment’. London 1916”] What is combustion? Not till the end of the eighteenth century was man able to reply, ‘combustion is rapid combination with oxygen.’ Our ancestors did not scientifically know what fire was. They thought it was a ‘substance,’ an ‘element,’ the lightest and in natural position the highest of the four elements …] out of which all bodies were composed. So then the fire of hell, if it really was fire, they thought must be a substance too. So it well may be, but we must speak cautiously. Modern science presents us with heat, fire, light, and electricity, and tells us that they are all so many, not substances or elements, but modes of motion affecting substance, whatever substance may be. They are most abudant things in nature: the fixed stars are all on fire; electricity is suspected of being a primary constituent of matter. We know much more about these things tan our ancestors did: still we are in great perplexity over them, indeed our perplexities grow with our knowledge. …] Of a fire such as that in which angels and disembodied souls burn, happily we have no experience. And beyound teaching us that there is such a fire, real fire, Christian revelation does not go. It would be therefore extremely rash, beyound the existence (an sit) of suc a fire, to pretend to lay down with certainty its nature, qualities, composition, and mode of action (quid sit). The Church does not do so. Her theologians echo St. Augustine’s words: ‘As to which fire, of what sort, and in what part of the world or universe it is to be, I am of opinion that no man knows …]’ There is, however, a general consent of the faithful to regard it as a ‘material’ fire, and though this be not absolutely of faith, still it cannot be denied without incurring the theological note of ‘rashness.’ In accordance with this general consent I have described it as ‘a material’ environment.’ A further speculation: is this material environment itself on fire, or is it such that the soul chafing and struggling against that constraint – ‘the great net of slavery …] continually earing herself in pieces’ – thereby sets herself on fire? …] 'Over and above this material environment I have been myself led to argue the probability of the spiritual substance of the soul, or evil angel, itself coming truly to burn under two opposing constraints, the natural constraint, or effort, of the spirit, seeking to go out to God, in whom alone, as it finds out too late, its essential happines lies, and to the contrary, the constraining hand of God, driving that spirit back upon itself. …] Under analogous constraint, any material substance, as all physicists now know, would grow hot and glow intensely. The laws of matter may well have their analogue in the spirit world. If this be so, the mere ***depart from me***must involve everlasting fire. If this be so again, the wicked spirit has made its own hell, having first rejected the God who now rejects it. Also, if this be so, it becomes transparently clear that as heaven means God, so hell means no God; and no God is just what the obstinate impenitent sinner has chosen to have in this life, and consequently in the next. This, however, is a speculation. It makes the fire of hell very real and very terrible. For what is terrible in a fire is not the medium in which you are placed, but how you yourself burn. …] [T]here is the loss of God; and about that, what I have had to say comes to this, that considering the relation in which the soul stands to its Last End, the mere felt loss of God, apart from all other agency, may, on an analogy drawn from the physical to the spiritual, be enough to set the substance of the soul veritably on fire.

OK, I think I understand your questioning a little better, now.

There’s only one thing I would point out concerning Judgement. Those souls will certainly see Jesus in His glory, and that alone will show them what their own souls might have obtained, even a small share in. But the worst part, will be their never being able to experience the Beatific Vision, which is to truly see God, Himself, ‘face to face’. Knowing that will most certainly be even more excruciating for them, knowing that they’ve lost that source of all happiness, forever. In my opinion, that would definitely be the worst part of being in hell.

At the point of death, every soul will have full knowledge and understanding of their own pathetic and sinful state, and what all of their actions have done against God, and everyone else around them that were affected by those actions, either directly, or indirectly. They will all remember every single sin they’ve ever committed, and each one of them will add to their pain.

The only reason I can think of, is because no one really knows for sure, what hell will be like. No one can understand the full scope of what hell is, or the consistency of what the sufferings will be for anyone, except God. So, it would be wrong to put any kind of ‘penalty’ on believing, or not believing, something that’s impossible for any of us to ever really know.

I think it’s a huge mistake for any of us to imagine that God would ever punish souls if they didn’t deserve it. God is love, first and foremost, and from His great love, comes mercy. So, God is always fair in His Judgements. He takes everything into consideration, and all of His Judgements are always metered through Mercy and Justice. God’s punishment of the damned is required to balance Justice. The type and degree of punishment always fits the wickedness of the transgression.

Souls who follow God’s will as well as they can, and sacrifice their own comforts and the pleasures in this life, for His sake, are justly rewarded in Heaven, according to their merits. But, souls that live their lives in willful disobedience of God, and their fellow man; who engage in every sinful lust and pleasure on earth, with a total disregard and malice toward both, mankind and God, will also receive the just punishments that they deserve, in hell.

Another thing that we have to remember, is that the souls who end up in hell, hate God and everything that we would consider to be good. They don’t want to be with God, forever, even though they know they’re missing out on eternal happiness. It just makes them hate God, even more. They hide from the face of God out of shame, and hate. As someone posted elsewhere, CS Lewis said that the gates of hell are locked from the inside. Meaning, if they wanted to leave, they would, but they don’t want to leave. It boggles my mind, but I tend to believe it’s probably true.

Thomas Aquinas says that God loves the NATURE of the damned, but not the damned themsevles. Otherwise God would be sad for all eternity. He once loved them, but no more

This is true.

Sometimes in a discussion, it helps to define terms.

Fire is defined as “a state, process, or instance of combustion in which fuel or other material is ignited and combined with oxygen, giving off light, heat, and flame.”

Since “on the other side” people do not have their bodies - because there has not been the general resurrection - it is not possible to ascribe “hellfire” as the material fire - that is an oxymoron.

Stop for a minute and think of someone 2,000, 3,000 or more years ago. They were too close to a fire and were burned.

There were no “burn units” back then. It has been said that there is not much which is more painful than being physically burned. It is therefore no wonder that the Old Testament may refer to the fires of hell; nor for that matter, why Christ might say so.

If it has any meaning (and I presume that), then it tells us of an unspeakable pain from which there is no escape. And that pain is spiritual.

Psychological pain presumes a body. Spiritual pain does not, although neither does it mean no (as in “none”) body.

Having dealt with some (a few) people who were as committed to a life of sin as one could be, I can understand the issue of spiritual pain. Joy, the happiness that is more than just “skin deep” simply was not a concept in their lives. They seemed to be in a state of hell on earth.

Look at the definition of fire, above. If there is no material (because there is no resurrected body), then it cannot be literal fire. the meaning must then be analogous; there is intense and permanent pain; and that pain must be spiritual.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit www.catholic.com.