Literal fire in hell?


**Why does the Bible speak of hell in terms of “fire”? **

In Mark 9:47–48 Jesus warns us, “*t is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, where the worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.”

1034 Jesus often speaks of “Gehenna” of [size=]“the unquenchable fire”[/size] reserved for those who to the end of their lives refuse to believe and be converted, where both soul and body can be lost.612 Jesus solemnly proclaims that he "will send his angels, and they will gather . . . all evil doers, and throw them into the furnace of fire,"613 and that he will pronounce the condemnation: "Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire!"614

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."615 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.*


Sister Faustina’s Vision of Hell


We don’t know if the fire in Hell is literal or just a vivid image of the torment suffered by the damned.

The Catholic teaching on the particular and general judgments means that damned souls first experience Hell without their bodies (just as most saints first experience Heaven that way). That would seem to imply that the “fire” can’t be only the physical kind, just as the pleasures of Heaven cannot be limited to the physical images of golden streets, clear water, and delicious fruit.

Classical Catholic theology affirms that Hell includes “the pain of sense” as well as “the pain of loss [of God],” but I’m not certain if that has been firmly declared by the Church or is merely a common understanding.

Recent thinking on Heaven and Hell (and, I’m sure, strains of thought going all the way back to the beginning) tends to emphasize the “state of soul” part (immediate proximity to, or total separation from, God) over the images that reflect enhanced versions of earthly pleasures and pains. That’s not to say that the latter might not also exist, especially as most of our experience of Heaven or Hell will be as body-soul composites, glorified versions of the way we exist here and now.

Much of Christian thought seems to have gotten away from the notion of the pains of Hell being punishment deliberately inflicted by God (lest He be painted as a sadist), in favor of the notion that the suffering is a self-inflicted, natural consequence of the decisions that put one in Hell. That has naturally been accompanied by the aforementioned shift from emphasis on external torments like fire to emphasis on the internal pain of separation.

One theory I’m particularly fond of (though of course it is not in any way certain or binding, and may meet with hearty disagreement) is that the afterlife for everyone is essentially the same objective experience – direct exposure to God, the ultimate underlying truth of the universe, without the obstacles and disguises that currently get in the way of our apprehension of Him. Those whose souls are prepared for such an experience know the infinite love of God and reflect it back to him eternally. Those whose souls are still slightly warped experience some painful “straightening out” (Purgatory) before settling into the same experience. Those whose souls are completely occluded are stuck with the same eternal reality, but can only experience it as the terrible torments of Hell. In other words, whether the final experience of God is one of Light or Heat depends on the quality of the “receptor” (the individual soul). Of course, that still uses a lot of physical imagery and so undoubtedly does not approach the reality of the situation.



Short answer: Augustine says yes, and I have no reason at all to disagree.

Longer explanation: Just because there is literal fire, that doesn’t mean that’s all there’s going to be… there will almost certainly be other types of (spiritual) “fire” in Hell as well. The point is simply that, when the souls in Hell receive their resurrected bodies, they will at that time begin to experience intense physical suffering. And I don’t see any reason why physical fire shouldn’t/wouldn’t/couldn’t be the primary (if not only) source of that physical suffering.


The souls and bodies of the damned will suffer. Therefore, the fire in Hell is most literal, but the worst part of Hell is the total separation from God.



There is fire in hell, fire in Purgatory, and fire in Heaven even and it’s all one and the same fire. Those in Heaven experience it as warm and enlivening. Those in Purgatory experience it as beautiful and “exciting” but also painful - not because the fire itself hurts, but because the sins on their souls do when they come in contact with the fire. Why? Because the substance of the fire is diametrically opposed to the substance of their sin. When the two come together, pain takes place until the sin gives way to purity, at which time the fire is experienced as pure bliss.

And, last but not least, those in hell experience the same exact fire as the souls in heaven but are so transformed by their sin that the fire of God’s love is actually experienced as “hate” and “wrath” to them even if, objectively, it is not and is the opposite.



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