Common Misunderstandings about Hell

A. The Two Paths to Hell

There are only two ways to end up in Hell:
1. To die in a state of unrepented actual mortal sin
2. To die in a state of original sin alone

The first way is well-known to most Catholics. You commit a gravely immoral act, with full knowledge of its gravely immoral and full deliberation, AND you never repent through the last moment of life. That is the most common path to Hell.

The second way is a matter of some theological dispute. One opinion is that it refers to prenatals, infants, and young children, who die without formal baptism. They die in a state of original sin, because they did not have any form of baptism to take away original sin. But they have no actual mortal sins, so the state is called original sin “alone”.

My opinion is that those persons only die in a state of original sin alone who die unrepentant from the actual mortal sin of omission of never having found the state of grace in this life, by some form of baptism, despite ample opportunity. That last provision is important. It means that no prenatals, no infants, and no young children die in the state of original sin alone, as they have not had ample opportunity. Instead, all prenatals, infants, and young children are given the state of grace, prior to death, as a type of baptism of blood.

Most Catholics have never heard of dying in a state of original sin alone.

B. Punishment in Hell varies, depending on how much you have sinned.

The secular depiction of Hell is constant severe suffering for everyone there. But Catholic dogma (Florence, Lyons II) states that the souls sent to Hell are punished unequally. And this would seem to depend on the type and degree of unrepented actual mortal sin they have committed.

Those who suffer the least in Hell are those who died in a state of original sin alone. They suffer the deprivation of the Beatific Vision of God and all the joys of Heaven, and the worm of conscience. But they have no active torments. They have no bodily pains or other types of torture. Those who suffer the least are said to occupy a part of Hell called the Limbo of Hell.

Among those who suffer active torments, the type and degree of suffering matches the sins that the person committed. For God is just, and just punishment cannot be the same sentence for every guilty person.

C. Punishment for Venial Sin Ends

Since God punishes justly in Hell, He must punish for venial sins as well as for mortal sins. In Purgatory, the souls are punished for venial sins and for repented mortal sins. So the souls in Hell cannot be exempt from punishments for venial or mortal sins.

On the other hand, venial sin does not deserve eternal punishment. Therefore, God punishes the souls in Hell for their venial sins, but after a time, that punishment ends. And this implies that the punishments of Hell diminish, for a while, and then level off. For the punishments of unrepented actual mortal sin are eternal.

D. The fallen angels and souls in Hell cannot sin any more.

If they could sin in Hell, they would sin mortally, and then they would deserve further punishments. And this process would continue, more sin, greater punishments, unceasingly, until every angel and soul in Hell were punished to an unbearably extreme degree. And then it would become even worse. For the greater the sin, the greater the punishment.

Also, it would be unjust for God to permit billions of persons in Hell (angels and souls are both persons) to sin gravely forever and ever. Justice not only punishes sin, but eventually brings it to an end.

Therefore, God must prevent the angels and souls in Heaven from ever sinning again — by His prevenient grace. Similarly, the souls in Purgatory are prevented from sinning by the same type of grace.

E. Justice requires that the souls in Hell in some way benefit from the truly good acts that they may have done while in the state of grace in their lives.

This next point is quite speculative. It seems only fair that if one person did many holy acts, in cooperation with grace, but fell into unrepented actual mortal sin at the end, they should be punished less, or differently, than a person who did not commit holy acts, but did commit the same unrepented actual mortal sin. It’s difficult to say what the difference would be, though, since souls in Hell cannot be rewarded.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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9 Responses to Common Misunderstandings about Hell

  1. Matt says:

    It seems rather unjust that a person in Hell does not get any relief from the eternal punishments and wrath of God. The pains of Hell never cease and how can a soul endure that for eternity is mind boggling. However, the Virgin Mary in Medjugorje stated that souls in Hell do not want to leave and continue to reject God. Why would a soul want to suffer eternal torment and be in Hell? I would think that a soul in Hell rather regrets their decisions and wants to leave the never ending torment, but understands that they are deserving of the punishment due to their choices in this life.

    • Ron Conte says:

      The souls in Hell do not have the state of grace, and, they do not cooperate in the least with actual grace. They can’t regret their decisions, as that would require grace. They do not want to go to Heaven, as that is a place of love, and they are devoid of love. They know they deserve these punishments, by means of infused knowledge at the particular judgment. They do not want to suffer, but they are in a state of continual rejection of God. They do not sin any more, but they also do not cooperate with grace.

      There are persons in this life who are not in a state of grace, and do not want to be in a state of grace. Some of them, a few, know what the state of grace is, know they are not in the state of grace, and do not want to change. Some of them are priests or theologians.

  2. Grindall says:

    Thinking about the parable of the workers in the vineyard (who were paid equally at the end of the day) … it seems to me, in reverse any reward that is withheld would also be independent of what happened earlier. The lifetime total of sins being less would be the only advantage, but the rejection of God is the rejection of God, once the time runs out. Not everyone who says “Lord, Lord” will enter the Kingdom, and as for the lukewarm, the Lord will spit them out, no matter what fervor they once had.

  3. Paul M. says:

    May I suggest for our personal study, that, in the future when possible, there would be more citations from the councils and documents that you reference?

    I am not a theologian and I have not studied the Council of Florence, and I implore God’s mercy that I can live the faith in truth despite my limitations. But googled the Council and it states in Session 6: “But 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.”

    In my reading, this does not correspond to your explanation. Perhaps there is something else within the documents that distinguishes “original sin alone” (perhaps degrees) to clarify your conclusion.

    Thanks in advance.

    • Ron Conte says:

      I don’t know what you mean. Original sin alone means dying with the guilt of original sin, i.e. that the person never received any form of baptism. Which point was not clear?

    • Paul M. says:

      Sorry for the conclusion. Is there something else defined at the Council of Florence to specify a distinction for those unborn to justify your opinion that original sin alone does does apply to them? Otherwise, I do not read Session 6 to offer that alternative.

      If your opinion is based on a defined teaching in which this distinction is clarified further is a later document, then I would really appreciate a citation. Thanks.

    • Ron Conte says:

      There is no church document saying that “original sin alone” applies to infants or the unborn. It is an open question as to who dies in that state and what the extent/limits might be. The CCC (1037) teaches that only persons guilty of actual mortal sin go to Hell. So to reconcile the two, I propose that original sin alone is the aforementioned actual mortal sin of omission. Otherwise, it would seem as if prenatals who die in the womb were, in a sense, “predestined” to Hell, which is excluded by CCC 1037.

      We can draw the conclusion that it does not apply to prenatals or infants from other teachings of the Church. The universal salvific will of God, and the teaching of JP2: “The universality of salvation means that it is granted not only to those who explicitly believe in Christ and have entered the Church. Since salvation is offered to all, it must be made concretely available to all.” (RM 10). If prenatals who die in the womb cannot receive any form of baptism, then how is salvation made available to them? RM 10 implies that they can be saved in some way. Pius XII ruled out a baptism of desire for infants (Midwives 21a). So that would leave a baptism of blood as the only alternative, so that all these teachings would be in agreement.

    • Tom Mazanec says:

      But isn’t a Baptism of Blood Martyrdom, like the Holy Infants? How would that apply to natural miscarriages, for example?

    • Ron Conte says:

      I’m proposing a broader understanding of the baptism of blood. The Holy Infants did not choose to die for Christ. As an example with adults, if you are told to abandon Christianity or die, and you refuse to give up the faith, then you are a martyr. But if someone sneaks up behind you and kills you for being a Christian, you are not really a martyr, not in the traditional narrow sense. You did not choose to die. So the Holy Infants did nothing different from what prenatals do. They suffered death at a young age. The evil motive of their killers does not cause them to be saved.

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