Is hell a physical place? Are we sent there by God?


Sr. Louise Zdunich

March 31, 2014

QuestionIs hell a physical place? Does God send us to hell? Does the resurrection signify physical movement to a place in space with physical dimensions? If so, space exploration must be penetrating that physical place we still call heaven.

Jesus and his disciples believed the earth was flat and heaven was a physical place. Should we continue to use these New Testament teachings based on an incorrect understanding?

This does no service to the faithful who are desperate for contemporary clarification that resonates with and does not conflict with the teaching of science. There needs to be a clear explanation that these creeds are meant to convey time-independent progression in a non-physical world.

AnswerI have tried to summarize your long commentary.

Remember, the Scriptures are basically the story of God's people and God's goodness. They don't purport to teach scientific principles. Therefore, they shouldn't be read in that way.

Are heaven and hell physical places? Since the souls in heaven and hell have no bodies, they don't need physical space. Hell is a state of being, not a place. So space exploration won't touch any physical heaven. Revelation gives us an image of the general judgment with this earth being transformed into a heaven. We'll find out for sure when we get there.

Hell's fire

Hell's fire

Christ's parable of Lazarus does not imply that hell is a physical place with fire as we know it on earth. Hellfire, as used by Jesus, is a term we, with our limited understanding, could grasp as extreme suffering. Why would spirits be touched by something as physical as earthly fire?

The Church has always believed and John Paul II and Benedict XVI have clearly stated that hell is the deprivation of the presence of God. John Paul II said that heaven was not up in the clouds nor a physical place. The Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to hell as eternal separation from God.

St. Gregory of Nyssa (330-395) suggested a spiritual fire where sadness and longing consumed condemned souls. Blessed John Henry Newman thought that heaven and hell might both be in the presence of God. The saved would experience the greatest fulfillment but those who closed their hearts to God would suffer greatly.

When the Creed says that Jesus descended into hell, it signifies that he was truly dead, not that his body went to a physical place other than the tomb. It was Jesus' spirit that joined the righteous that awaited his coming.


You might say that Jesus' body is in heaven now and hence, a physical place. But after the resurrection, his was a glorified body. He walked through locked doors without any hindrance. Neither the women at the tomb nor the disciples of Emmaus recognized him. So, his body, although real, was somehow different.

It seems natural to use "down" to depict hell or the abode of the dead who are buried in the ground. For the resurrection, we would automatically say "up" in contrast. Human language and understanding are limited when it comes to trying to figure out God.

I agree completely with the columnist you quote that God does not send us to hell, and I would add that God does not want anyone in hell. God has given us free will and, therefore, we decide our own destiny.

It is by our refusal to acknowledge and accept God in our lives that we create our own hell on earth and for eternity. So your decision what to believe is simple as these Church columnists do not disagree.

Yes, Latin was the general norm with the new translations and we returned to using "hell" rather than "the dead" in the Creed. We didn't change our belief as I explained in a previous article on this.

I'm sure you've noticed other prayers reverted back to the Latin form such as "And with your spirit" instead of "And also with you".

The basic point, I believe, of your questions is whether we believe in the literal interpretation of Scripture. Fundamentalists generally do. Catholics tended to lean that way, but in the last century, study of linguistic, sociocultural, literary, religious, historical contexts, sources and even the author's personality produced a better understanding.

The Church encouraged this study as early as 1893 when Leo XIII wrote an encyclical Providentissimus Deus on the study of the Bible. Fifty years later, Pope Pius XII's encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu supported the use of modern techniques to study the Bible.

In 1965, Vatican II produced Dei Verbum (Word of God) which put even more emphasis on understanding Scripture.

We always need to remember that Jesus was not teaching whether the earth was flat or any other scientific concept. He used the circumstances of his milieu such as nature to convey symbolically in story form (parables) the truths he was teaching.

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