What is Hell and How Do I Get There?
If you've ever read Dante's Inferno or Milton's Paradise Lost, you're probably familiar with some of the traditional imagery associated with Hell. Parts of hell, like parts of Chicago, are not places you'd actively seek, but there are other places in Hell that look like great spelunking spots rather than locations of eternal suffering. This guide will help you find the path to those pearly gates of Hell. Once inside, you can make it your own adventure.
Three Starting Points
There seem to be three sure trails down to the valley of Sheol but what you'll find is that they're really all connected. If you start at the first one you will eventually get to see the others. You can start with the scenic routes and deny the existence of hell or deny the existence and necessity of God, or you can take the crow's path and seek Hell directly. The one requirement here is that you put on your hiking boots and take the first step. You won't be dragged there; you have to make it on your own two feet.
“Hell Doesn't Really Exist”
You've heard the quote from Baudelaire that, “the devil's best trick is to persuade you that he doesn't exist.” What the phrase really means is that you will more often choose to do wrong if you don't believe there are consequences for your actions.
The challenge for you is to try not to think about those dancing, pink elephants in the corner. It requires a bit of doublethink to pursue a goal you don't believe in. You would never lay down money on a ticket to a mythical city.
Adding to that difficulty is that the Champion of Goodness, Jesus Christ, affirmed the existence of Hell. In fact, He mentioned Hell ninety times in Scripture; more than He talked about Heaven. If you want to deny that Hell exists you'll have to ignore passages like:
“So it will be at the close of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.”
“And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire.”
“And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
“And he called out, 'Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.'”
“...since indeed God deems it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant rest with us to you who are afflicted, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance upon those who know not God and upon those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.”
2 Thessalonians 1:6-9
It is almost contradictory to say that finding Hell is an act of the will and yet also say that you can end up in Hell even if you don't believe Hell exists. There is a story about a man who said to Padre Pio, “I don't go to confession because I don't believe in Hell.” Padre Pio is said to have responded, “You'll believe it when you get there.”
This man was on the path to Hell because in rejecting Hell, he also rejected God.
“There is No God”
The twin paths of denial offer similar scenery to the casual observer. This is because if you deny the existence of Hell you almost certainly will have to deny the existence of Heaven. Divine Revelation is very clear on both points.
You have to ignore the crucifixion because if Jesus did not die to save mankind from Hell, then what did he die for? In short, you should probably just deny Heaven, Jesus, God and all that stuff because it is nearly impossible to believe in one without the other.
What you have to avoid is taking the impossible agnostic view that it is okay not to make up your mind on the subject. Decisions are made within Time. This means that you while you are working out your beliefs you are also living your life. How you live your life on a day-to-day basis reflects your deepest beliefs. You either live as if Heaven and Hell exist or you live as if they don't.
This route requires you to live as if they don't. It may be a little difficult at first, but once you start to discover the fun of sin, you will find that disbelief has it's own rewards. Avoid conversations with ardent believers as they will likely use logic to show you how it is at least reasonable to believe in the existence of God. Dismiss all arguments involving terms like Unmoved Mover and First Cause.
“Seek Ye Hell”
The surest way to get to Hell without the fear of logical complications is to seek it directly. This doesn't mean you have to take on the social stigma of being one of those people who sacrifices cats in the woods.
Blessed John Paul II called Hell the “natural consequence” of sin. This is because God doesn't condemn people to Hell. Your free will allows you to choose your own destiny. For example, think about the Church's teaching on mortal sin. You're not allowed to accidentally commit a mortal sin and get a free ticket to Hell. There are requirements:
“For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: 'Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent .'”
In other words, you can't trick yourself into thinking something will qualify as a grave sin when it really doesn't. Don't try claiming that you consider accidentally taking a pen from the bank window a grave offense. What's also important to know is that you won't get mortal credit on a grave sin you didn't know about. For it to count, it has to be serious, you have to know it's serious, and you have to willingly do it. Choose the right form, fill in all the blanks, and sign it in the right place or it's going straight into the garbage and you'll have to start over.
Here's a list of some mortal sins to get you started.
Abortion, adultery, use of contraceptives, sacrilege, murder, false witness, missing Sunday Mass...
“Wait, some of those seem obvious, but is skipping Sunday Mass really a grave offense?” Yes, it is considered a grave offense because God commanded that the Sabbath be kept holy, and Jesus said it should be kept holy by gathering together and celebrating the Eucharist. If you make the decision that you don't need Jesus in the Eucharist, it amounts to a rejection of God. Naturally, if you reject God, you won't have to worry about spending eternity with Him.
That's really what puts the power in your hands. Hell is a logical necessity that arises from the choices you make on earth. You can choose to follow God or you can choose to reject God. In other words, you can take the trail to Hell with both eyes open.
“But Will I Get To Stay There Forever?”
One thing a lot of people ask about this trip is how long it lasts. To some, it seems a little disproportionate to assume that missing Mass once could earn you an all-inclusive pass to the underworld. How can this possibly be?
It has to do with intrinsic dignity. By analogy, you could think of the effects of a practical joke played on various people. Place a cold bucket of water on top of a door and wait for your brother to walk through. When he gets drenched you might end up wrestling on the floor. However, if your dad or your grandmother happen to get hit with the bucket instead, there are going to be worse consequences. Now, what if an honorable judge, the president of the university, or the president of the USA gets pranked? Your life is pretty much over if that happens.
In the case of God, you're dealing with a being of infinite dignity. An offense against Him is therefore also infinite. The only way to avoid separation from Him is to seek His forgiveness in the sacrament of confession. Of course, that's not what you're after, so you're not going to do that.
Hydrate yourself with pride, keep your eyes on the goal and you'll be spelunking forever.
Catechism of the Catholic Church
Why Are Catholics So Concerned About Sin?
What Every Catholic Needs to Know About Hell
What Catholics Really Believe
After This Life
Catholic Scripture Study International Bible