Fishers of Men

\”Come, follow me,\” Jesus said, \”and I will make you fishers of men.\”


A Basic Lecture for Students in Non-Catholic Colleges and Universities
General Editor
Joseph M. Wyss, O.P., S.T.Lr. Ph.D.
By Rev. Angelus Boyd, O.P., S.T.Lr., Ph.L.

Father Boyd is Chaplain at the University of Wichita in Kansas. He took his licentiate in philosophy from the Pontifical Faculty of Philosophy, River Forest, Ill., and his lectorate in theology from the Aquinas Institute of Philosophy and Theology, Dubuque, Iowa. He was formerly Chaplain to the Oklahoma State Reformatory.

A. Objective: This and the following lecture are an examination of the revealed truth of hell and what it involves.
B. Necessity and Importance:
1. Without the conception of a future and permanent state of punishment consequent upon a life of sin and rebellion against God, the Christian idea of redemption is neither consistent nor coherent, in fact, Christianity itself is unreasonable.
In the Christian formula of Redemption one doctrine implies and explains another, and to deny or becloud one doctrine inevitably leads to the denial or veiling of another. Soon the whole scheme becomes illogical and unreasonable.

The doctrine of hell is a necessary and integral part of the Christian revelation and a denial of it or some of its conjoined truths results in a rejection of other important doctrines. For example:

a. A denial of hell changes the entire conception of the nature of sin and its consequences.

b. Was the Incarnation required if in any case all men were to be saved on the last day?
c. Would a divine person suffer the passion and death for sins that would be punished only for a time?
2. The doctrine of hell and the fire of hell is the most unpopular and most misunderstood of the Church’s teachings on the afterlife.
a. “Our world has rejected this doctrine wholesale and in consequence the atmosphere around us is entirely obnoxious to it.” (Martin D’Arcy, S.J., Death and Life, p. 128)
b. Belief in hell is almost totally disappearing, if not in theory at least in an attitude of mind which amounts to a practical rejection. E.g.: Catholic Digest survey (”What Americans Think of Heaven and Hell,” Catholic Digest, March, 1953, pp. 64-66) showed results of a poll taken of a representative number of the 104 million adults (over 18 years of age) in America. From the number of those questioned and their answers, the research firm was able to determine, on a percentage basis, a more or less accurate picture of what Americans think about hell. 42% did not believe in hell (23%-no belief in an afterlife; 12%-stated positively they didn’t believe in hell; 7%-didn’t know). A further question was asked of the 58% who did believe in hell: “Do you think there is any real possibility of your going there?” Only 12 % said yes.

When all the results were totaled and figured on a percentage basis, the survey showed that an appalling 88% of adults in the U. S. think that they, personally, couldn’t possibly go to hell. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
3. Some idea of the pains of hell and how terrible they are is a deterrent from sin.
a. The cross of Christ is a hard teaching, but hell shows us why the price of our salvation was fixed by God at so high a rate; it keeps the real and terrible nature of sin before our eyes.

b. “What better remedy can be devised to prevent sinners from falling into the abyss of punishment when dead than by opening it to their consideration while living?” (F. Pinamonti, S.J., Hell Opened to Christians, p. 4)

c. “In whatever you do, remember your last days, and you will never sin (Sir. 7, 36).”
d. “It is good .however, that if love as yet reclaim thee not from evil, at least the fear of hell restrain thee.” (The Imitation of Christ)
4. A clear knowledge of the Church’s teaching on the doctrine of hell is needed     to answer the real difficulties plaguing honest minds.
For some, this doctrine of eternal hell-fire. contradicts all that we know about God’s infinite love for men.  Others object to the truth of hell because of difficulties they see inherent in it. Examples:
a. Is the fire in hell real?

b. If so, why doesn’t it consume bodies?

c. How can material fire cause pain to a spirit or a disembodied human soul?

d. Will there be an eventual lessening of the pains of hell?
C. Aim: The specific concern of this lecture and the next is to give a clear knowledge of what is involved in the pains of hell; this first lecture is devoted to necessary preliminary considerations in order to set the stage for the follow-up lecture on the pains of hell considered in themselves.
Although the expressed object of these two lectures is to manifest the reality of hell by examining the pains of hell in particular, before the nature of these pains can be shown, first their existence must be established.
Accordingly, this first lecture will consider those matters which the pains of hell presuppose, viz., the existence and eternity of hell; the fact that sinners who die unrepentant are damned there; and finally, the existence and general nature of the pains of hell will be established.
D. Manner of Treatment:
1. At every stage in the development of the subject matter, we will indicate whether we are dealing with a matter of certitude (a truth of faith; a truth theologically certain; or a truth commonly taught by theologians) or a matter of opinion with degrees of probability.
2. As far as possible, the “truths of faith” will be verified first from Sacred Scripture, next from the teachings of the Fathers, then from the Magisterium of the Church, and finally from human reason.
It is important to note that the Church’s teaching on hell includes three kinds of truths:
a. Truths of faith, i.e., truths known with certitude from explicit divine revelation and the authoritative teaching of the Church.

b. Truths theologically certain, which are truths deduced from a doctrine of faith by a process of reasoning.
c. Truths commonly taught by theologians, although they are not explicitly revealed or directly deduced from some revealed truth.
Beyond this, the Church’s teaching on hell goes no further and we are then in the realm of theological opinion which admits of degrees of probability.
A. Sacred Scripture teaches the existence of hell so frequently and unmistakenly that it can be said safely that no other Catholic dogma has such a solid biblical basis. (cf. Pohle and Preuse, Eschatology, p. 46)
(a) Old Testament: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake; some shall live forever, others shall be an everlasting horror and disgrace (Dan. 12, 2).”
(2) New Testament: If there is any one doctrine our Lord made clear in his lifetime, it is the existence of hell, for he mentioned hell at least 15 times. The clearest and most explicit words on hell are found in St. Mark:

“If thy hand is an occasion of sin to thee, cut it off! It is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands, to go into hell, into unquenchable fire, ‘Where their worm dies not, and the fire is not quenched.’ And if thy foot is an occasion of sin to thee, cut it off! etc. . . . (Mark 9, 42-47).”

Our Lord’s discourse on the end of the world precludes any doubt on the matter when he describes the sentence of the damned at the Last Judgment:

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, accursed ones, into the everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels’ . . . And these will go into everlasting punishment, but the just into everlasting life (Matt. 25, 41-46).”

Other texts could be cited, but it is unnecessary to multiply them. (Cf. Matt. 10, 28; 13, 40-42, II Thess. 1, 6-9; Apoc. 20, 9-10)
B. The testimony of the Fathers of the Church faithfully and unanimously echoes this teaching of Sacred Scripture, e.g.:
(1) St. Ignatius of Antioch:

“Do not err, my brethren; . . . if a man by false teaching corrupt the faith of God, for the sake of which Jesus Christ was crucified, such a one shall go in his foulness to the unquenchable fire, as also shall he who listens to him.” (Epis. to the Ephesians, XVI: PG, 5, 658 B)

(2) St. John Chrysostom:

“All of us-Greeks and Jews, heretics and Christians, acknowledge that God is just. Now many who sinned have passed away without being punished, while many others, who led virtuous lives, did not die until they had suffered innumerable tribulations. If God is just, how will he reward the latter and punish the former-unless there be a hell and a resurrection?” (Comm. on the Epistle to the Phil., Homily VI; PC, 62, 228 B)

C. The Magisterium of the Church:
According to the Athanasian Creed, the Church teaches that:

“They that have done good, shall go into life everlasting, and they that have done evil into everlasting fire. This is the Catholic faith, which, unless a man faithfully and firmly believes, he cannot be saved.” (Denz., n. 40)

The Apostolic Constitution of Pope Benedict XII defined that,

“According to the general ordination of God, the souls of those who die in actual mortal sin, immediately after their death go down to hell where they suffer the pains of hell.” (Denz., n. 531)

D. Human Reason:
If there were no retribution beyond what we witness here on earth, we would have to consider God extremely indifferent to good and evil, and we could in no way account for his justice and holiness.
The Protestant opinion in America shows that confusion, doubt, and out-and-out denial of the eternity of hell are common today. The Unitarians deny the existence of the devil and hell; the Episcopalians doubt the existence of an eternal punishment; the Adventists and Jehovah Witnesses believe that God will annihilate the wicked after a time of punishment; the Mormons believe that the wicked will be punished, but not forever, that hell is eternal only in the sense that it will last as long as there is sin to punish; and the Congregationalists take a happy view: they believe in the eventual salvation of all men. (Cf. John Hardon, S.J., The Protestant Churches of America)

Yet revelation and the teaching authority of the Church clearly and overwhelmingly establish that those who have died in the state of mortal sin will receive from God a judgment and a penalty from which there is no release or commutation.
A. Sacred Scripture:
(1) Old Testament: “On Sion sinners are in dread, trembling grips the impious: ‘Who of us can live with the consuming fire? Who of us can live with the everlasting flames?’ (Is. 33, 14).”
(2) New Testament: Besides the clear statements already quoted in relation to hell’s existence, St. Paul states: “These will be punished with external ruin, away from the face of the Lord and the glory of his power. . . (II Thess. 1, 9).” St. John in the Apocalypse affirms: “And the smoke of their torments goes up forever and ever. . . (Apoc. 14, 11).” Again he says: “. . . they will be tormented day and night forever and ever (Apoc. 20, 10).”
B. The Fathers of the Church:

St. Gregory the Great calls hell:

“A death without death; an end without end, a failure without failure, because both the death is living and the end is always beginning and the failure is not able to fail.” (Moralia, IX, 66; PL, 75, 371)

C. The Magisterium of the Church:
In her authentic doctrinal decisions the Church expressly teaches the eternity of the pains of hell to be a truth of faith which no one can deny or call into question without heresy. E.g.:

( 1) Pope Vigilius’ approval of the anathemas given at the Synod of Constantinople, 543, the last of which read:

“If anyone says or thinks that the punishment of the demons and the wicked will not be eternal, that it will have an end, and that then shall take place a restoration of the demons and of the wicked, let him be anathema.” (Denz., n.”211)

(2) The Fourth Lateran Council proclaimed:

“And all these will rise with their own bodies which they now have so that they may receive according to their works, whether good or bad; the wicked, a perpetual punishment with the devil; the good, eternal glory with Christ.” (Denz., n. 429)

D. Human Reason:
The real and ultimate cause for the eternity of hell is that the free wills of the devils and the damned are obstinate in evil, hardened in sin which is of their own choice and desire.
St. Thomas’ sure insight points out that in the final analysis the real reason for an external hell is not to be looked for in God, but in the damned themselves, in their obdurate will. The deliberate will of the damned always remains fixed in that positive attitude of rejection which he had at the moment of death and which stands for all eternity. He will never relent, never repent, never suffer a change of heart. He sins, so to speak, eternally, and he must pay the price eternally.

(1) “We should also take into consideration the fact that eternal punishment is inflicted on a sinner who does not repent of his sin, and so he continues in his sin up to his death. And since he is in sin for eternity, he is reasonably punished by God for all eternity.” (St. Thomas, Comp. Theol., c. 183)
(2) “The soul will remain perpetually in whatever last end it is found to have set for itself at the time of death, desiring that state as the most suitable, whether it is good or evil. . . . After this life, therefore, those that are found good at the instant of death will have their wills forever fixed in good. But those who are found evil at that moment will be forever obstinate in evil.” (Comp. Theol., c. 174)

(3) “If the will of evil men is obstinately fettered to evil after death, they forever continue to desire what they previously desired, in the conviction that this is the best. Therefore they are not sorry they have sinned; for no one is sorry he has achieved what he judges to be the best. . . . The wicked regret the sins they have committed, not because sin displeases them, for even in hell they would rather commit those same sins, if they had the chance, than possess God; but because they cannot have what they have chosen, and can have only what they have detested. Hence their will must remain forever obstinate in evil, and at the same time they will grieve most agonizingly for the sins they have committed and the glory they have lost.” (Comp. Theol., c. 175)

The obstinacy of the damned in evil is really the cause, not the effect, of God’s refusal to grant them the grace to repent. By the very nature of their state, they are immutably fixed and hardened in evil and consequently are incapable of accepting God’s grace to repent.

Or put it this way: heaven, though a place secondarily, is primarily a condition or state of being. It is the perfect achievement of the right love of the right things. It is the love of God as the supreme good to the fullness of the lover’s capacity to love together with the love of all created persons and things in due measure according to their greater or lesser (but always limited) goodness. A person in mortal sin is a person who has essentially misdirected his love. He gives at best a measured love to the supreme and limitless good, and a greater love to a limited good. He puts his supreme love in a creature rather than in the Creator. If he dies in this condition he is eternally fixed in it. Therefore, there is no heaven for him. Heaven is peace and joy in the possession of the perfect good, but the sinner has rejected the true perfect good for a good which is limited and therefore can never give perfect happiness. He cannot be happy with God because he has chosen some created objective as more important to him than God. Therefore, his eternal destiny is supreme frustration.
It is a truth of faith that the unrepentant, those who die in the state of mortal sin, will be damned to hell.
A. Sacred Scripture teaches that whatever good a man has done, if he dies in mortal sin, he will go to hell. E.g.:
(1) “. . . But unless you repent, you will all perish in the same manner (Luke 13, 5).”
(2) Christ warned us if our hand or foot is an occasion of sin to us that it should be cut off if we want to avoid hell, which is as much as to say that every grave sin leads to hell. (cf. Mark 9:42-47)

(3) St. Paul leaves no doubt about the matter:

“Or do you not know that the unjust will not possess the kingdom of God? Do not err; neither fornicators, nor idolators, nor adulterers, nor the effeminate, nor sodomitees, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor the evil-tongued, nor the greedy will possess the kingdom of God (I Cor. 6, 9-10).”

B. The Fathers of the Church:
For our purposes it is sufficient merely to cite St. Augustine who faithfully witnessed the Catholic teaching against the heretical position taken by the Misericordes, who held that only infidels, unbelievers and obstinate heretics would suffer hell forever, while unrepentant sinners who were numbered among the faithful would be saved after doing penance for a time. (Cf. City of God, XXI, n n. 17-24)
C. The Magisterium of the Church:
(1) “If anyone dies without repentance in the state of mortal sin, he will without doubt be tormented perpetually in the flames of an everlasting hell.” (First Council of Lyons; Denz., n. 457)

(2) Benedictus Deus of Pope Benedict XII declares that: “According to the general ordination of God the souls of those who die in actual mortal sin immediately after their death go down to hell.” (Denz., n. 531)
D. Human Reason:
By mortal sin, the sinner falls from the supernatural order, from his true last end. To restore him to the supernatural order again God’s intervention is necessary, and though this is always possible while the sinner is on probation here on earth, it is not possible after death because the sinner’s will remains fixed in this state of disorder. (Cf. Comp. Theol., c. 175)
The last truth which Scripture and the Church teaches is the existence of a twofold penalty in hell, namely, the pain of loss, which consists in the eternal deprivation of God and heaven, and the pain of sense, which consists in the infliction of some positive punishment upon the damned.
A. Sacred Scripture:

(1) As regards the pain of loss:

(a) “Depart from me accursed ones (Matt. 25, 41).”

(b) In the parables our Lord expressed this exile from God under many forms.  (Cf. Luke 13, 27-28; 16, 25; Matt. 7, 23; 25, 12)

(2) As regards the pain of sense:
Most of the references to hell in Sacred Scripture contain an allusion to another and distinct kind of punishment, e.g.: Christ and the apostles talk about an unquenchable fire, the gnawing worm, torments and flames, a bottomless pit. The parable of the cockle ends with an allusion to hellfire. (Cf. Matt. 13, 40-42)
The meaning of these revelations is not so clear and explicit that the existence of a real fire in hell must be held as a dogma of faith; but these passages show beyond any doubt that there exists some positive punishment in hell distinct from the pain of loss.

B. The Fathers of the Church unanimously confirm the teaching of Sacred Scripture concerning a twofold punishment, e.g.:

St. John Chrysostom, contrasting the pain of loss to the pain of sense, says:

“Intolerable indeed is that hell and that punishment. And yet even if one were to propose a thousand hells it would be as nothing in comparison to being excluded from beatific glory, to being hated by Christ, and to hearing him say, ‘I know thee not.’” (Comm. on St. Matt., Homily 28, c. 8; PG, 57, 3170)

C. The Magisterium of the Church:
There is no solemn definition of a pope or council in regard to the precise character of the pains of hell but the teaching of the ordinary Magisterium is very clear. E.g.:

Pope Innocent III, in a letter written in 1201 to Humbert, the Archbishop of ArIes, states that, “The punishment of original sin is the lack of the vision of God, but the punishment of actual sin is the torment of everlasting hell.” (Denz., n. 410)
Although not issued as an utterance of papal infallibility, this letter was inserted in the Decretals, and by this fact it became an authentic declaration of the ordinary teaching of the Church. (cf. J. P. Arendzen, “Eternal Punishment,” in The Teaching of the Catholic Church, Vol. II, p. 1199)
Even though it is not solemnly defined, nevertheless some regard it as a truth of faith that the damned suffer something else beside the loss of the beatific vision. They argue that sometimes a truth can be so obvious in Sacred Scripture and so commonly and explicitly taught in the ordinary magisterium of the Church that it may be regarded as a truth of faith. At very least, the existence of the pain of sense is a truth commonly taught, and-therefore to deny it could involve a sin of rashness.

D. Human Reason:
Based on the principle that the punishment must fit the crime: of his own accord, the sinner has spurned God and in so doing he has shown his preference for some creature-some person or thing. Equitably and logically, he should be condemned to the loss of God, which he chose himself, and also to annoyance by some created thing. (Cf. Summa, I-II, q. 87, a. 4)
A. This first lecture has verified and confirmed four truths of faith which are essential and necessary prenotes before the pains of hell can be examined in particular.
Accordingly, the existence and eternity of hell were authenticated along with the fact that sinners who die in unrepented mortal sin are sentenced there and that hell involves a twofold punishment.
B. With the stage now ready, the next lecture will treat of our specific concern, viz., what is involved in the pains of hell.
(1) The only foreseeable problem that this lecture might raise in some minds is the fact of the eternity of hell, especially with regard to the argument from reason. Eternal punishment seems contrary to right reason or at least unfitting in relation to God’s justice, goodness and mercy.

Suggestion for solution: Among several possible and valid ways of reasoning to hell’s eternity that of St. Thomas provides the best solution because it gets to the ultimate reason for eternal punishment. His argument from the state of the created will shows us hell from a point of view that is usually completely overlooked, and yet gives the decisive answer to all objections based on God’s justice, goodness and mercy:

“. . . mortal sin deserves everlasting punishment. However, there would not be perpetual punishment of the souls which are damned if they were able to change their will to something better; because it would be unjust if they were eternally punished and yet had a good will. Therefore the will of the damned soul cannot change to good.” (Summa Contra Gent., IV, c. 93)

Nor can one argue that the intractableness of the will of the damned in evil is due to God’s refusal to exercise mercy towards them. As pointed out, their obstinacy is immutably fixed in evil and consequently they are incapable of accepting God’s refusal to grant them the grace to repent.

For St. Thomas, the withholding of all grace from them is not attributable to God’s will, but to his wisdom. The offer of grace would be useless to a will irrevocably fixed in evil, and to do something useless is hardly consistent with the wisdom of God.

Again, this impossibility of changing after death in no way destroys the free will of the damned. As we have seen, they continue to desire and love those things for which they are punished.

It is this very obstinacy; then, that St. Thomas considers to be the real and ultimate reason for an eternal hell. As the tree falls so shall it lie. Whoever is condemned to hell stands self-condemned.
(2) Possibly, difficulties may arise from the establishment of the existence of the pain of sense. We can see that there is a double consideration involved in the pains of hell, namely, the nature of the pain of loss and the pain of sense and also the degree of intensity of these pains.

Suggestion for solution: Point out that in this first lecture we have only established the existence of the pain of sense. Nothing has yet been taught about the nature of this punishment. Here, we have simply indicated that, besides the loss of eternal happiness, hell also involves an additional positive punishment which has been known traditionally as the pain of sense. Now that the questioner’s legitimate curiosity has been aroused, you might call his attention to the fact that the work of the following lecture is precisely that, viz., to treat both the nature and the degree of the pains of hell.

  • Aquinas, St. Thomas, Compendium of Theology. trans. Cyril Vollert, S.J. St. Louis: B. Herder Book Co., 1947.

  • Aquinas, St. Thomas, Summa Theologiae.

  • Arendzen, J. P. “Eternal Punishment.” The Teaching of the Catholic Church, Vol. II, ed. George Smith, New York: Macmillan Company, 1949.

  • Hontheim, Joseph. “Hell.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. VII. New York: Encyclopedia Press, 1913.


  • Garrigou-Lagrange, Reginald, O.P. Life Everlasting. trans. Patrick Cummins, O.S.B., St. Louis: B. Herder Book Co., 1952.

  • Michel, A. The Last Things. trans. W. Miller. St. Louis: B. Herder Book Company, 1929.


  • Gleason, Robert W., S.J. “Hell: An Apology.” Thought. XXXIII, Summer, 1958.

  • McGarrigle, Francis J., S.J. “The Fire of Hell.” The American Ecclesiastical Review.
    CXXXVII, October, 1957.

  • St. John, Henry, O.P. “Hell and Heaven.” The Life of the Spirit. XII, November, 1957.

Previously published by THE PRIORY PRESS.


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