By Father Kenneth Doyle
Q. What is the Catholic view on whether there is an actual, literal hell? A lot of people, including some who are Catholics, while they believe in an actual, literal heaven, say that hell is simply death. (Indiana)
A. Catholic theology holds that there is an actual, literal hell.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "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'" (No. 1035). That same section goes on to explain that "the chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God."
The teaching from the catechism is based on a host of scriptural passages: In Matthew 25:41-46, for example, at the judgment, Jesus says to the accursed, "Depart from me ... into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels," and in Mark 9:48, Jesus describes hell as a place where the "worm does not die and the fire is not quenched."
Some of the blessed have had visions of hell; St. Faustina Kowalska described it as "a place of great torture" where there is a "perpetual remorse of conscience" and a "fire that will penetrate the soul without destroying it ... a terrible suffering since it is a purely spiritual fire, lit by God's anger."
We don't know the exact nature of that eternal punishment. Are the "flames of fire" to be taken physically, as we on earth know fire?
I'm not really sure; I think it's possible that the inspired authors simply used the most painful things they could imagine to describe what is ultimately indescribable – the absence of God and the presence of eternal torment.