Where is hell? If you dig deep enough into the earth and permeate the mantle and magma to reach the iron core of the planet, you will not find the Devil and his minions. Hell does not have a location in space, and there is no longitude or latitude. No GPS can find it, and it has no ZIP code, area code, or URL.
Hell is very real, however. The Catholic Encyclopedia quotes Saint Chrysostom (347–407 AD), who reminds us, “We must not ask where hell is, but how we are to escape it.” Jesus warned about the fires of hell (called Gehenna in Hebrew) at least fifteen times in the Gospels. Greek uses two words for hell, hádés and géenna. Hebrew does the same thing, using Sheol and Gehenna, respectively. The first is a temporary place of the dead, and the second is a perpetual one. English, however, uses one word to describe both: hell. Our only way of differentiation, then, is to speak of the “hell of the dead” and the “hell of the damned.”
After the sin of Adam and Eve, no human soul could go to heaven until the human race was redeemed by the Savior (Jesus Christ). Only the evil deserve the eternal punishment of hell, but if they could not go to heaven, and were not bad enough to go to hell, where did they go? What happened to Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Rachel, Ruth, Esther, Judith, and so on? Theologians used the term “hell of the dead” to describe where these good and virtuous Old Testament heroes went and where they waited century upon century for the arrival of the Messiah.
The evil people, however, went to the “hell of the damned.” This was a place originally created for the Devil and his demons. God created only good angels, but one third of them went bad by their own free will. One of those angels, the most intelligent of them all, was Lucifer. Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael (the archangels and no relation to any Ninja Turtles) were part of the two-thirds of the angels who chose to remain good. The bad angels, like Lucifer, Beelzebub, Asmodeus, and Leviathan, became “fallen” angels, and hell was created for them as their eternal residence, a very nasty place characterized by an eternity of suffering and pain and by the absolute absence of any love whatsoever.
The “pains of hell” (poenae inferni) are two types. The pain of loss (poena damni) is the suffering of being separated forever from God, who is love. God is the perfect fulfillment of what the human soul needs and wants—essentially, truth and goodness—which are the objects of the human intellect and will, respectively. Our intellect seeks to know the truth, and our will seeks to possess the good; both are completely and perfectly satisfied only in God, who is Truth and the Supreme Good (summum bonum). Never having that which is the one and only reality that can make you happy for eternity is the pain of loss. The pain of sense (poena sensus) is the physical pain which accompanies the pain of loss. This is the “fire” and “wailing and grinding of teeth,” the torture and pain experienced in hell—especially after the body is reunited with the soul after the resurrection.
Fire is used metaphorically in that souls cannot burn since they are immaterial, but resurrected bodies can feel the pain of intense heat and still remain immortal. That means that those in hell will be tormented forever; there will be no end to their punishment—which is one good reason to avoid hell at all costs. It’s a good idea to obey the stop sign and the speed limit to avoid accident or death, but another incentive is the cop hiding somewhere ready to give you a speeding ticket. The fear of hell may not be the most sublime reason to avoid sin (hence, it is called imperfect contrition), but it will suffice. The best reason to avoid sin or to be repentant when we do sin is the pure love of God (called perfect contrition).
Heaven, on the other hand, is the exact opposite. Hell is lonely—not because no one is there, but because everyone there hates everyone else. Everyone in hell wants to be alone; everyone in heaven is happy that everyone else is there. Heaven is basically having the beatific vision defined in the Catechism #1028: “Because of his transcendence, God cannot be seen as he is, unless he himself opens up his mystery to man’s immediate contemplation and gives him the capacity for it. The Church calls this contemplation of God in his heavenly glory ‘the beatific vision.'” In other words, the beatific vision is knowing God directly and immediately, seeing him faceto-face, and being in his presence at all times. The effects of this vision are eternal happiness and unending joy.