Does Hell Exist?

by Greg Mackie

The idea of hell has a strong hold on the human imagination. Virtually every religious tradition has some version of it. In the West, even people who have never been inside a church are familiar with the traditional image of hell as a fiery, underground abode where horned devils with pitchforks torment the damned for eternity. But does it really exist?

Most educated people in the West no longer think so, but there are exceptions. Fundamentalist Christians believe that hell is quite real indeed-the literal lake of fire into which anyone who does not accept Jesus Christ as his or her Lord and Savior is thrown. And I read an article about a sermon given by the former pope, Benedict XVI, in which he declared that hell “really exists and is eternal, even if nobody talks about it much any more.” Speaking to a local church in Rome, he warned that those who don’t repent of their sins are in danger of falling into “eternal damnation—the inferno.” Vatican officials later clarified that while hell is real and eternal, the Pope was not claiming that it is a physical place. Rather, he was expressing the view of the Catholic catechism that hell is a “state of eternal separation from God,” to be understood “symbolically rather than physically.”

What does A Course in Miracles say about hell? There are a number of references, the gist of which can be boiled down to three broad points. First, hell is the afterlife abode the ego tells us is our inevitable destination: that place of eternal separation from God and everlasting punishment that has had such a grip on our imagination. “The ego teaches that hell is in the future” (T-15.I.4:3); “it offers you immortality in hell” (T-15.I.3:5). The ego is constantly whispering in our ear that we are guilty sinners who deserve everlasting punishment, so hell is the only appropriate eternal residence for us. Strikingly, the Course tells us that we have internalized the ego’s message so well that, whatever our conscious beliefs, deep down all of us really do believe hell exists and we’re headed there. “The belief in hell is inescapable to those who identify with the ego” (T-15.I.4:1) and accept its verdict of guilt (see T-15.I.6:5). This is the underlying source of our fear of the future.

Second, hell is this world. “Hell is only what the ego has made of the present” (T-15.I.7:2). This statement may sound surprising at first blush, but it makes a lot of sense if you think about it. After all, hell is a state of separation from God and a place of punishment for sin. Doesn’t that describe this world very well? We do feel very separate from God here, do we not? And does it not seem that we’re constantly being punished for some nameless crime, punishment that takes the form of all the suffering we experience in this world? We may proclaim with Louis Armstrong “What a wonderful world,” but underneath our affirmations, who among us hasn’t looked at life on earth-both the horrors of the world at large and his or her own personal sufferings—and secretly (or not so secretly) concluded that this must be hell? In fact, one of those Vatican officials commenting on the Pope’s sermon said that one reason the afterlife version of hell doesn’t hold the terror it once did is that “the world wars and totalitarianisms of the 20th century created a hell on earth as bad as anything we can imagine in the afterlife.” That may be so, but from the Course’s standpoint, things like the Holocaust and the Soviet Gulag are simply extreme examples of the hell that is everyday life.

Finally, the Course gives us good news that is cause for joyous celebration, given what we’ve seen in the first two points: “There is no hell” (T-15.I.7:1). Neither the afterlife version nor the earthly version of hell is real at all. Hell is purely a figment of our tormented imagination, the projected nightmare of our own guilt for the sins we think we have committed against God and our brothers. Hell cannot truly exist in any form, because we have never been separate from God, have not sinned, and therefore do not deserve punishment of any kind.

Therefore, the Course both agrees and disagrees with the fundamentalists and the Pope. It agrees with them that hell is separation from God. However, it disagrees with them on a major point: In its view, hell is not real or eternal. Thank God! We will feel like we’re in hell here as long as we keep listening to the ego and accepting its verdict of guilt. But we can make a different choice right here and right now: We can listen to the Voice for God instead, Who overturns the ego’s verdict and affirms our perfect innocence. When we accept the Holy Spirit’s verdict, this world will be transformed from hell to a reflection of Heaven. And when this transformation is complete, we will not merely go to Heaven, but will realize that we never actually left Heaven. Only Heaven is real and eternal. To leave the nightmare of hell forever, all we need do is wake up.


  1. Brenda
    Posted October 2, 2012 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

    Thank you Greg for this clarification of hell!! How completely freeing to know that only Heaven is eternal while hell is merely a construct in which the ego tried to seemingly recreate eternity. Your description of the “What a wonderful world” reminds me of the “face of innocence,” except it’s how we “see” the outer world while the “face of innocence” is our false internal view of ourselves. The “hell” of the world becomes inner “enraged victim” and “call for help.” Thank you for sharing your insights and your writings which bring further clarity this beautiful truth given us from the Course.

  2. Mary Benton
    Posted October 12, 2012 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    Hi Greg,

    The doctrine of hell has been one of the most corrosive elements of religious belief. In English the apotheosis of this doctrine must surely be the sermon on hell in James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” Joyce’s genius made good use of his Catholic education by Jesuits of that period. To be fair this stuff would be unthinkable these days. Sample below:

    “Now let us try for a moment to realize, as far as we can, the nature of that abode of the damned which the justice of an offended God has called into existence for the eternal punishment of sinners. Hell is a strait and dark and foul-smelling prison, an abode of demons and lost souls, filled with fire and smoke. The straitness of this prison house is expressly designed by God to punish those who refused to be bound by His laws. In earthly prisons the poor captive has at least some liberty of movement, were it only within the four walls of his cell or in the gloomy yard of his prison. Not so in hell. There, by reason of the great number of the damned, the prisoners are heaped together in their awful prison, the walls of which are said to be four thousand miles thick: and the damned are so utterly bound and helpless that, as a blessed saint, saint Anselm, writes in his book on similitudes, they are not even able to remove from the eye a worm that gnaws it.

    — They lie in exterior darkness. For, remember, the fire of hell gives forth no light. As, at the command of God, the fire of the Babylonian furnace lost its heat but not its light, so, at the command of God, the fire of hell, while retaining the intensity of its heat, burns eternally in darkness. It is a never ending storm of darkness, dark flames and dark smoke of burning brimstone, amid which the bodies are heaped one upon another without even a glimpse of air. Of all the plagues with which the land of the Pharaohs were smitten one plague alone, that of darkness, was called horrible. What name, then, shall we give to the darkness of hell which is to last not for three days alone but for all eternity?

    — The horror of this strait and dark prison is increased by its awful stench. All the filth of the world, all the offal and scum of the world, we are told, shall run there as to a vast reeking sewer when the terrible conflagration of the last day has purged the world. The brimstone, too, which burns there in such prodigious quantity fills all hell with its intolerable stench; and the bodies of the damned themselves exhale such a pestilential odour that, as saint Bonaventure says, one of them alone would suffice to infect the whole world. The very air of this world, that pure element, becomes foul and unbreathable when it has been long enclosed. Consider then what must be the foulness of the air of hell. Imagine some foul and putrid corpse that has lain rotting and decomposing in the grave, a jelly-like mass of liquid corruption. Imagine such a corpse a prey to flames, devoured by the fire of burning brimstone and giving off dense choking fumes of nauseous loathsome decomposition. And then imagine this sickening stench, multiplied a millionfold and a millionfold again from the millions upon millions of fetid carcasses massed together in the reeking darkness, a huge and rotting human fungus. Imagine all this, and you will have some idea of the horror of the stench of hell.

    — But this stench is not, horrible though it is, the greatest physical torment to which the damned are subjected. The torment of fire is the greatest torment to which the tyrant has ever subjected his fellow creatures. Place your finger for a moment in the flame of a candle and you will feel the pain of fire. But our earthly fire was created by God for the benefit of man, to maintain in him the spark of life and to help him in the useful arts, whereas the fire of hell is of another quality and was created by God to torture and punish the unrepentant sinner. Our earthly fire also consumes more or less rapidly according as the object which it attacks is more or less combustible, so that human ingenuity has even succeeded in inventing chemical preparations to check or frustrate its action. But the sulphurous brimstone which burns in hell is a substance which is specially designed to burn for ever and for ever with unspeakable fury. Moreover, our earthly fire destroys at the same time as it burns, so that the more intense it is the shorter is its duration; but the fire of hell has this property, that it preserves that which it burns, and, though it rages with incredible intensity, it rages for ever.

    — Our earthly fire again, no matter how fierce or widespread it may be, is always of a limited extent; but the lake of fire in hell is boundless, shoreless and bottomless. It is on record that the devil himself, when asked the question by a certain soldier, was obliged to confess that if a whole mountain were thrown into the burning ocean of hell it would be burned up In an instant like a piece of wax. And this terrible fire will not afflict the bodies of the damned only from without, but each lost soul will be a hell unto itself, the boundless fire raging in its very vitals. O, how terrible is the lot of those wretched beings! The blood seethes and boils in the veins, the brains are boiling in the skull, the heart in the breast glowing and bursting, the bowels a red-hot mass of burning pulp, the tender eyes flaming like molten balls.

    — And yet what I have said as to the strength and quality and boundlessness of this fire is as nothing when compared to its intensity, an intensity which it has as being the instrument chosen by divine design for the punishment of soul and body alike. It is a fire which proceeds directly from the ire of God, working not of its own activity but as an instrument of Divine vengeance. As the waters of baptism cleanse the soul with the body, so do the fires of punishment torture the spirit with the flesh. Every sense of the flesh is tortured and every faculty of the soul therewith: the eyes with impenetrable utter darkness, the nose with noisome odours, the ears with yells and howls and execrations, the taste with foul matter, leprous corruption, nameless suffocating filth, the touch with redhot goads and spikes, with cruel tongues of flame. And through the several torments of the senses the immortal soul is tortured eternally in its very essence amid the leagues upon leagues of glowing fires kindled in the abyss by the offended majesty of the Omnipotent God and fanned into everlasting and ever-increasing fury by the breath of the anger of the God-head.

    — Consider finally that the torment of this infernal prison is increased by the company of the damned themselves. Evil company on earth is so noxious that the plants, as if by instinct, withdraw from the company of whatsoever is deadly or hurtful to them. In hell all laws are overturned – there is no thought of family or country, of ties, of relationships. The damned howl and scream at one another, their torture and rage intensified by the presence of beings tortured and raging like themselves. All sense of humanity is forgotten. The yells of the suffering sinners fill the remotest corners of the vast abyss. The mouths of the damned are full of blasphemies against God and of hatred for their fellow sufferers and of curses against those souls which were their accomplices in sin. In olden times it was the custom to punish the parricide, the man who had raised his murderous hand against his father, by casting him into the depths of the sea in a sack in which were placed a cock, a monkey, and a serpent. The intention of those law-givers who framed such a law, which seems cruel in our times, was to punish the criminal by the company of hurtful and hateful beasts. But what is the fury of those dumb beasts compared with the fury of execration which bursts from the parched lips and aching throats of the damned in hell when they behold in their companions in misery those who aided and abetted them in sin, those whose words sowed the first seeds of evil thinking and evil living in their minds, those whose immodest suggestions led them on to sin, those whose eyes tempted and allured them from the path of virtue. They turn upon those accomplices and upbraid them and curse them. But they are helpless and hopeless: it is too late now for repentance.

    — Last of all consider the frightful torment to those damned souls, tempters and tempted alike, of the company of the devils. These devils will afflict the damned in two ways, by their presence and by their reproaches. We can have no idea of how horrible these devils are. Saint Catherine of Siena once saw a devil and she has written that, rather than look again for one single instant on such a frightful monster, she would prefer to walk until the end of her life along a track of red coals. These devils, who were once beautiful angels, have become as hideous and ugly as they once were beautiful. They mock and jeer at the lost souls whom they dragged down to ruin. It is they, the foul demons, who are made in hell the voices of conscience. Why did you sin? Why did you lend an ear to the temptings of friends? Why did you turn aside from your pious practices and good works? Why did you not shun the occasions of sin? Why did you not leave that evil companion? Why did you not give up that lewd habit, that impure habit? Why did you not listen to the counsels of your confessor? Why did you not, even after you had fallen the first or the second or the third or the fourth or the hundredth time, repent of your evil ways and turn to God who only waited for your repentance to absolve you of your sins? Now the time for repentance has gone by. Time is, time was, but time shall be no more! Time was to sin in secrecy, to indulge in that sloth and pride, to covet the unlawful, to yield to the promptings of your lower nature, to live like the beasts of the field, nay worse than the beasts of the field, for they, at least, are but brutes and have no reason to guide them: time was, but time shall be no more. God spoke to you by so many voices, but you would not hear. You would not crush out that pride and anger in your heart, you would not restore those ill-gotten goods, you would not obey the precepts of your holy church nor attend to your religious duties, you would not abandon those wicked companions, you would not avoid those dangerous temptations. Such is the language of those fiendish tormentors, words of taunting and of reproach, of hatred and of disgust. Of disgust, yes! For even they, the very devils, when they sinned, sinned by such a sin as alone was compatible with such angelical natures, a rebellion of the intellect: and they, even they, the foul devils must turn away, revolted and disgusted, from the contemplation of those unspeakable sins by which degraded man outrages and defiles the temple of the Holy Ghost, defiles and pollutes himself”.

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