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Anonymous Ron wrote:

Hi, guys —

  • Has the Church's Magisterium ever infallibly stated that the fire of Hell is literal?
  • Also, is there any ancient Church Father who thought that we can interpret this fire symbolically?


  { Has the Church ever infallibly stated that the fire of Hell is literal and what do the Fathers say? }

Eric replied:


If by literal you mean material or physical, then I don't believe so. Obviously ordinary material fire cannot affect souls without bodies. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia (which is a bit dated but useful for this purpose),

Hell >> Impenitence of the Damned >> Poena sensus.

"According to the greater number of theologians the term fire denotes a material fire, and so a real fire. We hold to this teaching as absolutely true and correct. However, we must not forget two things:

  1. from Catharinus (d. 1553) to our times there have never been wanting theologians who interpret the Scriptural term fire metaphorically, as denoting an incorporeal fire; and
  2. secondly, thus far the Church has not censured their opinion. Some few of the Fathers also thought of a metaphorical explanation."

(Henotheism, Joseph, "Hell," ed. by Charles G. Herrmann, Edward A. Pace, Condé B. Pallen, Thomas J. Shahan, and John J. Wynne, The Catholic Encyclopedia: An International Work of Reference on the Constitution, Doctrine, Discipline, and History of the Catholic Church (New York: The Encyclopedia Press; The Universal Knowledge Foundation, 1907–1913))

Another resource says,

"According to medieval Church teaching, Hell and Purgatory contained literal fire, albeit of a supernatural nature that is able to burn even the souls of the damned. The modern Roman Catholic Church has largely revised its teaching, making Hell more into a state than a physical location."

(Kilcrease, Jack, "Hell," in Lethem Survey of Theology, ed. by Mark Ward, Jessica Parks, Brannon Ellis, and Todd Hains (Bellingham, WA: Wexham Press, 2018))

"Jesus described Hell as fire (Mark 9:47–48). (It is not earthly fire; any more than Hell is an earthly place. You can't put the fire of Hell out with a fire hose any more than you can get to Hell in a fire truck.)"

(Your Questions, God's Answers by Peter J. Kreeft (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994),
p. 119)

 St. Augustine says:

"It is my opinion that the nature of hell-fire and the location of Hell are known to no man unless the Holy Ghost made it known to him by a special revelation",

(City of God XX. 16).

This is the best extent I can show of a Church Father admitting that the fires of Hell may not be material or corporeal:

"On the contrary, there are promised, as pains for the wicked, unquenchable fire and the worm that shall not die. These expressions have been very variously explained. Some take both the fire and the worm as punishments for the body, and others refer both to the soul. Still others take 'fire' in the literal sense as punishment for the body, and the 'worm' as a metaphor for spiritual anguish. This last explanation seems to me highly acceptable, but for the moment I shall not pursue this discussion, since the theme of the present Book is not particular punishments and rewards (which must be more carefully examined later), but the general separation of the good from the wicked which is to be determined by the last judgment."

(Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books XVII–XXII, ed. by Hemifields Dressler, translated by Gerald G. Walsh and Daniel J. Honan, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1954), XXIV, 312–13)


Mike replied:

Hi Ron,

I don't think there is a literal Hell fire but Hell and Hell-like fire can be experienced two ways:

  1. The perpetual state of an eternal Hell fire, and
  2. A temporary state of a purifying fire, meaning Purgatorial fire.

I remember John mentioning this to me, as it is written,

"Our God is a consuming fire." (Hebrews 12:29)

I think this view would be in synch with what the Church allows Catholic Christians to believe.


John replied:


No, the Church has not said it is literal fire. Pope St. John Paul the Great described the afterlife as follows.

It is nothing but our reaction and response to God's Love, which metaphorically is called a consuming fire.

  1. In Heaven, God's Love is experienced as pure joy.
  2. In Purgatory, His Love is experienced as healing fire that burns away the dross: a refiner's fire that burns away the impurities so, it is painful, but in the pain, there is also great joy.
  3. In Hell, the person is constantly and forever rejecting God's Love and Mercy, so the Love of God for the condemned soul is a tremendous source of torment that never ends, because God loves everyone . . . He can't stop loving even the condemned soul.

All these are metaphors for what is a Mystery.

But there is not now, nor has ever been, an official dogmatic statement saying that the fires of Hell are literal fire.

Fire is mentioned, but it's a paradigm. 


Paul replied:


I concur with John, that God's Love is like a fire, and that effects people differently depending on their soul's orientation toward it.  And this fits with what Mike said, that this divine fire brings joy and fulfillment to those in Heaven and purgation to those in Purgatory.

Whether these fires are different, or that they're just experienced differently, is part of the Mystery.


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