Since 2000, Ottawa Archbishop Marcel Gervais has expressed his opinion on a variety of faith topics. These texts were initially published in the "Ask the Religion Experts" column which appears every Saturday in The Ottawa Citizen. As of June 2005, Msgr. Patrick Powers, Vicar General, will be taking on the responsibility of the weekly articles.

How does your faith conceive of hell? Is it a place? A state of mind? Will bad people really go there forever?

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, as Paul VI wrote in the Credo of the People of God (12). In the Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 1035) we read that the chief punishment of hell is the persons eternal separation from God, in whom alone we can possess the life and happiness and life for which we were created and for which we all long.

It is very important for us to remember that God predestines no one to eternal damnation. The Church has always taught that one would have to wilfully turn away from God and persistently remain in a state of mortal sin to be among the "damned". In the second letter of Peter we are reminded that God wants none of us to perish "but that all come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9). The Church prays that no one should be lost and reminds us that all things are possible for God who desires that "all people be saved" (1Tim. 2:4).

As I researched this question and looked through so many documents and theological treatises, I was struck by a one consistent thread: While hell is seen as our separation from God, I found no absolute damnation of any individual. The Lord came to call sinners and everything points to the hope of our answering that call to conversion. We are called to make use of our freedom to choose in view of our eternal destiny. Damnation is always presented as a possibility. Yet that stands in sharp contrast to the definitive affirmation of the reality of heaven as the fulfillment of human history that has already been accomplished in the person of Jesus Christ.