I wanted to make sure I answered your questions about hell and judgment, but I ended up not getting this done for last Wednesday (11/9). So it’s late, but anyway, here it is.
I don’t know if I’ll remember all your questions – if I don’t get to them all, or if you have more questions, ask me or C.M. or anyone who know the faith. These aren’t my answers; they’re the Church’s answers. And again, if you can figure out how to navigate it, catholic.com is a great resource.
You asked why hell is permanent. The short answer is that hell is permanent for the same reason heaven is permanent. Life on earth is temporary; life after death is eternal (except, of course, for Purgatory, which prepares us for an eternal heaven). Our lives here are preparation for eternity.
It’s important to remember that God doesn’t send anyone to hell and he doesn’t want anyone to go to hell, but he does permit us to go to hell if we choose it. We choose hell by rejecting God and not repenting of it. We choose hell by committing mortal sins and not repenting of them. A person who commits a mortal sin and dies without repenting (going to confession or having perfect contrition) goes directly to hell.
Imagine you have a friend who had a really horrible day, couldn’t sleep all night and just got a test back with a horrible grade and is trying to figure out how to tell her parents. The two of you are talking, and she snaps at you over something little. You will probably be hurt but won’t find it too hard to forgive her. Now, let’s say you have another friend who breaks into your house and kills your parents. That’s probably going to completely destroy your relationship with her.
That’s kind of how things work with God. We are all sinners, but some sins are so serious they completely destroy our relationship with God. These are mortal sins. It’s not possible to commit a mortal sin by accident: for it to be a mortal sin, it has to be a grave matter (something serious), you have to know fully what you’re doing and you have to fully will it. If you were forced or seriously pressured into it, or if you honestly had no clue that it was wrong, in that situation it may only be a venial sin. But just because it’s not possible to commit a mortal sin by accident doesn’t mean it’s not possible to commit a mortal sin. It is possible, and those who commit a mortal sin and die without repairing their relationship with God (i.e. going to confession) go directly to hell. God doesn’t want people to go to hell, but if they choose it, he respects their choice.
God is forgiving, of course, and will forgive us for any sin we commit, provided we repent and turn back to Him. He understands our weakness, but it’s not enough to say “oh, well, I’m human, and I’m weak, so it’s okay if I don’t bother trying to be good.” Our human weakness doesn’t mean sin is permissible, it just means that sin is likely. God’s forgiveness doesn’t mean He just ignores everything we do wrong, but that He will help us back up when we fall, if we ask. God calls us to be holy, to grow in virtue, and to grow closer to Him. We will never complete that task on earth, and we’re going to keep messing up, but we have to keep working at it. God knows that we’re going to fail sometimes, and that’s why He gave us the sacrament of confession. He knew we would fall, so He gave us a way of getting back up. He wants us back. He loves us, and – don’t you want to be close to the people you love?
If we choose heaven (and remember, we choose this by doing what’s right, going to confession when we sin, and growing closer to God), then when we die, God will welcome us into heaven where we will be with Him and the angels and saints for eternity. If we choose hell (we choose this by rejecting God, by committing mortal sin and not repenting of it), that’s the choice we made. God will always respect the free will He gave us; he won’t force Himself on us if we reject Him. But if we ask for His help in growing closer to Him, He will give us all the help we ask for.
At the end of our earthly lives, God judges us and decides whether we go to heaven or hell. He doesn’t pick and choose arbitrarily who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. He sees into our hearts and looks at our lives and the decisions we’ve made. He knows, for example, how you treated your parents during your life. Maybe He will see a time when you were impatient with them. Maybe that time you just flat-out wanted to be selfish, or maybe you had a horrible time trying to sleep the night before and were also really stressed about an exam. He will take all these things into consideration, and He will judge with justice and mercy.
I think that answers your questions, but if it doesn’t, or if it brings up new ones, then ask. (I actually really love answering these questions, so don’t hesitate!)