Saints who Saw Hell: And Other Catholic Witnesses to the Fate of the Damned – Paul Thigpen

Terrifying visions of hell

Gnawing worms, unquenchable fire, utter darkness, weeping and gnashing of teeth. With these fearful words, Jesus warned that hell is real … and that we could end up there.

Since the Early Church, Catholic saints and other visionaries have reported horrific scenes of eternal punishment. Dozens of saints throughout history have described the terrors of hell, and relayed horror of being separated from God for eternity so that we may see for ourselves and repent.

Following is an excerpt, chapter 3 of the book:


St. John Bosco

St. John Bosco (1815–1888) was an Italian priest, educator, and writer. He founded the Society of St. Francis de Sales, an apostolate dedicated to educating and caring for boys from poor families. He also helped establish other educational and devotional institutions, including the Institute of the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians. Cofounded by Maria Domenica Mazzarello, this religious congregation of women was devoted to the care and education of girls from poor families.
St. John reported frequent and extraordinary dreams. In many ways, they were more like visions than dreams, though they came to him in his sleep. Unlike merely natural dreams, they had unusual and even supernatural aspects.
In these dreams, he engaged in rational conversations, asking specific questions and receiving specific answers. There was none of the irrational or seemingly meaningless content that so often fills natural dreams. He often had a guide and interpreter, an angel or one of the saints. He saw secret matters of conscience that later proved to be accurate. He even foresaw future events that came to pass.
Sometimes St. John’s dreams came to him for the sake of the boys under his care, whom he loved deeply and wanted to help on their way to heaven. One night in 1868, he dreamed of the boys who were making their way to hell instead. He knew the night vision was given by God so he could warn them. So he told them some days later about the guide who had come to him in the dream and led him down a difficult path, showing him the boys whose souls were in danger as they descended. The portion of the dream presented here begins at the gates of hell.

The Gates of Hell

We continued our descent, the road now becoming so frightfully steep that it was almost impossible to stand erect. And then, at the bottom of this precipice, at the entrance of a dark valley, an enormous building loomed into sight, its towering portal, tightly locked, facing our road. When I finally got to the bottom, I became smothered by a suffocating heat, while a greasy, green-tinted smoke lit by flashes of scarlet flames rose from behind those enormous walls which loomed higher than mountains.
“Where are we? What is this?” I asked my guide.
“Read the inscription on that portal and you will know.”
I looked up and read these words: “The place of no reprieve.” I realized that we were at the gates of hell. The guide led me all around this horrible place.
At regular distances bronze portals like the first overlooked precipitous descents; on each was an inscription, such as: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt 25:41). “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Mt 7:19).
I tried to copy them into my notebook, but my guide restrained me. “There is no need. You have them all in Holy Scripture. You even have some of them inscribed in the porticoes of your Oratory.”
At such a sight I wanted to turn back and return to the Oratory. As a matter of fact, I did start back, but my guide ignored my attempt. After trudging through a steep, never-ending ravine, we again came to the foot of the precipice facing the first portal.

A Youth Comes Running

Suddenly the guide turned to me. Upset and startled, he motioned to me to step aside. “Look!” he said.
I looked up in terror and saw in the distance someone racing down the path at an uncontrollable speed. I kept my eyes on him, trying to identify him, and as he got closer, I recognized him as one of my boys. His disheveled hair was partly standing upright on his head and partly tossed back by the wind.
His arms were outstretched as though he were thrashing the water in an attempt to stay afloat. He wanted to stop, but could not. Tripping on the protruding stones, he kept falling even faster.
“Let’s help him, let’s stop him!” I shouted, holding out my hands in a vain effort to restrain him.
“Leave him alone,” the guide replied.
“Don’t you know how terrible God’s vengeance is? Do you think you can restrain one who is fleeing from his just wrath?”
Meanwhile the youth had turned his fiery gaze backward in an attempt to see whether God’s wrath were still pursuing him. The next moment he fell tumbling to the bottom of the ravine and crashed against the bronze portal as though he could find no better refuge in his flight.
“Why was he looking backward in terror?” I asked.
“Because God’s wrath will pierce hell’s gates to reach and torment him even in the midst of fire!”

A Thousand Inner Portals

As the boy crashed into the portal, it sprang open with a roar, and instantly a thousand inner portals opened with a deafening clamor as if struck by a body that had been propelled by an invisible, most violent, irresistible gale. As these bronze doors—one behind the other, though at a considerable distance from each other—remained momentarily open, I saw far into the distance something like furnace jaws sprouting fiery balls the moment the youth hurtled into it.
As swiftly as they had opened, the portals then clanged shut again. For a third time I tried to jot down the name of that unfortunate lad, but the guide again restrained me.
“Wait,” he ordered. “Watch!”
Three other boys of ours, screaming in terror and with arms outstretched, were rolling down one behind the other like massive rocks. I recognized them as they too crashed against the portal. In that split second, it sprang open and so did the other thousand.
The three lads were sucked into that endless corridor amid a long-drawn, fading, infernal echo, and then the portals clanged shut again. At intervals, many other lads came tumbling down after them. I saw one unlucky boy being pushed down the slope by an evil companion. Others fell singly or with others, arm in arm or side by side.
Each of them bore the name of his sin on his forehead. I kept calling to them as they hurtled down, but they did not hear me. Again the portals would open thunderously and slam shut with a rumble. Then, dead silence!

Dragging the Boys to Ruin

“Bad companions, bad books, and bad habits,” my guide exclaimed, “are mainly responsible for so many eternally lost.”
The traps I had seen earlier were indeed dragging the boys to ruin. Seeing so many going to damnation, I cried out disconsolately, “If so many of our boys end up this way, we are working in vain. How can we prevent such tragedies?”
“This is their present state,” my guide replied, “and that is where they would go if they were to die now.”
“Then let me jot down their names so that I may warn them and put them back on the path to heaven.”
“Do you really believe that some of them would reform if you were to warn them? Then and there your warning might impress them, but soon they will forget it, saying, ‘It was just a dream,’ and they will do worse than before. Others, realizing they have been unmasked, receive the Sacraments, but this will be neither spontaneous nor meritorious; others will go to confession because of a momentary fear of hell but will still be attached to sin.”
“Then is there no way to save these unfortunate lads? Please, tell me what I can do for them.”
“They have superiors; let them obey them. They have rules; let them observe them. They have the Sacraments; let them receive them.”
Just then a new group of boys came hurtling down and the portals momentarily opened.
“Let’s go in,” the guide said to me.
I pulled back in horror. I could not wait to rush back to the Oratory to warn the boys lest others might be lost as well.
“Come,” my guide insisted. “You’ll learn much. But first tell me: Do you wish to go alone or with me?” He asked this to make me realize that I was not brave enough and therefore needed his friendly assistance.
“Alone inside that horrible place?” I replied. “How will I ever be able to find my way out without your help?”
Then a thought came to my mind and aroused my courage. Before one is condemned to hell, I said to myself, he must be judged. And I haven’t been judged yet!
“Let’s go!” I exclaimed resolutely.

A Vast, Grim Courtyard

We entered that narrow, horrible corridor and whizzed through it with lightning speed. Threatening inscriptions shone eerily over all the inner gateways. The last one opened into a vast, grim courtyard with a large, unbelievably forbidding entrance at the far end.
Above it stood this inscription: “They will go away into eternal punishment” (Mt 25:46). The walls all about were similarly inscribed. I asked my guide if I could read them, and he consented. These were the inscriptions:
“Fire and worms he will give to their flesh; they shall weep in pain for ever” (Jdt 16:17).
“The lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet … will be tormented day and night for ever and ever” (Rv 20:10).
“And the smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever” (Rv 14:11).
“The land of gloom and chaos, where light is as darkness” (Job 10:22).
“There is no peace … for the wicked” (Is 48:22).
“There men will weep and gnash their teeth” (Mt 8:12).
While I moved from one inscription to another, my guide, who had stood in the center of the courtyard, came up to me.
“From here on,” he said, “no one may have a helpful companion, a comforting friend, a loving heart, a compassionate glance, or a benevolent word. All this is gone forever. Do you just want to see or would you rather experience these things yourself?”
“I only want to see!” I answered.
“Then come with me,” my friend added, and, taking me in tow, he stepped through that gate into a corridor at whose far end stood an observation platform, closed by a huge, single crystal pane reaching from the pavement to the ceiling. As soon as I crossed its threshold, I felt an indescribable terror and dared not take another step.

An Immense Cave Glowing White-Hot

Ahead of me I could see something like an immense cave which gradually disappeared into recesses sunk far into the bowels of the mountains. They were all ablaze, but theirs was not an earthly fire with leaping tongues of flames. The entire cave—walls, ceiling, floor, iron, stones, wood, and coal—everything was glowing white at temperatures of thousands of degrees.
Yet the fire did not incinerate, did not consume. I simply can’t find words to describe the cavern’s horror. “It is made ready, its pyre made deep and wide, with fire and wood in abundance; the breath of the LORD, like a stream of brimstone, kindles it” (Is 30:33).
I was staring about me in bewilderment when a lad dashed out of a gate. Seemingly unaware of anything else, he emitted a most shrilling scream, like one who is about to fall into a cauldron of liquid bronze, and plummeted into the center of the cave. Instantly he too became incandescent and perfectly motionless, while the echo of his dying wail lingered for an instant more.
Terribly frightened, I stared at him for a while. He seemed to be one of my Oratory boys. “Isn’t he so and so?” I asked my guide.
“Yes” was the answer.
“Why is he so still, so incandescent?”
“You chose to see,” he replied. “Be satisfied with that. Just keep looking. Besides, ‘Every one will be salted with fire’” (Mk 9:49).

Other Youth From the Oratory

As I looked again, another youth came hurtling down into the cave at breakneck speed. He too was from the Oratory. As he fell, so he remained. He too emitted one single heart-rending shriek that blended with the last echo of the scream that came from the youth who had preceded him.
Other boys kept hurtling in the same way in increasing numbers, all screaming the same way, and then all becoming equally motionless and incandescent. I noticed that the first seemed frozen to the spot, one hand and one foot raised into the air; the second boy seemed bent almost double to the floor. Others stood or hung in various other positions, balancing themselves on one foot or hand, sitting or lying on their backs or on their sides, standing or kneeling, hands clutching their hair.
Briefly, the scene resembled a large statuary group of youngsters cast into ever more painful postures. Other lads hurtled into that same furnace. Some I knew; others were strangers to me. I then recalled what is written in the Bible to the effect that as one falls into hell, so he shall forever remain: “In the place where the tree falls, there it will lie” (Eccl 11:3).
More frightened than ever, I asked my guide, “When these boys come dashing into this cave, don’t they know where they are going?”
“They surely do. They have been warned a thousand times, but they still choose to rush into the fire because they do not detest sin and are loath to forsake it. Furthermore, they despise and reject God’s incessant, merciful invitations to do penance. Thus provoked, Divine Justice harries them, hounds them, and goads them on so that they cannot halt until they reach this place.”
“Oh, how miserable these unfortunate boys must feel in knowing they no longer have any hope!” I exclaimed.

Their Innermost Frenzy and Fury

“If you really want to know their innermost frenzy and fury, go a little closer,” my guide remarked.
I took a few steps forward and saw that many of those poor wretches were savagely striking at each other like mad dogs. Others were clawing their own faces and hands, tearing their own flesh and spitefully throwing it about. Just then the entire ceiling of the cave became as transparent as crystal and revealed a patch of heaven and their radiant companions safe for all eternity.
The poor wretches, fuming and panting with envy, burned with rage because they had once ridiculed the righteous. “The wicked man sees it and is angry; he gnashes his teeth and melts away” (Ps 112:10).
“Why do I hear no sound?” I asked my guide.
“Go closer!” he advised.
Pressing my ear to the crystal window, I heard screams and sobs, blasphemies and curses against the saints. It was a tumult of voices and cries, shrill and confused.
“When they recall the happy lot of their good companions,” he replied, “they are obliged to admit: ‘We fools thought that their life was madness, and that their end was without honor. Behold, how they are numbered among the sons of God, and their lot is among the saints. It is we who have strayed from the way of truth, and the light of righteousness did not shine on us….
“‘We took our fill of the paths of lawlessness and destruction, and we journeyed through trackless deserts, but the way of the LORD we have not known. What has our arrogance profited us? And what good has our boasted wealth brought us? All those things have vanished like a shadow’” (see Ws 5:4–9).
“Here time is no more. Here is only eternity.”
While I viewed the condition of many of my boys in utter terror, a thought suddenly struck me. “How can these boys be damned?” I asked. “Last night they were still alive at the Oratory!”
“The boys you see here,” he answered, “are all dead to God’s grace. Were they to die now or persist in their evil ways, they would be damned. But we are wasting time. Let us go on.”

Covered With Worms and Vermin

He led me away and we went down through a corridor into a lower cavern, at whose entrance I read: “Their worm shall not die; their fire shall not be quenched” (Is 66:24). “Fire and worms he will give to their flesh; they shall weep in pain forever” (Jdt 16:17).
Here one could see how atrocious was the remorse of those who had been pupils in our schools. What a torment was theirs, to remember each unforgiven sin and its just punishment, the countless, even extraordinary means they had had to mend their ways, persevere in virtue, and earn paradise, and their lack of response to the many favors promised and bestowed by the Virgin Mary. What a torture to think that they could have been saved so easily, yet now are irredeemably lost, and to remember the many good resolutions made and never kept. Hell is indeed paved with good intentions!
In this lower cavern I again saw those Oratory boys who had fallen into the fiery furnace. Some are listening to me right now; others are former pupils or even strangers to me. I drew closer to them and noticed that they were all covered with worms and vermin that gnawed at their vitals, hearts, eyes, hands, legs, and entire bodies so ferociously as to defy description.
Helpless and motionless, they were a prey to every kind of torment. Hoping I might be able to speak with them or to hear something from them, I drew even closer, but no one spoke or even looked at me. I then asked my guide why, and he explained that the damned are totally deprived of freedom. Each must fully endure his own punishment, with absolutely no reprieve whatever.

Entering the Cavern

“And now,” he added, “you too must enter that cavern.”
“Oh, no!” I objected in terror. “Before going to hell, one has to be judged. I have not been judged yet, and so I will not go to hell!”
“Listen,” he said, “what would you rather do: visit hell and save your boys, or stay outside and leave them in agony?”
For a moment I was struck speechless. “Of course I love my boys and wish to save them all,” I replied, “but isn’t there some other way out?”
“Yes, there is a way,” he went on, “provided you do all you can.”
I breathed more easily and instantly said to myself, I don’t mind slaving if I can rescue these beloved sons of mine from such torments.
“Come inside then,” my friend went on, “and see how our good, almighty God lovingly provides a thousand means for guiding your boys to penance and saving them from everlasting death.”
Taking my hand, he led me into the cave….
[Inside, the guide shows St. John the common sins of the boys and the means God has provided for them to avoid hell. He is advised about how he should counsel and preach to warn them.]
I bowed my head and promised to do as he had instructed me. Faint with dismay, I could only mutter, “Thanks for having been so good to me. Now, please lead me out of here.”
“All right, then, come with me.”

A Touch of Hell

Encouragingly he took my hand and held me up because I could hardly stand on my feet. Leaving that hall, in no time at all we retraced our steps through that horrible courtyard and the long corridor. But as soon as we stepped across the last bronze portal, he turned to me and said, “Now that you have seen what others suffer, you too must experience a touch of hell.”
“No, no!” I cried in terror. He insisted, but I kept refusing.
“Don’t be afraid,” he told me; “just try it. Touch this wall.”
I could not muster enough courage and tried to get away, but he held me back.
“Try it,” he insisted. Gripping my arm firmly, he pulled me to the wall. “Only one touch,” he commanded, “so that you may say you have both seen and touched the walls of eternal suffering and that you may understand what the last wall must be like if the first is so unendurable. Look at this wall!”
I did look, intently. It seemed incredibly thick.
“There are a thousand walls between this and the real fire of hell,” my guide continued. “A thousand walls encompass it, each a thousand measures thick and equally distant from the next one. Each measure is a thousand miles. This wall therefore is millions and millions of miles from hell’s real fire. It is just a remote rim of hell itself.”
When he said this, I instinctively pulled back, but he seized my hand, forced it open, and pressed it against the first of the thousand walls. The sensation was so utterly excruciating that I leaped back with a scream and found myself sitting up in bed. My hand was stinging and I kept rubbing it to ease the pain.
When I got up this morning I noticed that it was swollen. Having my hand pressed against the wall, though only in a dream, felt so real that, later, the skin of my palm peeled off.
Bear in mind that I have tried not to frighten you very much, and so I have not described these things in all their horror as I saw them and as they impressed me. We know that Our Lord always portrayed hell in symbols because, had he described it as it really is, we would not have understood him. No mortal can comprehend these things. The Lord knows them, and he reveals them to whomever he wills.

Thigpen, Paul. Saints Who Saw Hell: And Other Catholic Witnesses to the Fate of the Damned (Chapter 3). TAN Books.

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