Many saints have claimed to have had supernatural visions of hell. Of course, all private revelations of the saints are non-authoritative, so you shouldn’t look to these for your theology.
Rather, the saints’ visions of hell should remind us of what our faith already teaches: that hell is a real and terrible place, and people can really go there.
The great 19th century mystic St. Faustina said her vision of hell had this effect on her:
Consequently, I pray even more fervently for the conversion of sinners. I incessantly plead God’s mercy upon them. O my Jesus, I would rather be in agony until the end of the world, amidst the greatest sufferings, than offend You by the least sin.
So don’t just be afraid: turn away from your sins, and work to lead others to Christ!
1) Bl. Anne Catherine Emmerich: “No one could behold without trembling”
Bl. Anne Catherine Emmerich lived in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in the Holy Roman Empire. She was a mystic who claimed to have had visions of all sorts of spiritual things. Here is an excerpt of one of her visions of hell:
The exterior of Hell was appalling and frightful; it was an immense, heavy-looking building, and the granite of which it was formed, although black, was of metallic brightness; and the dark and ponderous doors were secured with such terrible bolts that no one could behold them without trembling.
Deep groans and cries of despair might be plainly distinguished even while the doors were tightly closed; but, O, who can describe the dreadful yells and shrieks which burst upon the ear when the bolts were unfastened and the doors flung open; and, O, who can depict the melancholy appearance of the inhabitants of this wretched place! […]
[A]ll within it is, on the contrary, close, confused, and crowded; every object tends to fill the mind with sensations of pain and grief; the marks of the wrath and vengeance of God are visible everywhere; despair, like a vulture, gnaws every heart, and discord and misery reign around. […] In the city of Hell nothing is to be seen but dismal dungeons, dark caverns, frightful deserts, fetid swamps filled with every imaginable species of poisonous and disgusting reptile. […]
[I]n Hell, perpetual scenes of wretched discord, and every species of sin and corruption, either under the most horrible forms imaginable, or represented by different kinds of dreadful torments. All in this dreary abode tends to fill the mind with horror; not a word of comfort is heard or a consoling idea admitted; the one tremendous thought, that the justice of an all-powerful God inflicts on the damned nothing but what they have fully deserved is the absorbing tremendous conviction which weighs down each heart.
Vice appears in its own, grim disgusting colours, being stripped of the mask under which it is hidden in this world, and the infernal viper is seen devouring those who have cherished or fostered it here below. In a word, Hell is the temple of anguish and despair…
2) St. Teresa of Avila: “On fire, and torn to pieces”
The great 16th century mystic and Doctor of the Church claims to have had this experience of hell:
The entrance seemed to be by a long narrow pass, like a furnace, very low, dark, and close. The ground seemed to be saturated with water, mere mud, exceedingly foul, sending forth pestilential odors, and covered with loathsome vermin. At the end was a hollow place in the wall, like a closet, and in that I saw myself confined. […]
I felt a fire in my soul. […] My bodily sufferings were unendurable. I have undergone most painful sufferings in this life… yet all these were as nothing in comparison with what I felt then, especially when I saw that there would be no intermission, nor any end to them. […]
I did not see who it was that tormented me, but I felt myself on fire, and torn to pieces, as it seemed to me; and, I repeat it, this inward fire and despair are the greatest torments of all. […]
I could neither sit nor lie down: there was no room. I was placed as it were in a hole in the wall; and those walls, terrible to look on of themselves, hemmed me in on every side. I could not breathe. There was no light, but all was thick darkness. […]
I was so terrified by that vision – and that terror is on me even now while I am writing – that though it took place nearly six years ago, the natural warmth of my body is chilled by fear even now when I think of it. […]
It was that vision that filled me with the very great distress which I feel at the sight of so many lost souls, especially of the Lutherans – for they were once members of the Church by baptism – and also gave me the most vehement desires for the salvation of souls; for certainly I believe that, to save even one from those overwhelming torments, I would most willingly endure many deaths.
3) St. John Bosco: “Indescribable terror”
In 1868, St. John Bosco claimed to have had a dream about hell. His full narration is fairly long, so here is just a short excerpt:
As soon as I crossed its threshold, I felt an indescribable terror and dared not take another step. 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 a 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. […]
[My guide] 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.
4) Sr. Lucy of Fatima: “Shrieks and groans of pain and despair”
Sr. Lucy of Fatima isn’t a saint (she died recently, in 2005), but she was one of the visionaries of Fatima in the early 20th century, an approved apparition in the Church. As a part of that vision, she claims she saw hell:
We saw, as it were, a vast sea of fire. Plunged in this fire, we saw the demons and the souls [of the damned].
The latter were like transparent burning embers, all blackened or burnished bronze, having human forms. They were floating about in that conflagration, now raised into the air by the flames which issued from within themselves, together with great clouds of smoke. Now they fell back on every side like sparks in huge fires, without weight or equilibrium, amid shrieks and groans of pain and despair, which horrified us and made us tremble with fright (it must have been this sight which caused me to cry out, as people say they heard me).
The demons were distinguished [from the souls of the damned] by their terrifying and repellent likeness to frightful and unknown animals, black and transparent like burning coals.
5) St. Maria Faustyna Kowalska: “A place of great torture”
St. Maria Faustyna Kowalska, often known simply as St. Faustina, was a Polish nun who claimed to have a large number of mystical experiences in the 1930s. Here’s an excerpt from her diary about one of her visions:
Today I was led by an Angel to the chasms of hell. It is a place of great torture; how awesomely large and extensive it is!
The kinds of tortures I saw: the first torture that constitutes hell is the loss of God; the second is perpetual remorse of conscience; the third is that one’s condition will never change; the fourth is the fire that will penetrate the soul without destroying it – a terrible suffering, since it is a purely spiritual fire, lit by God’s anger; the fifth torture is continual darkness and a terrible suffocating smell, and, despite the darkness, the devils and the souls of the damned see each other and all the evil, both of others and their own; the sixth torture is the constant company of Satan; the seventh torture is horrible despair, hatred of God, vile words, curses and blasphemies. […]
Each soul undergoes terrible and indescribable sufferings, related to the manner in which it has sinned. There are caverns and pits of torture where one form of agony differs from another. […]
But I noticed one thing: that most of the souls there are those who disbelieved that there is a hell. When I came to, I could hardly recover from the fright. How terribly souls suffer there! (Diary of St. Faustina, 741)
[See also: How the Famous Sell Their Soul to Satan]