What difference does it make that Pope Francis may have admitted to an Italian journalist that he does not believe hell is a real place? So what? Millions of Christians all over the world do not believe that hell is a real place. They cannot reconcile the nature of a benevolent and omnipotent creator with the concept of a 24/7 torture chamber. If God is all good and all powerful, it follows that a place such as hell would never be created in the first place. The two ideas just don’t jive. In fact, the teaching of hell has always been viewed as contradictory to the classical definition of God-at least in the Christian tradition. Jesus himself is said to have made the following assertion: “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”
Be that as it may, if Pope Francis does believe that hell is not a real place that sinners go to when they die, it would seem to mark a radical departure from the official stance of the Catholic Church. No wonder the Vatican was quick to pounce on the journalist for lying, and even quicker to go into PR mode to qualify the Pontiff’s statements. Referring to their bible of the Bible, the Catechism explicitly states that we cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves: “He who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little one who are his brethren. To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him forever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called “hell.”
Let’s unpack this a bit. The Pope supposedly told an Italian journalist that souls who are not forgiven simply vanish. One can infer that they do not burn forever in a cauldron of boiling hot acid. They are not gorged in the chest repeatedly for all time. They are not ripped at the seams and reassembled over and over. In short, they are not tortured. The punishment, if it can be called that, is that they do not have the opportunity to experience the presence of God. Furthermore, forgiven souls are not propped up in some mansion above the clouds. Nor are they surrounded by 70 virgins. According to Francis’ purported comments in the conversation, the souls who do have eternal life are granted the ability to contemplate God.
Here is the key point. If one examines the Catholic dogma closely, there is no obvious violation occurring if Francis disbelieves in hell as a place of fire and brimstone. His alleged position on the afterlife is totally compatible with the assertion that “He who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” Francis may contend that murderers and their ilk simply go away. There can be no distance from God that is further than nonexistence.
Similarly, the teaching that “To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him forever by our own free choice” is perfectly compatible with the ideas Francis was said to reveal to his atheist friend and left-wing reporter Eugenio Scalfari.
I think the bigger matter here is not about Francis’ controversial beliefs, the right of a Pope to have his own theological positions, or current dissent within the established power echelon of the Church. The real issue seems to be why so many Catholics (and other Christians) desire a hell that physically punishes sinners. After-all, we are not talking about a little tit for tat. We are talking about eternal damnation. We are talking about a finite set of crimes met with an infinite duration of agony and retribution. Hell, as the majority of Christians conceive it, is not the mere separation from God but an arena of unimaginable suffering that is unrelenting. Yet as Francis has been keen to observe, if God is all good and all powerful, whatever the crime, hell would be an unjust response. God could devise another way to redeem someone other than subjecting them to an endless array of pain. After a while, what’s the point? What can be accomplished once a sinner has had all of the sin beaten out of them?
Francis is an intellectual. He knows that this type of hell is not only a physical absurdity, but it is also an abomination. If God were to design, manage, oversee, condone, or in any way participate in such a place, God would no longer deserve our love and worship. Francis knows that the concept of hell that satisfies people’s desire for justice is not the type of redemption that brings lasting peace to humanity. Francis also knows that the type of hell people have invented in their minds is indicative of the type of hell they inflict on each other with their pettiness, brutality, weapons of mass destruction, and artificial diseases. Francis knows that hell of this kind is all too real. One need only open the newspaper or turn on CNN.
As I said, Francis is an intellectual. He knows that the modern English word hell is derived from the Old English hel, helle (first attested around 725 AD to refer to a nether world of the dead), and that it reached into the Anglo-Saxon pagan period, and ultimately came from the Proto-Germanic halja, meaning “one who covers up or hides something.” That is hell, Each day that one lives with a secret that steals their identity, they are in hell. Each day that one accepts a lie about who they are and what their purpose is, they are in hell. Each day that one sacrifices their humanity to become less than what they could be, they are in hell. I believe that Francis meant what he was purported to say. Hell is total separation from God; as such, it is total separation from who we were created to be. There can be no greater separation than death. Conversely, to live freely is to be in the presence of the One who is freedom.
Why is this concept so problematic for the majority of Christians to accept? What about the popular notion of hell is rooted in a Human-All too Human-tendency to enact revenge, hurt, and even torture to satisfy one’s thirst for justice and to alleviate the fear of the unknown?
One last comment. We must keep in mind that these two men are friends, and that this is not their first time discussing this matter. Scalfari admits that he was paraphrasing but that this is basically how Francis thinks about the afterlife. Have we heard the Pope state that Scalfari is purposely lying or putting words in his mouth? The Pope is letting the Vatican do what it thinks is needed for damage control, but I do not get the sense that the Pope is angry with Scalfari. As I see it, the Vatican realizes that what Scalfari is claiming came out of Francis’ mouth is not necessarily at odds with official doctrine. But it is assuming that most believers are not sophisticated enough to handle the Jesuit’s finer explications. More cynically, the popular conception of hell as a place of physical torment works too well as a marketing and recruitment strategy to give up on it so easily.