Last week the Pope garnered some unwanted press coverage (unwanted especially during Holy Week) when it was claimed that he had denied the existence of hell as a place of conscious punishment for the wicked. The words were reported in an Italian daily publication La Repubblica by its founder, Eugenio Scalfari, a 93-year-old atheist who is apparently friends with Pope Francis. The discussion is quoted as follows:
Scalfari: Your Holiness, in our previous meeting you told me that our species will at some point disappear and God will always create other species from his creative seed. You have never spoken to me of souls who have died in sin and go to hell to suffer for it forever. Instead, you have spoken to me of good souls who are admitted to the contemplation of God. But the bad souls? Where are they punished?
Pope Francis: They are not punished, those who repent obtain God’s forgiveness and join the ranks of souls who contemplate him, but those who do not repent and cannot therefore be forgiven disappear. Hell does not exist; the disappearance of sinful souls exists.
“What is reported by the author in today’s article is the result of his reconstruction, in which the literal words pronounced by the Pope are not quoted,” the Vatican said. “No quotation of the aforementioned article must therefore be considered as a faithful transcription of the words of the Holy Father.”
Previous popes have said a range of things about the nature of hell. In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI said hell “really exists and it eternal, even if nobody talks about it much anymore.” In 1999 Pope John Paul II declared that Heaven was “neither an abstraction nor a physical place in the clouds, but that fullness of communion with God which is the goal of human life.” Hell, by contrast, was “the ultimate consequence of sin itself … Rather than a place, hell indicates the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy.”
The particular reason for bru-ha-ha amongst Catholics is the tension between the Pope’s comments and the 1922 Catechism of the Church, which has been taken as an authoritative statement of the Church’s teaching, and on Hell includes these comments:
1033 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 ones who are his brethren. To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called “hell.”
1034 Jesus often speaks of “Gehenna” of “the unquenchable fire” reserved for those who to the end of their lives refuse to believe and be converted, where both soul and body can be lost. Jesus solemnly proclaims that he “will send his angels, and they will gather . . . all evil doers, and throw them into the furnace of fire,”and that he will pronounce the condemnation: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire!”
1035 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, where they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire.” The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.
There are three things worth noting here. First is the dependence of this teaching on the notions of ‘mortal sin‘ (as distinct from ‘venial sin’) and the idea of the (immortal) ‘soul’ of a person, neither of which properly reflect New Testament language. In contrast, the second thing worth noting is the place given to Jesus’ teaching in the gospels of the seriousness of the consequences of decisions we make on whether we respond to his teaching, something that not a few Anglicans find it convenient to ignore. But the third thing to note is the tension or ambivalence in the catechism itself, whereby hell is chiefly the experience of ‘eternal separation from God’—as much in line with the comments of John Paul II as anything.
Both the tension and the conflation of different ideas need to be explored. It is not often noticed the extent to which popular ideas conjured up by the word ‘hell’ depend on mediaeval images of eternal conscious torment of the wicked, which are in turn dependent on the thinking of St Augustine.
Augustine insisted that hell is a literal lake of fire in which the damned will experience the horror of everlasting torment; they will experience, that is, the unbearable physical pain of literally being burned forever. The primary purpose of such unending torment, according to Augustine, is not correction, or deterrence, or even the protection of the innocent; nor did he make any claim for it except that it is fully deserved and therefore just. As for how such torment could be even physically possible, Augustine insisted further that “by a miracle of their most omnipotent Creator, they [living creatures who are damned] can burn without being consumed, and suffer without dying” (City of God, Bk. 21, Ch. 9). Such is the metaphysics of hell, as Augustine understood it.
Augustine brings to this theological interpretation of judgement in the NT not only his own personal experience, but important cultural assumptions including a Greek sense of dualism and rationalism, and the combination of ideas outside Christian belief with NT imagery, and the inability to distinguish between literal and metaphorical language—rather important when dealing with the apocalyptic imagery associated with judgment in Jesus’ teaching and elsewhere in the New Testament.
Come to the book launch for my new commentary on the Book of Revelation on Thursday April 19th.
So we might wish to dispense with the Augustinian ‘bathwater’ of eternal torment—but it is not so easy to throw out the ‘baby’ of the NT language of judgement, responsibility and consequences—a theme we find interwoven with NT teaching at every point. Jesus’ predecessor, John the Baptist, castigated his listeners: ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?’ (Matt 3.7). Jesus’ follower Peter, in his Pentecost speech ‘with many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation”’ (Acts 2.40). Central to Jesus’ own teaching was the call to ‘repent and believe, for the kingdom of God is at hand’ (Mark 1.15 and elsewhere). And Jesus makes repeated use language of ‘the darkness outside, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth’ (Matt 8.12, 13.42, 13.50, 22.13, 24.51, 25.30, Luke 13.28). We only need to look at the best-known verse in the New Testament about the love of God:
God loved the world in this way, that he sent his only Son, so that those who believe in him might not perish but have eternal life. (John 3.16)
John (or Jesus in John’s gospel) isn’t here suggesting that Jesus makes life just a little bit better; he is asserting that, without belief, there is no life, only death and judgement—and ‘belief’ here is something radical and whole-hearted, something that draws a sharp line between those who believe and those who do not.
Despite the seriousness of this language, there are two things that the NT never does. First, it never gloats over the suffering or punishment of the lost. Secondly it never offers the kind of systematic account of ‘hell’ that Augustine and others seek—not actually using the word, which itself derives from a different mythological background. If we were to look anywhere for either of these things, we would surely find it in the Book of Revelation. But Revelation includes four underworld domains, and refuses to reconcile them into a neat order:
- The domain ‘under the earth’ (5:3, 13) appears to be home to natural creatures, and its inhabitants acknowledge and worship God.
- ‘Hades’ (1:18; 6:8; 20:13, 14) is thought of as the realm of the dead in Greco-Roman mythology, and appears to correspond to the Old Testament realm of Sheol. Revelation does not describe it in the same terms, but it is viewed as a temporary abode of the dead until the final judgement.
- The ‘lake of fire’ (20:14, 15) is the place of final judgement and destruction, and corresponds in this regard to the realm of ‘Gehenna’ in the gospels (e.g. Matt. 10:28; Mark 9:43; the only reference elsewhere is in Jas. 3:6).
- In the Old Testament, the ‘abyss’ (Hebrew tehom; Greek abyssos, meaning ‘bottomless’) refers to the chaotic primeval waters from which God formed the seas (Gen. 1:2; Ps. 77:16) and so signifies the threat of chaos that threatens to overwhelm people as well as the source of rebellion against God. In Revelation, the abyss is the source of evil.
These four regions are conflated in different ways in other parts of the Bible and in Jewish apocalyptic, but in Revelation they are kept distinct. And while the devil, the beast and the false prophet (non-human figures in Revelation) are ‘tormented day and night’ in Rev 20.10, the emphasis of the lake of fire for others is not on torment but on destruction—as it is in Jesus’ teaching about ‘Gehenna’, the Hebrew term for the Valley of Hinnom where rubbish was dumped in Jerusalem and which therefore smouldered with fire the whole time.
Difficult though these ideas are, there are important pastoral issues around the idea of judgement. Adrian Hilton helpfully explores why this matters in our quest for justice: if we campaign for justice in the world, and seek to stand up for the abused and the oppressed, what do we hope will happen to the abusers and the oppressors?
The fact that Jesus employs apocalyptic language does not in any way negate the reality of the experience He is talking about. Metaphors, after all, can have teeth, and the complex metaphors available to first-century Jews had particularly sharp ones. Jesus evokes feelings of pain, regret, shame and frustration (Mt 8:12, 13:42), all of which constitute part of a permanent impossibility of access to God…
It may no longer be possible to believe in Dante’s inferno, or the literal approach to the eternal ‘gnashing teeth’ Hell of Gehenna. But God’s final judgment demands an option for those who have chosen a permanent non-relationship with him, and if Hell may be defined as such – as either a place or a state – then belief in it is both theologically unavoidable and a scriptural necessity.
The experience of people such as myself , people who have battled and (mostly) conquered some pretty serious and rooted personality flaws over many decades, is that hell does indeed exist. I’ll leave questions around the afterlife to the theologians. For quotidian toilers such as me, it definitely exists in the here and now. And one message of Easter, the redemption of the Resurrection, is that it can be conquered, defeated, overcome – in the here and now.
I want and try to be a good person and believe that is the case for most people. Also I am deeply repentant for harm I’ve done to others. Why I love Easter beyond Christmas, and continue to believe and pray it year on year, is because it offers repeated second chances. It offers mercy. Yes, hell does exist. But the Resurrection shows me I no longer have to live in it.
The reason for celebrating the resurrection in this Easter season is not simply that we are offered an escape route from Dante’s inferno and Augustine’s torment, but that Jesus’ death and resurrection together proclaim ‘death of death, and hell’s destruction’ and both now and in the age to come will ‘land us safe on Jordan’s side.’
Come to the book launch for my new commentary on the Book of Revelation on Thursday April 19th.
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