By Maya Kokerov
Most of us are familiar with the fiery, brimstone littered picture of hell. It usually involves connotations of fire, condemnation, punishment, torture, slit tongues and generally the opposite of a good time- at least to those who lack gratification from sadistic tendencies, of course.
Traditional religion accepts hell as a post mortem state of eternal, extreme suffering. These Eschatological teachings (Ragland 2017) are defended by theologians including Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas through claims that God is just to rightfully punish those who have “forgotten him” (Psalm 9:17).
We all have our personal hell; the Myers Briggs test can tell you that much. Isolation, emotional exposure, stupidity, or even being in the same room as a “hype beast” for longer than an hour, are some of many. Dismayed, disoriented and triggered by different things, we are different people and it’s natural for us all to have our own phobias to forget and ‘Everests’ to climb. I, personally, am allergic to creepy men and hype beasts alike.
Islam even states the existence of many layers of hell, including that of the extremely cold torments of Zamhari (the whole of 2018 so far fits this criteria what with snow storms in March).
But, the hell of the Catholic Church is very much literal- it’s where we get our stereotypes from.
Yet, recently, Pope Francis caused shock-horror and controversy (depending on your view-point) by leaning towards the metaphorical sense of this common word.
In a recent meeting with Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari, an un-avowed atheist, the Pope’s words were allegedly skewed, saying “hell does not exist, the disappearance of sinful souls exists,” while the souls of repentant sinners “receive the forgiveness of God and go among the line of souls who contemplate him, the souls of those who are unrepentant, and thus cannot be forgiven, disappear.”
The Philosophical Doctrine and Problem of Hell
Hell is accepted by most religions as both logically possible and literally true, especially according to an issuant, Christian conception of hell that operates on the loving God revealed by Christ (Kvanvig 1994).
In scripture, hell is juxtaposed to heaven as a separation of “the wicked from the righteous” (Mathew 13:47-50) as some are rewarded with eternal life whereas those who “forget God” (Psalm 9:17) are separated from Him and given a “second death” in “the fiery lake of burning sulphur” (Revelation 21:8). Therefore, there is both poeni sensus, the pain of sense, and poeni damni, the loss of a relationship with God, in hell (Seymour 1998).
This infinite amount of suffering seems unjust as human agency is not psychologically, cognitively or morally equipped to entrust humans with eternal destiny. It is unreasonable to bestow such strenuous responsibility onto finite creatures who, while often meeting the moral demands, are also likely to disobey eventually; even Augustine admits that our corrupt nature will inevitably lead to failure (Augustine and Green 1956).
Eternal damnation as punishment for finite beings with restricted freedom over their actions arguably renders God unjust according to some religious philosophers. An omnibenevolent, omniscient, omnipotent being would want, know how, and be able to avoid the consignment of hell forever. If God is seen as just in a ‘person relative’ sense, there would be no sufficient moral reason to damn anyone. Considering the vast contrast between salvation and damnation, to treat two individuals created by God so differently adds to this injustice further (Buckareff and Plug 2005). The ‘eye for an eye’ principle cannot justly apply to humans because eternal suffering is disproportionate to even the most sinful crimes (Adams 1975).
Some argue that if hell is accepted, God’s moral dimension would have to be rejected. There is something perverse about worshipping a being that should ostensibly prevent such deliberate evil. An acceptance of hell could lead to scepticism, disbelief and rebellion (Adams 1993).
In Dostoevsky’s prose poem, ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ ( a story told by the character Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov), Christ is told that Satan was in the right by tempting him with power during their exchange. While Christ is a moral figure for resisting temptation, ever since the Church took over the Roman Empire, it has been secretly performing the work of Satan – this is not because Catholicism or the other denominations became evil, but because it pursues mankind’s security and societal order.
The great Russian writer often hints at similar themes, what with the personification of the devil as a benevolent ‘chap’ who resents his job yet continues to spread animosity solely because it is necessary to preserve the order of the world.
Even the very characterisation of purity and holiness encapsulated by the monk/elder, Starets Zosima, is a rejection of the more ‘unattractive’ puritanical notions of punishment and atonement of sins through hell; upon his death he is criticised by the ‘conservative’ monks and his jealous enemy for rejecting the concept of devils and hell.
This parallel of a more loving, Christ led figure is interestingly reminiscent to the present Pope Francis, whose theological statements have a progressive momentum and revolutionary tenure. Links can be made between both the contemporary leader of Roman Catholicism and this traditional, conservative yet simultaneously ground-breaking Russian writer in the sense that they are representatives of new ways to interpret tradition.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the most senior Catholic in England and Wales, said “there’s nowhere in Catholic teaching that actually says any one person is in hell”.
He told the BBC that the Pope was apparently exploring “the imagery of hell – fire and brimstone and all of that”.
According to Scalfari’s quotations, the Pope seems to be assenting to some sort of purgatory of annihilation.
A basic rule of punishment is that it should be commensurate to the offense. Therefore, an alternative solution to satisfy the premise of God’s justice without the concept of hell is Annihilationism, the ‘conditional immortality’ view that the damned are not eternally conscious (Ragand 2017).
Annilhilationism aligns with the theistic doctrine of divine conservation that all things depend on God, as Sustainer of the universe. One only exists if connected to God in some way (Ragand 2017).
Richard Swinburne advocates the plausibility of replacing hell with the destruction of unfit characters either at death or after the judgement. One is severed from one’s relationship with God as punishment and stops existing, which is less cruel than confinement to pain without hope of termination. Hell is redefined as a permanent state of non-existence in order to balance between retributive punishment for sin and maintaining God’s love for his creation because Annihilationism does not involve the suffering of sentient beings.
The Pope DID NOT say there was no hell
However, the Vatican was quick to retract any and all of these allegations towards the Pope.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “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.”
In an interview with the New York Times, Scalfari said he did not take notes and it was a chat. While Scalfari said he remembered the pope saying hell did not exist, he also told the Times, “I can also make mistakes.”
When he was speaking to families of victims of the Mafia in 2014, the pope made an appeal to the Mafia to turn their lives around and convert, according to NCR.
“Convert, there is still time for not ending up in hell. It is what is waiting for you if you continue on this path.”
He is actually a Pope who has talked the most about hell.
A more liberal pope?
Yet, Pope Francis has had a history of distancing himself from the politically problematic remarks of his predecessors, such as Pope Benedict who referred to homosexuality as an “inherent sin”.
“It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the church’s pastors wherever it occurs.”
Furthermore, he admits to the idea that atheists can go to heaven regardless of faithlessness and often speaks in favour of tolerance, love and charity. Recently, he reportedly embraced a trans person.
The John Gehring, in a guest post for the Washington Post put it this way:
“Something unexpected and extraordinary is happening in the Catholic Church. Pope Francis is rescuing the faith from those who hunker down in gilded cathedrals and wield doctrine like a sword. The edifice of fortress Catholicism – in which progressive Catholics, gay Catholics, Catholic women and others who love the church but often feel marginalized by the hierarchy – is starting to crumble.”
The Pope’s Political Influence and Power
According to The Telegraph, Pope Francis is a man of peace and extensive political, as well as temporal, power.
Forbes magazine called Francis the fourth most powerful man in the world, with over 2.2 billion Christians in the world and 1.2 billion Roman Catholics who look towards him for moral and spiritual Guidance. He has even been tipped for a Nobel Peace Prize.
President Obama said that Francis led through “moral example, showing the world as it should be, rather than simply settling for the world as it is”.
While he recently embraced a transgender person and has shown leniency and hinted at some level of acceptance, it is nevertheless true that he is ideologically opposed to such ‘modern’ concepts at odds with traditional Christian doctrine.
For example, Francis recently stated his opinion against teaching gender identity in schools as this was warfare against marriage. He is not a ‘liberal’ in the best sense of the world.
What he is, however, is someone who is not quick to “judge” those who oppose the Catholic doctrine, dogma or belief.
And, when put into perspective, this is a huge step up.
An Optimistic Perspective:
Regardless of one’s theological outlook on the denial or acceptance of hell and its consequence on religion, it is undeniable that Francis’ papalcy is the most liberal and accepting yet- the degree to which you take the word ‘liberal’ is open to interpretation, of course.
As the first non-European pope in nearly 1,300 years, Pope Francis, a significant political figure in a largely non-secular world has the potential to be a force of immense good, especially as, despite being misrepresented, he continued to speak to Scalfari due to the mutual benefit of being in conversation with the “cultural world”.