Bernie Diaz, April 4, 2018
Ironically, in the midst of ‘holy week’, Pope Francis got into some serious hot water, by reportedly claiming in another interview with a longtime atheist friend, that Hell does not exist and that condemned souls just “disappear.”
Obviously, such a statement if true, betrays not only a denial of the ‘official’ doctrine of the Catholic Church, but more importantly denies the clear doctrine or teaching of the biblically orthodox and historic Christian faith, as to the reality of Hell and the eternal existence of the soul.
“There is no hell,” Pope Francis, whose given birth name is Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was quoted as saying in an interview published last week with Eugenio Scalfari in the La Repubblica.
According to the interview, the pontiff added, “There is the disappearance of sinful souls,” which is really much closer to the doctrine of annihilationism, which is the belief that unbelievers will not experience an eternity of suffering in hell, but will instead be “extinguished” or annihilated after death, as opposed to the historic teaching of the Bible, in which the unredeemed spend eternity separated from God in torment, in an actual place (hell).
Soon after the article was published, the Roman Catholic Church released a statement denying the claim, appealing to the idea that Mr. Scalfari the interviewer is known for not taking notes during or recording his interviews.
The Vatican statement read, “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. No quotation of the aforementioned article must therefore be considered as a faithful transcription of the words of the Holy Father (sic).”
According to another news source, Scalfari asked the pontiff, “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?”
Francis allegedly responded, “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.”
Despite the nature of the ‘he said- he said’ allegations, at least two alarming elements of this reported conversation with the Pope come to mind:
- At no point does the Vatican’s statement mention the Catholic church’s position on hell, nor Pope Francis’s personal comments on the doctrine.
- At best, the Pope’s quoted position is annihilationist- at worst, it’s universalist, meaning that every and all people who have ever lived and died, remaining in impenitent rebellion to God as a gospel and Christ rejecter, has been forgiven for their sin and will reside in heaven regardless of whether they wished to or not.
Frankly, a bit of research on the current Pope illuminates the possibility of this interview’s alleged content being true. A recent biography looks at Bergoglio’s (Pope Francis) life focusing on his intellectual influences (e.g. books, journals, authors, friendships, networks) that have shaped his thinking.
Having been a Jesuit priest by vocation, Bergoglio followed a school of thought (which became the matrix of the theology of the Second Vatican Council;1962-1965), in which theological differences or oppositions which would become disruptive or filled with “tensions” for the church, would be dismissed or largely ignored, as he distanced himself from definitions and propositions – or absolute truth claims, as he learned to always think in programmatically “open” and “loose” thought forms.
In other words, the “theology of the people” assumed his default position as being vital and central to his own thinking of an attractive ministry model, which would mean embracing more of a user friendly or ‘seeker-sensitive’ Catholic theology and pastoral practice.
That would mean perhaps negating the always difficult but necessary doctrine of hell, as well as help to explain his low-key approach towards controversial lifestyles (e.g. homosexuality) marked by modern individual autonomy.
For Bergoglio, theology would have to be developed only in a bottom-up way, in the sense in which the Bible could not be the supreme norm or authority for faith and life.
Thus, when Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis five years ago, a significant transition took place in the Roman Catholic Church. What he has been saying and doing since being elected, as a biographer notes, startled many with “his affirming attitudes towards all, his noisy silences over doctrine, his thoroughgoing Marianism, and his lack of clarity on several key issues…. causing many to wonder where his thoughts came from.”
What the Hell?
As a brief detour, it should be noted that hell is a difficult and somewhat challenging doctrine for Christians to speak of – preachers, pastors and popes included, when sharing the faith in evangelism with an unbeliever. The reality of hell and eternal punishment is not a popular topic nor one to take lightly.
Biblical writers help us picture scenes of unspeakable horror, and most of the time they’re merely quoting what Jesus himself said about hell:
- weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt. 8:12)
- spiritual and bodily destruction (Matt. 10:28)
- fiery furnaces (Matt. 13:42, 50)
- outer darkness (Matt. 22:13)
- unquenchable fires (Mark 9:48-49)
- endless torments (Luke 16:23-24)
Part of the problem is that the nature of hell has been horribly distorted in our media-crazed culture and its characteristics (above) are softened by some to the extent that it is portrayed as an experience rather than the physical and geographic reality we find in the New Testament.
It is the Christ of the Christian faith who described hell as a real place, using the Valley of Hinnom or Gehenna, just outside the walls of Jerusalem, to serve as a symbol of an eternal place of torment, having been a location where refuse and even unwanted babies were burned, emitting a foul odor conjuring up the images of a “lake of fire and brimstone (Rev. 20).”
Admittedly, hell It is not a pleasant doctrine or truth to share, but a necessary one if a disciple of Christ is to preach a complete gospel to one in need of salvation, or rescue from the judgment to come.
Does it not stand to reason that one should be warned about that which they must be rescued from, in order to accept the rescue itself?
Indeed, if the book of Revelation speaks of Satan, the beast, and the false prophet being cast into the lake of fire and being tormented “day and night forever and ever,” then it should be clear that these three are not “extinguished” or annihilated by being cast into it.
Why would the fate of the unredeemed be any different (Rev. 20:10,14-15)? The most convincing evidence for the eternality of hell itself may be Matthew 25:46, where Jesus said “Then they [the unsaved] will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
In that verse, the same Greek word is used to refer to the destiny of the wicked and the righteous. If the wicked are only tormented for an “age,” or a non-eternal period of time as some critics of the doctrine of hell argue, then the righteous will only experience life in heaven for an “age” or a time. The Pope isn’t exactly making that case is he?
The simple conclusion is If believers will be in heaven forever, unbelievers will be in hell forever. So, what doesn’t Pope Francis get if he is truly an annihilationist or worse, a universalist? Does he read the same Bible as evangelicals?
The answer to that question is a whole other issue and controversy in itself, but suffice it to say, the word of God does not to hold the same authority for this pope (or any other) and his doctrine where its teaching is inconvenient to an ecumenism (search for unity) that seeks to absorb as many spiritual “free-agents” as possible.
Yes, Christians holding to a biblical worldview and theology, are still wrestling with Roman Catholicism and the five-century old reformation battle of church “tradition” versus Sola Scriptura (scripture alone) which is the crux of this issue.
To put it plainly, who gets to decide if hell exists, what is it and what is intended for? Is it God, who revealed the answers to these questions in his inerrant and infallible source we call the Bible, or the errant and frequently fallible Catholic Pope Francis (at the moment)?
For the professing Christian, who congregates in orthodox Catholicism or cults, the above question is not so easily answered, since such religions rely on ‘tradition’ and the means of grace to be facilitated by their church hierarchies and extra-biblical sources of authority (i.e. Papal decrees, councils, The Book of Mormon, The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New World Translation and Watchtower material).
In summary, the Pope’s recent and controversial comments on hell are really a question of authority. Whose words stand as the ultimate authority or last word on truth; papal or Godly authority?
When Jesus Christ, the author and finisher of the Christian faith, concluded his ‘Sermon on the Mount,’ he spoke of a contrast between two homes on two foundations. The home that symbolized disobedience to his words due to a faulty foundation, “fell, and great was the fall of it.”
That fall implies condemnation- to a real place. According to the end of that sermon, “And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.” It’s all about authority isn’t it?
Indeed, the Pope may be in hot water over his comments about hell, but may it not be a water so hot as to be found to be ‘the lake of fire itself.’