Did Pope Francis say there is no such place as hell? Well, is there? What does the Christian faith have to say about this question? The answer is both “much” and “various.”
Hell is a biblical concept, first found in the Old Testament, the ancient Hebrew scriptures. There are two words for hell: sheol and gehenna. Sheol (Genesis 37: 35) and elsewhere) is the place of departed spirits, a gloomy underworld, hades. There is no connotation of punishment in sheol. It is simply where we all go when we die, where we live a shadowy existence, the nearest thing to fading away. Though another ancient Jewish tradition declares that in sheol there is a section – “the bosom of Abraham” – where we wait in hope to be taken into the nearer presence of God. Gehenna (Matthew 10:28 and elsewhere) is a place of punishment and “unquenchable fire.” At the time of Jesus, the endlessly smoking, festering rubbish tip outside Jerusalem was referred to as gehenna. Also in the New Testament hell is described as “a lake of fire and endless torment” (Revelation 20:10).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992) says this on the subject:
“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 neighbour 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.” Jesus often speaks of this “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!” 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, which is described as “eternal fire.”
We can’t escape by turning Protestant. The Westminster Confession (1646) speaks unequivocally of “eternal torments.”
There are other views. Eastern Orthodox Christians believe that hell should not be imagined as a place but as a state of being, of one’s personal experience: so that those who have loved God and tried to serve him will experience the afterlife as benign, while the persistently sinful and disobedient will feel only pain.
Others hold a doctrine of annihilationsim according to which the soul of an unrepentant sinner after death endures a period of punishment and then is destroyed.
A more cheerful teaching is that of universalism (Origen AD 184-253) and Karl Barth (1886-1968): the doctrine that no one will be eternally damned. The argument is that, since God’s purpose is the redemption of sinful human beings, then if one person should remain in hell forever, then God’s purpose will be thwarted. Universalists thus argue that the demons and the devil himself (if there are such beings) will also be saved at the last and God’s triumph fully revealed. But the Bible and subsequent Jewish and Christian theology tell us that God also gave us freewill. If God were then to compel us to repent, to be saved and taken into heaven, then God is abolishing his own gift of freewill.
Whatever hell is, it is, so to speak, a philosophical minefield. For what can life after death mean? As Wittgenstein said, “Death is not an event in life.” Death is the end of life because for the individual the event of death is the end of time and space. And existence of any kind without time and space would seem to be impossible, for all we mean by existence is experienced as being in time and space. As Heidegger said, “We are embodied time, Dasein” which, as Woody Allen knows, means “being there.”
And what am I when I am no longer a living body? What sense can we make of the word soul? If it is not a body – and by definition it is not – then what is it and where is it? If it is not a body, can it be anywhere? Can it even be a substantive, a what? In any case, and contrary to the popular notion, the Christian faith does not teach the immortality of the soul but the resurrection of the body (I Corinthians 15). Of course not many people think that the resurrection of the body means skeletons, rotted corpses and vanished ash putting on flesh once again. Instead, St Paul says that at the resurrection we shall be given a “spiritual body” a swmapneumatikon But can a spiritual body be anything other than a contradiction in terms?
Another view – that of so called “realised eschatology” or the things of the future in the here and now – says that heaven and hell are images, picture language, metaphors for present states of being. Thus hell is an image of the unrepentant sinner as he is presently living his life. Well, that is not what the Bible appears to be saying. And, in any case, many unrepentant sinners do not feel themselves to be in hell. Perhaps they do not even think of themselves as sinners! And secularised modern man would be mightily offended were you to call him a sinner. He has done away with Original Sin and replaced it with Self-Esteem.
About hell and heaven, I don’t know. See you when we get there – or not, as the case may be…