There was an item in the news this past week that you might have mistaken for an April Fool’s joke. A city newspaper in Rome, Italy published what it claimed were the contents of an interview with Pope Francis. The newspaper claimed that, in the interview, Pope Francis said that Hell does not exist.(*)
The Vatican scrambled quickly to address what the newspaper was trying to fan into a controversy. While there has never been a time in the Church’s history at which there was complete consensus about the nature of the afterlife, such issues remain rather troubling to some people. I’d like to offer three perspectives on the news article and whatever the Pope might actually have said. I’m tempted to make a Trinitarian reference to my three perspectives and the renewal of Trinitarian Baptism vows on Easter Sunday, but that might be to grossly overstate the value of my opinions. You decide.
First of all, it is important to keep in mind that the vast majority of people in Italy are atheists. The founder of the newspaper which reported the story I mentioned above (and who was also the author of the story), is an avowed atheist who has made numerous statements about the detrimental effect that religion has on civic life. A significant minority of Italians fall into this category of formal atheists who are vehemently opposed to all religion. The majority, however, fall into another category that I call practical atheists. These “practical atheists” do not oppose religion as such; rather, they do not see any particular value in religion. Unlike the formal atheists who wish to see religion eradicated from society, practical atheists have relegated religion to extinction by way of neglect.
The newspaper editor who wrote the article loves to capitalize on any perceived failing or inconsistency in organized religion. I am quite certain that he took a casual comment out of context in order to make it into something that it is not. The first point I would make about whatever the Pope actually said is that no believer should accept criticism of religion (even if it is legitimate), at face value. In this case, there is most certainly an ulterior motive on the part of the newspaper and its editorial staff.
Secondly, there is something that all Christians believers must acknowledge with regard to their own beliefs and values. Modern understandings of what Hell might be are, in fact, modern and not contained in the Scriptures or the Creeds. Most of what most people believe (or think they believe), about Hell comes from popular entertainment; scary movies and ghost stories are both fictional and a poor choice for guidance about how to live one’s (after)life.
Any disciple of Jesus who needs to believe in Hell as a place of punishment for those judged irremediable has already, albeit tacitly, rejected a central tenet of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus said, “When you stand to pray, forgive anyone against whom you have a grievance, so that your heavenly Father may in turn forgive you your transgressions.” (Mark 11:25) This wasn’t a suggestion. It is both a command and an essential characteristic of Jesus’ disciples. Anyone who needs to see others punished for their sins hasn’t heard or believed the Gospel message. If there is a Hell, Jesus’ followers should have need of it neither for themselves nor for others. If there is a Jesus, anyone who wishes to condemn anyone else to Hell has already admitted themselves to that place of eternal punishment.
Thirdly, wondering about the afterlife, or any other personal reward, is the wrong question to ask about religion, God, and faith. While it is the natural tendency of our minds to contemplate what might await us in the future and in eternity, we have no way of knowing the answers to such questions. The future is indeterminate, and eternity is entirely beyond our grasp. Furthermore, being concerned about what particular reward we might get from God is an act of gross self-concern.
Jesus said nothing that would indicate that we should be concerned about our future or about any sort of rewards we should expect from God. Quite the contrary is true. Everything that Jesus said was instruction about what we owe. We owe God our total allegiance, and we owe forgiveness and compassion to one another. Any reward (eternal or otherwise), that we might receive will be entirely the result of God’s effort rather than our own.
I am convinced that most of the modern concern about Heaven and Hell is self-concern; it is a consumer’s desire for more and better consumer goods. To understand Heaven, Grace, God, or any other divine gift as something to be obtained is to embrace a double falsehood: it makes religion a consumer activity and it invalidates everything that the Gospels teach. Now, more than ever, the disciples of Jesus need to acknowledge that the question about the existence of Heaven or Hell is the wrong question to ask. In a consumer culture, such questions can lead only to one conclusion, namely, that God’s Grace is a consumer product to be acquired.
The central action of the Easter Liturgy is the renewal of our Baptismal vows. In Baptism, we made sacred promises to trust in God, follow the teachings of Jesus, and be guided by the Holy Spirit. If we take or renew these vows without practicing faith, forgiveness, and compassion, then today, April 1st, is an appropriate feast to celebrate because we are the world’s biggest fools.
Rather than worrying about what they might be able to get from God, Jesus taught his disciples to give themselves completely to loving God and neighbor. Perhaps, the only thing that we can appropriately ask for and expect from God is the strength to make and keep the promises of Baptism.
*Jason Horowitz, “Does Hell Exist? And Did the Pope Give an Answer?,” New York Times (March 30, 2018).