Pope Francis on the nature of Hell

Pope Francis has a friend, Eugenio Scalfari, who is founder of the liberal newspaper Repubblica, and who professes to be an atheist. Periodically, the two of them meet for conversation and, later, Scalfari, without having taken notes at the meeting, publishes what he understood Francis to have said. Reading about the report on what Francis had said about hell, one of my friends expressed concern about what he had read to another of my friends, who asked for my comment. This is an important subject, and I thought the situation deserved some reflection in a blog post.

The part of the interview that troubled the first friend is translated as follows:

[Scalfari:] “Your Holiness, in our previous meeting you told me that our species will disappear in a certain moment and that God, still out of his creative force, will create new species. You have never spoken to me about the souls who died in sin and will go to hell to suffer it for eternity. You have however spoken to me of good souls, admitted to the contemplation of God. But what about bad souls? Where are they punished?”

[Francis:] “They are not punished, those who repent obtain the forgiveness of God and enter the rank of souls who contemplate him, but those who do not repent and cannot therefore be forgiven disappear. There is no hell, there is the disappearance of sinful souls.”[emphasis supplied]

In regard to that report, I made the following comments:

Poor Francis has taken a lot of flack for purportedly having said this, but we need to keep in mind the origin of the report, remembering that we cannot take it as a verbatim account of the Pope’s words. This point was made by Sandro Magister, a Vatican watcher, in L’Espresso. He starts out as follows:

In the preface to a book that presents eight of his interviews, just out in bookstores, Francis has lifted the veil on a couple of rather interesting things.

At a certain point the pope writes:

“Sometimes in my interviewers I have noted – even in those who say they are very far from the faith – great intelligence and erudition. And even, in some cases, the capacity to let themselves be touched by the ‘touch’ of Pascal. This moves me, and I treasure it greatly.”

The first is in reality more a confirmation than a revelation. It is his affectionate esteem for Eugenio Scalfari, founder of the newspaper “la Repubblica.” He is, in fact, the interviewer “very far from the faith” to whom Francis is referring.

The two meet once or twice a year, at Santa Marta, and it is almost always the pope who invites his friend. The conversation takes place without Scalfari recording any of it. And in the following days he publishes an account, adhering to the following criteria as he explained once to the Foreign Press of Rome, reporting these words that he said to the pope at the end of the first conversation:

“I will reconstruct the account of the dialogue in such a way that it can be understood by all. Some things you have said to me I will not report. And some of the things I will attribute to you, you did not say them, but I will put them there so that the reader may understand who you are.”

The effect of this liberty of transcription is that Scalfari has confidently attributed to Francis not a few “revolutions,” the latest of which is the abolition of hell, purgatory, and heaven. Without the pope ever having felt it his duty to correct or deny anything.

My own sense is that Francis is a bit of a loose cannon. I find myself rather ambivalent about him. I’m delighted at his warmth toward evangelicals, his desire to clean house within the Vatican, and his frequent demonstration of the spirit of Christ with regard to the poor and oppressed. If I were a Roman Catholic, however, I’d be pretty nervous about him, because he does seem to threaten Catholic orthodoxy rather frequently, and I tend to be respectful of tradition.

With regard to the punishment of the wicked, I’d be happy if Francis departs from Roman Catholic tradition’s belief in hell as eternal conscious torment and affirms a more biblical view of God’s punishment of the wicked as death. But I’m dissatisfied with the terminology Scalfari represented as coming from Francis, though I am cautious about actually crediting it to Francis. Two things in particular, which come up in my friend’s quote, I would want to state more biblically:

First, it is unhelpful to refer to the wicked as “disappearing.”

Annihilationists are frequently frustrated by the way tormentists describe our position, representing it as the belief that God causes the wicked to be completely obliterated. That may, in fact, be what happens when God no longer sustains the existence of some of his creatures, but it has never been the point of annihilationism. Though it might be viewed as a plausible representation of what happens when God “destroys both body and soul in hell,” as Jesus warned us God will do (Mt 10:28), we should not ignore or suppress the natural analogy between the first and second death.

The first death, which we all experience, is a deprivation of life, but the lifeless corpse does not disappear and, even after decomposition has occurred, there is continuing physical existence. What I hear Jesus saying in Matthew 10 is that the second death is analogous to the first, but it is more comprehensive. Even the wicked, after physical death, go to Hades, and I believe that they continue to exist consciously and personally, though unembodied (unless there is an intermediate body, which may well be the case) until they are bodily resurrected at the return of Christ. The second death, by analogy, need not be interpreted as condemnation to total non-existence or disappearance, but it certainly connotes the thoroughgoing deprivation of life through destruction. From the second death, which is the final destiny of all who are not raised “with Christ” from the first death, there is no second resurrection. The wicked are permanently deprived of all life. That is the oft-recurring witness of Scripture.

What drives annihilationism is a commitment to represent the overwhelming teaching of Scripture that, as Paul put it, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). This was clear in the garden of Eden, when God prohibited Adam and Eve from eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:17), and that message is repeatedly declared throughout the rest of Scripture. When they, and all their posterity, incurred death through sin, they lost their right to eat of the tree of life. Only the redeemed will eat of the fruit of that tree, when God establishes the new earth, and only those who have been given the right to eat that tree will enjoy eternal life and God’s gift of immortality. Permanent or everlasting death is the punishment of all who reject God’s grace in Christ. I am convinced that no one reading the Old Testament, without the presupposition of a Platonic view of the immortality of the soul, would ever derive from it the conclusion that the wicked are eternally consciously tormented.

Through Platonic influence, the option of endless torment arose within second temple Judaism, alongside annihilationism. Among the early fathers of the church, some very important theologians (e.g. Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus, and Athanasius) continued to voice the non-Platonic conviction that human souls are not intrinsically immortal, but that God gives immortality or eternal life only to those who are in Christ, by grace through faith. I have very high regard for Augustine, but I regret that he drank the Platonic Kool-aid with regard to intrinsic immortality, and that mistake necessitated the belief in endless consciousness of punishment. Given Augustine’s huge influence within the church, tormentism became the dominant position, though not without challenge along the way. The persistence of belief in tormentism, or conscious separationism, even among evangelical theologians who deny the indestructibility of the human soul, and who grant that persons would not exist if God did not actively continue to give them life, continues to be widely confessed. This is very surprising, since its biblical grounds are so slim, essentially resting on two apocalyptic texts in Revelation (Rev 14:11 and 20:10), which are then read without regard to the Old Testament texts upon which John was clearly drawing in his account of the revelation of Christ to him.

So, if Francis is affirming the biblical affirmation that eternal punishment takes the form of death, then he is on more solid biblical ground than the tormentist tradition.

Second, to assert that eternal punishment is death, is not to reject the doctrine of hell

The statement that “there is no hell,” gives an extraordinarily incorrect portrait of classic annihilationism. Sadly, if Francis wanted to affirm annihilationism, such language would echo the all too frequent charge made by tormentists that “annihilationists do not believe in hell.” At work in this statement is a nasty rhetorical maneuver. First, hell is defined as meaning precisely what tormentists believe it to be: the endless conscious torment of the unrepentant. By definition, therefore anyone who rejects eternal conscious torment denies the existence of “hell.”  But, of course, biblically faithful annihilationists do believe in hell, which the New Testament refers to as Gehenna. It is the place to which God consigns the wicked after God’s final judgment day. All orthodox Christians believe that it is a place of divine punishment, to which God justly condemns all who are persistently rebellious and unbelieving. It is frequently described in terms of fire, but many who identify themselves as holding the “traditional” view of hell give that fire a metaphorical reading (e.g. William Crockett, “The Metaphorical View,” in Four Views on Hell, 43-76).

Consequently, it would be very misleading to say of Pope Francis that he believes that “there is no hell,” even if he rejects the traditional view of the Catholic church which is usually understood to be describing hell as eternal conscious torment. Consider, for instance, the statement on “Hell” in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Article 1035 states:

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.

Notice that “eternal fire” is put in quotation marks, which I take to indicate at least allowance for a metaphorical understanding. This is confirmed by the proposal that “the chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God.” To say that, is not a rejection of the doctrine of hell, it is to define its nature or meaning. If Francis believes that God will use the suffering of punishment in hell to bring about the eventual destruction (eternal death) of the wicked, he has not denied that hell exists, though he has reoriented the description of its nature.

What I find intriguing, as I reread the section in the Catholic Catechism now, is how frequently I find myself able to affirm its statement. It begins this way, in Article 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” [1 Jn 3:14-15].

Well, I say “amen,” as Francis can still do, even if he becomes an annihilationist. In fact, it appears to me that annihilationism is more clearly affirmed here than “tormentism.” 1 John 3 clearly denies that the wicked have eternal life, yet proponents of eternal conscious torment (or eternal conscious separation) regularly insist that the wicked do live endlessly. Francis, if annihilationist, looks more in line with the catechism at this point than the tormentist does.

Article 1033 goes on:

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 [cf. Mt 25:31-46]. 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.”

As an annihilationist I can confirm this statement without reservation, and so could Francis. To me, Article 1033 looks more representative of annihilationism than of tormentism. To be separated from God, the sole source of life, would inevitably bring about death. So eternal life can only be the experience of those who are united with God by faith in Christ. Eternal conscious torment, in such a context, looks very out of place. Perhaps Francis is drawn to annihilationism, and perhaps he reads the Catechism with a clear conscience, nonetheless. As I contemplate the Catholic Catechism now, I actually find myself better able to affirm it than I would have been had I remained a tormentist.

Moving on to the next item on “The Last Judgment,” Article 1038 cites Mt 25:31, 32, 46. Matthew 25:46 (“And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life”), in particular, sounds to a tormentist like an affirmation of the view that sinners are eternally consciously aware of being punished by God. But Francis might justly point out that the death which results from eternal exclusion from God’s presence is an endless death, and hence an “eternal punishment.” I am doubtful that Francis stated to Scalfari that the wicked are “not punished.” It is possible, I suppose, that what Francis had in mind is the statement in Article 1033 that the unbelief of the wicked is “definitive self-exclusion from communion with God” (emphasis supplied). On the other hand, Mt 25:46 and a multitude of other scriptures speak of God “punishing” the wicked, so that seems unlikely. What stands out to me most vividly is that the contrast Jesus makes is between life and death, not between life and torment. Nevertheless, both the life of the righteous and the death of wicked are eternal.

We are not likely to get any further elucidation from Francis himself. If I were a conservative Catholic, I might be concerned about him, but as an evangelical Protestant I find it encouraging to think that Francis might be allowing Scripture itself, rather than a long held traditional understanding of Scripture, to shape his belief about hell. That he is a brother in Christ, I am regularly inclined to feel. But if he is a kindred spirit theologically, I find that much less obvious. Nonetheless, what God is doing in that very large segment of the Christian church in our day, in and through Pope Francis, is something I can only watch with a sense of cautious hopefulness for good results.

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