For almost 48 hours now the top headlines on Drudge Report have concerned Pope Francis’ denial of hell in a recent interview with the Italian La Repubblica. Apparently the interview was conducted by an atheist friend of the Pontifex named Eugenio Scalfari. In a statement, the Vatican but not Francis himself have denied that the following is an accurate quotation.
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.
As a Protestant I cannot pretend to entirely comprehend the doctrinal significance of this quote for the Roman church, should it prove to be correct. However, having been attentive to Francis’ noteworthy statements throughout his tenure, my gut tells me this quote is at least near to his own beliefs if not verbatim. This Pope’s philosophy has consistently struck me as more John Lennon than Judeo-Christian; his imperturbably kumbaya attitude is effectively identical to the warm-and-fuzzy theology of current Protestantism which I did my best to eviscerate in the essay “Warhol and the Impersonation of Christ.” Thus it is of little surprise to learn that he wishes to dispense with the concept of eternal punishment, a sour pill within the religion he would have solely be Sugar, Spice, and Everything Nice.
However, I must temper this assessment by saying that I think Francis is merely being disingenuous rather than going full “Grand Inquisitor” (see Dostoevsky) and overtly contradicting Christ. In the red letters, Jesus usually refers to the Devil and Demons rather than Hell as a location. Hell is instead treated as one would an army–not a static place but a mobile force or power. This does not at all diminish its horrific reality or destructive capability, but it is a significant caveat. Indeed, if one wishes to connect Hell to geography, one would have to look to Matthew 4 instead.
8 Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them;
9 And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.
10 Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.
Later, in Revelation, we are given the better-known image of the Lake of Fire, but it is unclear whether this is the Hell which exists throughout history or a place of special torment revealed at history’s end.
Also, I wager Francis is making use of a softer synonym, replacing Christ’s word “Destroyed” from Matthew 10:24 with “Disappearance.”
And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.
“Destruction” does seem to suggest the sort of obliteration wherein one might effectively “disappear,” but it is certainly not the painless spiritual euthanasia which Francis is trying to foist upon his interviewer. In short, rather than do the right thing and admit the full consequence of spiritual warfare within Christianity, Francis decided to wuss out and muddle the truth with a nicer-sounding alternative. God forbid that the “Vicar of Christ on Earth” might have to defend Christ’s words.