Barry has already reported on the recurring story of “the pope says there is no hell … or does he?” but I want to point out some Profound Theological Questions the issue raises.
Let’s start with the Catechism, via the Washington Post:
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “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.
Here’s Profound Theological Question One: why are there scare quotes on “eternal fire”? Is the Catholic Church actually expressing sarcasm about the claim that souls suffer eternal fire? Or skepticism, or doubt, or “this is actually just a metaphor”? Related to that, what do they mean by punishments? Punishments plural? What do they mean “the chief punishment”? How many sub-punishments are there and what are they?
If you take it both seriously and literally, those details matter, in case they might apply to you. If you don’t take it seriously or literally they still matter somewhat, because it’s of interest to know what the God Managers feel comfortable threatening people with. It’s depressing to note how many priests and other clerics have been happy to inject chronic terror into the lives of the people who believe what they say.
The Catholic News Service gives us more on the pope’s view of hell in a story on the Scalfari conversation:
The alleged quotes ascribed to Francis directly contradict the many public remarks he has made in homilies and speeches confirming the existence of hell.
Meeting a group of children and teens during a Rome parish visit March 8, 2015, a female Scout asked the pope, “If God forgives everybody, why does hell exist?”
The pope praised the question, saying it was “very important” as well as “a good and difficult question.”
The pope assured the children that God is good but reminded them that there was also a “very proud angel, very proud, very intelligent, and he was envious of God. Do you understand? He was envious of God. He wanted God’s place. And God wanted to forgive him, but he said, ‘I don’t need your forgiveness. I am good enough!'”
“This is hell: It is telling God, ‘You take care of yourself because I’ll take care of myself.’ They don’t send you to hell, you go there because you choose to be there. Hell is wanting to be distant from God because I do not want God’s love. This is hell. Do you understand?”
The church likes what it likes, and the rest of us like what we like. We like to go to the god-free place. That seems hellish to them, but not to us. The pope is saying people get what they want, and if it’s what those in the church think is icky they call it hell, but the fact remains that people get what they want in this version of theodicy.
It’s an oddly liberal view, really. Maybe he put it that way only because he was talking to children, but then again, maybe it’s how he sees it – his version of the Catechism’s “the chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God.”
I wonder though if he takes seriously how warmly we embrace our separation from God, and how much we don’t want to spend eternity in God’s company. It’s the old Jean Brodie line, isn’t it – for those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like.
There are people who think God is wonderful and amazing, and spend their lives projecting the qualities of goodness and amazingness onto this “God,” but that’s their thing, it’s not everyone’s. Some people like jazz and some don’t; some like climbing mountains and others prefer swimming; some love God and others think God is a shit.
A God that does that is more evil than any human we’ve ever heard of, because even people who torture their own children to death don’t do it for eternity. Maybe they would if they could but they can’t, so it’s not possible for them to be as evil as that. None of us can be as evil as the God of most religions is.
The pope’s explanation, of course, makes sense only if you buy into the underlying assumption that God is top peak uppermost Good. “The pope assured the children that God is good but reminded them that there was also a “very proud angel, very proud, very intelligent, and he was envious of God. Do you understand? He was envious of God. He wanted God’s place. And God wanted to forgive him, but he said, ‘I don’t need your forgiveness. I am good enough!’”
For all we know the proud angel is better than God the gangster, so then what? Well basically God has said let’s go our separate ways, and that’s where the story ends. It doesn’t have quite the drama, does it – but on the other hand it wouldn’t make children lie awake at night in terror.