This year, the observance of Holy Week came with more focus on hell than usual, because of the assertion on Holy Thursday by an Italian journalist that Pope Francis told him that hell does not exist. Eugenio Scalfari, the 93-year-old co-founder and former editor of the Italian journal La Repubblica, claimed the pope told him that unrepentant souls disappear instead.
A wholly predictable media and social media storm ensued, and the Vatican was quick to distance itself from Scalfari’s claim. Noting that the pope did not grant an interview and that the resulting article never cites actual words spoken by him, the Vatican asserted, “No quotes of the aforementioned article should therefore be considered as a faithful transcription of the Holy Father’s words.”
This refutation stands on the foundation of the pope’s unusual friendship with Scalfari and the fact that the atheist journalist, known for not taking notes or making recordings of his conversations with the pope, has pushed similar misleading narratives in the past.
As if that weren’t enough, the pope’s own statements over the past few years have much to say about the existence of hell and the devil, and about his own belief in both.
“Satan always rips us off, always!” he said in a daily Mass homily two months after his election, referring to the devil’s tactic of tricking people to be selfish, leaving them with nothing.
In a March 2015 audience, Pope Francis spoke directly to the existence of hell, saying it was a place for those who, like the devil, tell God “I don’t need your forgiveness. I am good enough!”
In a homily last November, he preached that, in rising from the dead, “some will awake for eternal life, others for everlasting shame.”
Last December, he warned that the devil is more intelligent than mortals and therefore never should be engaged in argument. “Go away!” was his prescribed approach.
With the pope’s actual views on hell safely established, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the ubiquity of the topic that has generated so much heat. For who hasn’t, at one point or another, dwelled on the simple yet haunting question: “What happens after we die?” This curiosity is reflected in the popularity of a sitcom like “The Good Place” on NBC, which, in every episode, explores issues of ethics and personal morality as they relate to our daily interactions and our eternal destiny.
Our faith, thankfully, equips us with the answers. And Catholics can and should take advantage of these “teachable moments” to share, in charity, what the Church actually teaches with those who may suddenly be asking.
Our God is not a sadist who delights in punishing us. Our God is unconditionally loving and desires for us to be happy with him for eternity. But real love is freely chosen, and God never forces anyone to accept and reciprocate his love.
The punishment of hell is the logical outcome when one chooses to separate oneself from God. It is disconnection from the source of everything that is good, beautiful and life-giving. It is to know completely the agonizing, cold emptiness of God’s absence — to be bereft of hope.
The existence of hell, indeed, is part of what we believe as Christians. But, thankfully, it is far from the only reason we have to love the Lord Jesus and to open our hearts to the working of his grace through all we say and do.
OSV Editorial Board: Don Clemmer, Gretchen R. Crowe, Scott Richert, York Young