Smile, There Is No Hell (Even the Pope Says So)

As society changes, theology tries to adapt.

Posted Mar 31, 2018

creative commons license; Korean Culture and Information Service (Jeon Han)
Pope Francis reportedly told an Italian journalist recently that there is no hell.
Source: creative commons license; Korean Culture and Information Service (Jeon Han)

Controversy erupted this week with reports that Pope Francis denied the existence of hell. Quoted by an Italian journalist who is both a friend and frequent interviewer of the pontiff, Francis reportedly said that sinners who die without eternal salvation “are not punished” but that instead of their souls simply disappear. “There is no hell,” he unambiguously declared.

Interestingly, in the uproar that followed, the Vatican tried to smooth over the rather stunning statement but nevertheless stopped short of expressly denying it, saying that the quote was a “reconstruction” of the interview and not a transcript.

It's worth noting that Francis is not the first pontiff to redefine the notion of hell. Pope John Paul II also caused a stir when he rejected the concept of a literal hell as commonly understood. “Rather than a physical place, hell is the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God,” he told an audience.

Such revisionist thinking from religious leaders can be understood as an attempt to make theology comply with predominant perceptions and attitudes. Whereas in ancient and medieval times it was perhaps not so difficult to imagine a deity who would arbitrarily condemn individuals to eternal punishment even for relatively minor slights such as working on the Sabbath or disobeying one’s parents (indeed, both are capital offenses in the Old Testament), such outcomes are inconsistent with our modern sense of justice. (And most believers would assume that God must be just, right?)

Because our understandings of the world, and of morality, in particular, have evolved significantly in recent centuries, theology has often struggled to keep pace, sometimes doing so smoothly and sometimes not. Churches have split over disagreements over how—or even whether—to adapt. A prime example would be the schisms within various Christian churches over the issue of slavery in the Nineteenth Century.

Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker provides insight on the subject of evolving morality in his most recent book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. “The God of the Old Testament murdered innocents by the millions, commanded the Israelites to commit mass rape and genocide, and prescribed the death penalty for blasphemy, idolatry, homosexuality, adultery, talking back to parents, and working on the Sabbath, while finding nothing particularly wrong with slavery, rape, torture, mutilation, and genocide,” Pinker writes. “All of this was par for the course for Bronze and Iron Age civilizations. Today, of course, enlightened believers cherry-pick the humane injunctions while allegorizing, spin-doctoring, or ignoring the vicious ones.”

Pinker attributes today's softening of harsh theology to the influence of Enlightenment humanism. With the rise of reason and science as major forces in the world, unimaginable progress has ensued—and not just technological progress, but moral as well. Enlightenment values have made the angry God of the Old Testament, and many other biblical concepts, seem more akin to mythology than revealed truth.

To humanists, the idea of eternal hellfire has long been considered mythological. After all, most people historically have followed any particular religion for one main reason—they were born into it—and with that in mind, it is incomprehensible that a just God would condemn entire populations to eternal damnation merely for being born into the wrong family with the wrong religion. Indeed, as the late comic George Carlin famously pointed out, to suggest that a loving God could possibly sentence his own children to hellfire is not only inconsistent but comical. 

These are some of the reasons humanists have rejected traditional religion, and it would seem that these same factors might be reshaping the framework of traditional religion as it attempts to adapt to modern society.