When Pope Francis, just days before Easter, said that he believes there is no actual place such as Hell, the world went crazy. Half of the world’s Catholics rushed to say the Pope was simply misquoted, the other half condemned the Pope for making such an egregious statement, going against thousands of years of belief within the Hebrew, as well as the Christian, Islamic and (Islam’s earlier counterpart) Zoroastrian doctrine.
Hell, it seems, is etched deep into our cultural psyche, and definitely has plenty of fury.
Mainline Christians were appalled. “What did Jesus die for then, but to keep us from Hell?” they said. Still others were quick to say the Pope was simply misunderstood.
What is most interesting, if one is to observe the whole situation from the outside looking in, is what Pope Francis said was Hell. The Pope stated that non-existence is what happens to people who do not receive grace, or salvation. We simply cease to exist, we have given up our participation in soul ascension – eternal life.
In short, Pope Francis was only stating what is now commonly believed (among the hierarchy of theology) that the term Hell represents separation from God, not an actual physical piece of planetary real estate that God has cordoned off as an eternal hellfire world where unbelievers suffer miserably among the brimstone and fire we might envision in Dantes’ literature.
Francis’ version of hell, from a philosophical point of view, simply means soul-extinction, or non-existence after the mortal estate has run its course.
Spiritually speaking, this concept makes more sense than the idea that God has a special physical place reserved for evildoers.
The reaction of the people to Pope Francis grabbed my attention. I do believe the Pontiff was on to something when he stated his point, and it was surely a more illustrative idea which shows that our salvation, as Jesus stated, is up to us. We determine our fate by our choice to believe it is possible to have eternal life. We choose to survive. Further, that we, as human beings, must accept the notion that we can be “saved” from soul-death, or in the more common vernacular, be redeemed for our sins, by our faith. Absent our faith, we are setting up our own individual death sentence. We don’t get to pass GO and we don’t collect our get-out-of-Jail free card. We simply cease to exist.
As Jesus said, “Your faith alone shall save you.”
But people need Hell, they need the concept of eternal damnation, they want, as was clearly shown, to be deterred from going to hell because of how bad it must be to suffer eternal pain and suffering. And while such a place of destination is contrary to Jesus’ description of our loving and merciful Father, man needs deterrance; he needs to be pushed away from pain. Hell is that pain.
But the greatest lesson from these most recent events is disclosed in our hesitancy to remain unchanged in our ideas of olden religious concepts, whether they be about atonement for original sin, eternal damnation, or soul redemption through the belief in our Lord Jesus Christ. Man has an eternal curse that even the message of Jesus cannot reconcile. We are damned from birth. Sin, it seems, is genetic.
And so it is when an attempt is made to uplift ourselves away from olden and archaic concepts such as Original Sin, a scourge that goes back almost forty-thousand years to the time of Adam and Eve (according the Urantia Book), we are faced with the real fact that Man is simply not ready to let go of the idea that God needs us to suffer in hell for our transgressions.
Pope Francis attempted to move us towards a greater recognition that “hell” is our unwllingness to choose to have a relationship with God, or face the consequences of eternal non-existence for doing so. The choice is ours.
But for all Christians who have inherited a legacy of guilt-ridden and guilt-motivated faith, letting go of a physical hell of eternal suffering seems to remain relevant, even in this modern age.
As the saying goes, Evolutionary progress is sure, but it is also very slow, and seemingly moves at the pace of a very large herd.