By Ron Gallagher
Last week, several news sources, including The Guardian, reported a shocking comment allegedly made by Pope Francis. The Vatican quickly shifted into full-blown crisis management and scrambled to contain the fallout and take counteractive measures (see article in the National Catholic Reporter). Whether the statement was really made or accurately reported, we cannot affirm with certainty,
but it behooves us to take a fresh look at the question that lies at the base of the controversy because it is one that affects us all.
Theological, Doctrinal, and Spiritual Shockwaves ~
In case you might have missed it, we’ll begin by taking a look at the comment the Pope was alleged to have made… In response to a query about the reality of hell, he was quoted as having said this: “They (unredeemed sinners) are not punished. Those who repent obtain God’s forgiveness and take their place among the ranks of those who contemplate him, but those who do not repent and cannot be forgiven disappear. A hell doesn’t exist, the disappearance of sinning souls exists.”
If the statement is accurately reported, then the Pope has concluded that unrepentant sinners do not go to hell when they die. They simply “disappear.” Obviously, that would be cause for great celebration among those who have no intention of repenting of anything, but one can imagine the potential for devastating repercussions in the religious world if the report is accurate. A comment like that made by any official in the upper echelons of church leadership would be disturbing, but this was alleged to have come from the Pope himself. When a figure with almost unparalleled international religious influence makes a statement that challenges a foundational theological and doctrinal position held throughout Christianity, the negative implications cannot be overstated.
A More Relevant Question ~
But aside from the theological debates, there are questions before us of a more personal nature than whether Pope Francis believes hell exists. The more urgent question about is not what some guy in Italy thinks of it (not to demean the Pope, but in spite of his extravagantly ornate holy garb, underneath it all, he remains just a man). The more personally relevant question is, “What do we really believe about it?” But there’s an even more vital question that has nothing to do with our opinion or the Pope’s, and that is, “What is the truth about this?” Finally, if we haven’t dealt with it already, there’s the decisive question, “If hell is real, then what can I do — what will I do, in response to that reality?”
The tendency to discount the existence of hell or to alter its definitions and minimize its implications is not new. It’s a subject ripe for attack by liberal theologians and preachers who deny the Bible’s inspiration and, ultimately, its veracity. But before leaping to embrace those judgment-free ideas, it might be good to consider what it would mean for the entire Judeo-Christian worldview if hell does not exist. Here are a few of the resulting implications: The entire “redemptive” plan of God makes no sense if hell does not exist. “Redeemed” from what — a “disappearing act”?
If hell does not exist, then the words of Jesus lose their veracity. His parable about the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16 becomes a lie, as is this admonition: And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell (Matthew 10:28 NKJV). If hell does not exist, then His testimony cannot be trusted, His very nature is called into question, and the New Testament becomes an elaborate hoax.
Since our information about both comes from the same source if hell does not exist, then what basis do we have to affirm that the same isn’t true of heaven? If one is misrepresented, then how is the other not implicated as well?
Finally, if the worst potential consequence of a life filled with selfish rebellion against God is a benign disappearance, then the death of Jesus on the cross was not only worthless, it was the most astonishingly despicable act of wanton cruelty ever perpetrated on a human being and God Himself becomes the guilty perpetrator.
An Unambiguous Testimony ~
One of the common criticisms of God and one of the atheists’ favorite claims for denying His existence is the rampant exhibition of evil and the human suffering that permeates the world. “If God is loving, just, and powerful,” they contend, “then why doesn’t He do something about it?” The fact that God doesn’t intervene and thrust everyone into the judgment all of us deserve is because of His longsuffering and forbearance. As Peter said, it is not His will that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance (II Peter 2:9 NKJV). If hell doesn’t exist, then God’s wrath doesn’t exist, His promise of ultimate and complete condemnation is fraudulent, and all the atheists would be right in their claim that God has done nothing about evil.
One thing is abundantly clear throughout the Scriptures. There is more to life than we see here and now. As Paul declared