Pope Francis’ reported denial that hell exists – which the Vatican says is not “a faithful transcription” of his words – has occasioned analyses of both Roman Catholic and biblical teachings on hell.
“Even if Francis did indeed deny the existence of hell or affirm some form of annihilationism, his comments to a journalist are his personal words and do not constitute Roman Catholic doctrine or change it from its official formulation,” said Gregg Allison, a The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professor and author of Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment.
In a front-page article March 29, the Italian newspaper La Republica quoted Francis as saying “there is no hell,” according to the Boston Herald’s translation. Sinful souls “are not punished. Those who repent obtain the forgiveness of God and enter the rank of souls who contemplate Him, but those who do not repent and cannot therefore be forgiven disappear.”
The Vatican released a statement the following day which claimed the pope spoke with Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari “in a private meeting” and that Scalfari, described in media reports as an atheist, was not granted an interview.
“What is reported by the author in today’s article is the fruit of [Scalfari’s] reconstruction, in which the precise words uttered by the Pope are not cited,” the Vatican said. “No quotations in the aforementioned article, then, should be considered as a faithful transcription of the words of the Holy Father.”
Scalfari agreed with the Vatican’s statement, explaining to The New York Times he didn’t take notes during his conversation with Francis and that “I can also make mistakes.” Scalfari reiterated, however, that he recalled the pope saying hell does not exist.
Scalfari has met with Francis multiple times and similarly wrote in 2017, “Pope Francis has abolished the places where souls were supposed to go after death: hell, purgatory, heaven. The idea he holds is that souls dominated by evil and unrepentant cease to exist, while those that have been redeemed from evil will be taken up into beatitude, contemplating God,” according to the Herald’s translation.
Allison told Baptist Press (BP) official Catholic teaching affirms hell “as one of two eternal destinies – the other being heaven.” Purgatory – where Catholics believe some souls experience a measure of punishment before they can enter heaven – is “a temporal destiny” according to Catholic teaching, “not an eternal destiny,” he said in written comments.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, hell is the “state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed.” People consigned to hell are those who “die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love” by their own free choice. “Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, whereby they suffer the punishment of hell, ‘eternal fire.’ The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God.”
A “mortal sin,” Allison explained, “is any heinous sin – a severe violation of one or more of the Ten Commandments and thus a sin against God or/and another person(s) – that is done with premeditation and with full consent, without any reference whatsoever to the Supreme Good, who is God Himself.”
Regardless of what Francis stated about hell, Allison said, some aspects of official Catholic Church teaching on hell do not seem to match scripture.
“As evangelicals, we reject the distinction between mortal sins and venial sins and thus maintain that any person who sins, whether heinously or otherwise … is guilty before God and is liable to suffer punishment in hell. Also, the notion of hell as the ‘state of definitive self-exclusion from God’ seems to overlook the important and biblically-warranted fact that it is God who metes out both eternal life in heaven and eternal punishment in hell,” Allison said, quoting his book on Catholic theology.
“Finally, the contemporary (since Vatican Council II) Roman Catholic embrace of inclusivism results in the Church’s hope that many Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, agnostics, atheists and the like will be saved even though they have never heard and believed the good news of Jesus Christ,” Allison said. “While affirming that Jesus Christ and His death and resurrection are the only ground of salvation, Roman Catholic inclusivism denies that people have to embrace the gospel in order to be saved. Rather, by following the tenets of their religion or obeying the dictates of their conscience, they may experience the grace of God for salvation. Evangelicals embrace exclusivism rather than inclusivism.”
Exclusivism is the belief that explicit faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior is necessary for salvation.
Ben Skaug, a California pastor who has written a forthcoming book on hell, said Jesus and “every single New Testament author” addressed hell. Christ “is the world’s foremost expert on hell because He created it, upholds it (Hebrews 1:3) and is sovereign over it,” Skaug told BP in written comments.
“Jesus believes that hell exists,” said Skaug, a pastor at Immanuel Baptist Church in Highland, Calif. “The apostles believe that hell exists. The Bible is clear that both heaven and hell exist. In fact, both entities not only exist but will continue to exist in the new creation. Revelation 21:1-8 shows us that the new heavens and the new earth contain both the new Jerusalem as well as the lake of fire, or hell. To deny the existence of hell is to deny one of the basic beliefs of Christianity.”
Hell, Skaug said, “exists no matter how badly some don’t want it to. Hell is the place where God will pour out His divine wrath on the wicked for eternity. It is painful, punishment (punitive not corrective), suffering, banishment from the Kingdom blessings of God and eternal.
“When the church starts to remember the realities of hell as they are seen from scripture, then our evangelism will be more fervent and with a greater sense of urgency. The denial of hell, of course, leads to the opposite,” Skaug said.
The Baptist Faith and Message’s article on “last things” states, “Christ will judge all men in righteousness. The unrighteous will be consigned to Hell, the place of everlasting punishment. The righteous in their resurrected and glorified bodies will receive their reward and will dwell forever in Heaven with the Lord.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)