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The afterlife:

Beliefs about the nature of life after death
by two groups: Roman Catholics and skeptics

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Beliefs of Roman Catholics:

The teaching of the Roman Catholic church prior to 1999-JUL was consistent:

bullet Hell is a location where its inmates will be severely punished without any hope of relief, for eternity.
bullet Among those punished will be Satan, the angels that supported him, and persons who have died "with grave and unrepentant sins" which have not been wiped clean -- normally by church rituals. 1

bullet The level of torture in Hell will be meted out in accordance with the seriousness of the individual's sin. It will last forever. There is no prospect of relief or mercy. The Roman Catholic church taught that punishment will be in the form of isolation from God, and some supernatural form of fire which causes endless, unbearable pain, but does not consume the body. Eastern Orthodox churches teach that the precise form of punishment is not known to us.

bullet The Church taught that most individuals who are not destined to Hell first suffer punishment in Purgatory. This is a type of time-limited Hell during which they become fully cleansed and acceptable for admission to heaven.

bullet In the special case of newborns who die before being baptized, the church was ambivalent. It has no official stance. However, many Roman Catholics believe that newborns go to a place or state called "Limbo" which is separate from heaven, but where the infants are happy and remain as infants. This belief is not taught by the Church today.

On 1999-JUL-28, at his Wednesday general audience, Pope John Paul II made some statement that changed how Hell is perceived by the Church. The news made the front pages of some North American newspapers. He said that:

"Hell is not a punishment imposed externally by God, but the condition resulting from attitudes and actions which people adopt in this life...So eternal damnation is not God's work but is actually our own doing."

"More than a physical place, hell is the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy."

Hell is "the pain, frustration and emptiness of life without God." 2,3

Some Christian Fundamentalists in the U.S. object to a non-physical hell. They consider any concept involving an abstract hell to be a dangerous, even blasphemous notion.

R.A. Mohler, Jr., president of the Southern Baptist's Theological Seminary in Louisville KY commented:

"My concern here is the temptation to make hell a state of mind, to psychologize hell. As attractive as that may be to the modern mind, that is not the hell of the Bible. Jesus himself spoke of hell as a lake of fire where the worms would not die and the fires would not be quenched. It's all very graphic." 

One indication of what the Roman Catholic Church does not teach is seen in a comment by Professor Luigi Lombardi Vallauri. He was professor of philosophy of law at the Catholic University at Milan, and was regarded as one of the church's more original theologians. He stated:

"Even God does not come out well from his creation [Hell]. He appears as a father who locks up his miscreant sons in a horrible hovel and throws away the key, forever! Hell decrees the total failure of the pedagogy of God...[Hell is a] colossal injustice, contrary to all the principles of modern law and...the Italian constitution."

The Vatican ordered him fired.

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Beliefs of skeptics:

Many Christians, Atheists, Humanists, Agnostics, freethinkers, etc. are very skeptical about the existence of any form of life after death.

As author David Staume explains:

"The dividing line between belief and non-belief in an afterlife is very close to the dividing line between belief and non-belief in God. Religious people generally accept the concept of an afterlife on faith, as a promise made by God, with Heaven a reward for obedience and Hell a punishment for sin. Atheists, on the other hand, in their rejection of faith, generally reject the concept of an afterlife as a fiction -– a fiction bestowed by a fictitious God." 4

One very well known and respected Atheist is the British theoretical physicist and cosmologist: Stephen Hawking. His latest book is "The Grand Design," which he co-authored with Leonard Mlodinow. 5 They describe the three central answers sought by both philosophy and science:

  • Why is there something rather than nothing?
  • Why do we exist?
  • Why does the universe follow one particular set of physical laws and not another?

The authors acknowledge that no single "theory of everything" currently exists that will explain these and other foundational questions. However, they believe that scientists are approaching that goal with "M-theory," a group of theories that fill in many of the unknown factors in quantum physics. They suggest that when scientists eventually succeed in producing an all-encompasing theory, it will explain how the universe came into being. It will turn out to be a natural process that did not involve a divine creator.

In an interview during 2010-SEP, just before"The Grand Design" was published, Hawking wrote:

"Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going." 6

In an exclusive interview with the Guardian, a British newspaper, during 2011-MAY, he claimed that:

"There is no God, and heaven is a fairy tale for those afraid of death. ... I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I'm not afraid of death, but I'm in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first. I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark." 7

Most afterlife skeptics view the continuation of consciousness after death to be either highly improbable or impossible. Many see a person's memories, talents, abilities, character, personality, sight, hearing, other abilities to sense the environment, etc. as being intimately linked to chemical and electrical activity in their brain. Physicians can use an electroencephalogram (EEG) to monitor the decline and eventual extinction of the brain's electrical activity as death approaches and occurs. In time, the brain itself rots so that the chemical components disintegrate. Researchers study the effects that drugs, electrical shock, injuries, etc. have to the brain, and thus the person's personality and brain function. A near consensus is that no such entity as a soul exists, that the afterlife is non-existent, and that oblivion follows death. Many skeptics agree that the only factors to survive death are the effects that a person's life has had on others; they live on only in the impact that they have had on the lives of others.

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2017-DEC: Bishop John Shelby Spong says that the Church invented Hell:


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star 2018-MAR-29: An unprecedented development in the Catholic Church: Hell might not exist!

Diane Montagna, writing for Life Site News 10 discussed a meeting between Pope Francis and Eugenio Scalfari, a 93-year-old atheist philosopher. This was the fifth interview between them. Unfortunately, the interview was not recorded, and the Vatican states that the Pope's words were not faithfully remembered. The interview was published in La Repubblica, a daily newspaper in Italy that Scalfari co-founded.

They discussed Hell. According to Scalfari, he asked Pope Francis:

"Your Holiness, in our previous meeting you told me that our species will at some point disappear and God will always create other species from his creative seed. You have never spoken to me of souls who have died in sin and go to hell to suffer for it forever. Instead, you have spoken to me of good souls who are admitted to the contemplation of God. But the bad souls? Where are they punished?"

Scalfari claims that Pope Francis answered:

"They are not punished, those who repent obtain God’s forgiveness and join the ranks of souls who contemplate him, but those who do not repent and cannot therefore be forgiven disappear. Hell does not exist; the disappearance of sinful souls exists."

Jason Horowitz, writing for the New York Times, said:

"... the infernal remarks, especially as the pope prepared for Easter Sunday celebrations, proved too tempting for international tabloids, conservative websites antagonistic to the pope and many others to let go.

“Pope Declares No Hell,” read a screaming headline across the Drudge Report website.

“Does the Pope Believe in Hell?” asked Patrick J. Buchanan in an online column.

“Vatican literally falls apart after Pope Francis says ‘Hell doesn’t exist,’” read a headline in Metro UK, a British newspaper.

However, Pope Francis has frequently discussed Hell in the past, as a place of final and eternal destination. He is unlikely to have changed his mind on such an important topic.

That said, the concept of a person's fate after death is either Heaven or anihillation is supported by John 3:16 which says in the King James Version:

"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."

The Bible Gateway has 59 translations of this passage on its web site. Almost all contained the worda "not perish." Some exceptions are:

  • CJB: "instead of being utterly destroyed"
  • CEV: "never really die"
  • ERV: "not be lost"
  • EXB: "not be lost [perish]"
  • GW: "not die"
  • GNT: "may not die" 11

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Site navigation:

 Home > Christianity > History, beliefs... > Specific beliefs > Afterlife > Christian groups > here

or Home > Christianity > Bible > Contents > Afterlife > Christian groups > here

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. R.C. Broderick, Ed. "The Catholic Encyclopedia," Thomas Nelson Publ., Nashville TN (1987)
  2. Catholic World News Briefs, 1999-JUL-28. 
  3. John Paul II, "Hell is the state of those who reject God," Osservatore Romano, 1999-AUG-4. Online at:
  4. Book cover image David Staume, "The Atheist Afterlife: The odds of an afterlife - reasonable. The odds of meeting God there - nil," Agio Publishing House, (2009). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  5. Stephen Hawking, & Leonard Mlodinow, "The Grand Design," Bantam, (2010). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  6. Michael Holderm "God did not create the universe, says Hawking," Reuters, 2010-SEP-02, at:
  7. Ian Sample, "Stephen Hawking: 'There is no heaven; it's a fairy story'," The Guardian, 2011-MAY-15, at:
  8. Michael Stone, "Stephen Hawking says 'No God; heaven is a fairy tale' - Twitter lights up," The Examiner, 2011-MAY-16, at:
  9. "Bishop [John Shelby Spong] reveals that Hell was invented by the Church," Ideapod, 2017-DEC, at:
  10. Diane Montagna, "Hell ‘does not’ exist…sinful souls ‘disappear,’ Pope Francis allegedly tells favorite interviewer," Life Site News, 2018-MAR-29, at:
  11. John 3:16 at:

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Copyright © 1998 to 2019 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Author: B.A. Robinson
Latest update: 2019-MAY-11

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