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2018-MAR: Pope Francis' Alleged Beliefs About the Afterlife

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On 2018-MAR-29, an article written by the Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari was published in the liberal Italian newspaper, "La Repubblica." He had previously attended a private meeting -- his fifth -- with Pope Francis who heads the Roman Catholic Church. In the article, he quoted the Pope as allegedly having said that:

"There is No Hell. ... [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." 1

Unfortunately, this quotation is ambiguous. It does not specifically say:

  • whether "sinful souls" must repent before their death to attain Heaven, or

  • whether they are given a chance after their death to repent, and thus avoid being annihilated.

Some might argue that the former is unjust, because many people die suddenly as a result of an accident, heart attack, brain aneurysm, or similar cause, and do not have a chance before death to repent. However, as noted below, the Catechism of the Catholic Church makes it clear that the former is the Church teaching.

In other words, irrespective of the intensity and quantity of good and evil acts that a person has committed while on Earth, and irrespective of whether a person trusts Jesus as Lord and Savior, then if they repent of their sins before dying, then God will send them after death to Heaven for all eternity. If they have not repented before death, then God cannot forgive them, and they will "disappear." The later option is called "annihilationism." -- the concept that some souls after death will simply cease to exist.

There is support for annihilationism in the Bible. For example, perhaps the best known reference to salvation in the Gospels is contained in John 3:16. It has been translated in the New International Version (NIV) of the Bible as stating:

"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." 2

(The emphasis on the words "shall not perish" were added by the author of this essay.)

This verse is interpreted by many as implying that there are only two long-term destinations for humans after death: either eternal life in Heaven in the presence of God, or non-existence (annihilation).

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The vast majority of Christians believe -- and the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church unambiguously states -- that, after death, every person is first judged. The decision is then made whether the individual will spend eternity in either Heaven or Hell. The Catholic Church teaches that there is a third state or location called Purgatory where most people who are destined to spend eternity in Heaven are sent on a temporary basis to be purified through punishment. Estimates on the average sentence length are as high as two milleniums, but there is no official statement on this.

Article 12 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church 2 is titled "I Believe In Life Everlasting" and has subsections describing Judgment, Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church specifically states that Hell is the

"... state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed." 3

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." 3

The Vatican quickly responded to Scalfari's article, saying that:

""What is reported by the author in today's article [in "La Repubblica,"] is the fruit of [Scalfari's] reconstruction, in which the precise words uttered by the Pope are not cited. No quotations in the aforementioned article, then, should be considered as a faithful transcription of the words of the Holy Father." 1

Scalfari admitted that he did not take notes during the conversation with Pope Francis, and that:

"I can make mistakes."

However, he recalled specifically that the Pope said that Hell does not exist.

The concept of eternal punishment in Hell is a sticking point to many Christians who regard an punishment of infinite duration, in response to personal sins of finite duration, is inherently unjust and could not be established by a kind, loving, just God.

Gene Veith, writing for Patheos, published a portion of the article in La Repubblica as translated into English by what Veith calls "the highly respected web blog" Rorate Caeli. The translation contains the following alleged exchange between Scalfari and the Pope as recalled by Scalfari:

  • Scalfari said: "Your Holiness, in our previous meeting you told me that our species will disappear in a certain moment and that God, still out of his creative force, will create new species. You have never spoken to me about the souls who died in sin and will go to hell to suffer it for eternity. You have however spoken to me of good souls, admitted to the contemplation of God. But what about bad souls? Where are they punished?"

  • Pope Francis responded: "They 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. There is no hell, there is the disappearance of sinful souls." 6

The Boston Herald's translation of Scalfari's article noted that the Pope and Scalfari had met many previous times, and that Scalfari had written in an earlier article during 2017 that:

"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." 1

Scalfari's description of Pope Francis' belief in Hell seems to conflict with a very clear statement that the Pontiff made in 2014 about Hell. At a prayer vigil for relatives of people killed by the Mafia, the names of 842 victims were read aloud. Pope Francis directed the following message to the Mafioso:

"This life that you live now won’t give you pleasure. It won’t give you joy or happiness. Bloodstained money, bloodstained power, you can’t bring it with you to your next life. Repent. There’s still time to not end up in hell, which is what awaits you if you continue on this path." 8

Gregg Allison, a professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and author of the book "Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment," 7 supported the Vatican's position, saying:

"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." 1

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One of the beliefs taught by the Roman Catholic Church is that when the Pope speaks "ex cathedra" (Latin for "from the chair") then he speaks infallibly on questions of faith or morals. One example of this was Pope Pius XII who formally declared in 1950 that Mary, the mother of Jesus, had been physically taken up to heaven after her death in the First Century CE. However, speaking "ex cathedra" is a formal process, and is not present during a casual conversation with a friend.

Ben Skaug, an California pastor of the Immanuel Baptist Church in Highland, CA, an evangelical Christian congregation, said:

"Jesus believes that hell exists. 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 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."

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Media reactions to Scalfari's statements:

The media lit up with sensational headlines, such as:

  • Drudge Report: "Pope Declares No Hell."

  • Patrick J. Buchanan in an online column asked: "Does the Pope Believe in Hell?."

  • A British newspaper, Metro UK, featured the headline: "Vatican literally falls apart after Pope Francis says 'Hell doesn’t exist'." 4

  • Thomas Reese, writing for the National Catholic Reporter, said:

    "Anyone who has followed the pope's talks and sermons would immediately know that something does not smell right here. The pope has in fact spoken of hell in the past in a way that clearly indicates that he believes in it.

    In 2014, the pope mentioned hell when calling the Mafia to conversion. In 2016, he said that people who do not open their hearts to Christ will end up condemning themselves to hell. The same year, he referred to hell as "the truth" and described it as being 'far away from the Lord for eternity.'

    "The most extensive papal explanation of hell came in response to a 2015 question from a female scout who asked, 'If God forgives everyone, why does hell exist?' Francis acknowledged that this was a 'good and difficult question'." 5

  • Hannah Brockhaus, writing for the Catholic News Agency, said:

    "Pope Francis has previously spoken about the existence of hell in public speeches, including at a prayer vigil in March 2014.

    There he gave an address in which he said that members of the Mafia should change their lives, '... while there is still time, so that you do not end up in hell. That is what awaits you if you continue on this path'." 9

  • Roberto de Mattel, writing for Life Site News who labeled the report a "Must-Read," said:

    "The way these words sound, constitutes a heresy. ... It is not then about an interview, but a private conversation which nonetheless the Pope knew well would have been transformed into an interview, as this had happened in his four previous meetings with Scalfari. And if – despite the controversies caused by the previous interviews to the journalist from La Repubblica – the Pope persists in considering him his favorite interlocutor, it means that the Pope through these interviews intends to exercise a sort of Catholic Magisterium by way of the mass-media, leading to inevitable consequences. ... In the five years of Francis's pontificate, he has never  once mentioned hell as eternal punishment for the souls who die in sin.  In order to clarify his thought, the Pope or the Holy See ought to confirm the doctrine of the Church publicly, covering all the points of the interview in which it was denied. This unfortunately has not happened and we have been left with the impression that the news of La Repubblica is not fake news, but a deliberate scheme, to increase confusion in the faithful." 10

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References used:

  1. David Roach, "Pope's alleged hell denial scrutinized," Baptist Press, 2018-APR-02, at: http://bpnews.net/
  2. "John 3:16," Bible Gateway, at: https://www.biblegateway.com/
  3. "Catechism of the Catholic Church, Article 12" at: http://www.vatican.va/
  4. Jason Horowitz, "Pope Francis reportedly denies the existence of hell," Toronto Star, 2018-MAR-31, at: https://www.thestar.com/
  5. Thomas Reese, "Pope Francis and hell," National Catholic Reporter, 2018-APR-03, at: https://www.ncronline.org/
  6. Gene Veith, "The Pope, Hell, & the Papacy," Patheos, 2018-APR-02, at: http://www.patheos.com/

  7. RC Theology Gregg R. Allison, "Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment," published by Crossway (2014-NOV). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  8. Nicole Winfield, "Pope Francis to mafia: Repent or go to hell," Toronto Star, 2014-MAR-21, at: https://www.thestar.com/
  9. Hannah Brockhaus, "Vatican: Don’t trust report that Pope Francis denied reality of hell," Catholic News Agency, 2018-MAR-29, at: https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/
  10. Roberto de Mattel, "Hell is for real: A reminder of what we’re dealing with," Life Site News, 2018-APR-05, at: https://www.lifesitenews.com/horizontal rule

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Original posting: 2018-APR-03
Latest update : 2018-APR-06
Author: B.A. Robinson

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