Whenever I think of hellfire, I think of the classic song from Disney’s dark, but powerful musical “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”. However, this isn’t the same thought that comes to mind when the Pope thinks of the concept, in fact it seems he thinks of nothingness when he envisions hellfire…
Last Thursday, Pope Francis was quoted in the Italian newspaper “La Repubblica” saying, “a hell doesn’t exist”. The Vatican were quick to dismiss this quotation, claiming that his words have been twisted. Certainly the Pope has said on record that hell does indeed exist, but with his history of flip flopping, and his growing liberal image, many people have assumed that the article is true, that he doesn’t fully believe in the traditional Catholic conception of hell.
However, regardless of whether it is true or not it has certainly shocked the world. One of the central tenets of Catholicism is the real existence of heaven and hell, and the catechism of the Catholic Church states that ‘The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell’ which is referred to as ‘eternal fire’. But where did this imagery come from, and how did it stick?
This literal interpretation of hell developed in part during the medieval era, in response to one of the key questions all of us ask: what happens after death? This was incredibly easy to paint, ‘unquenchable hellfire’, and looks of torment and anguish tend to be much more eye-catching than intangible theological concepts. The idea of a literal hell was then useful to the Church to keep, and convert, believers. ‘You’ll go to hell if you don’t join us, here’s what it looks like’ would have been shocking to a medieval person, especially during an era when superstitions were very prevalent… For a time when the majority of the population lacked any formal schooling, and where there were no counter narratives or reason to disbelieve these authority figures, this easy to see and grasp concept really embedded its roots.
The Catholic church has changed since the medieval period, it’s views on some subjects have liberalised, such as contraception, and this statement by Pope Francis if it is true is part of a long running gradual shift in Catholic theology away from seeing hell as a physical place filled with flames, but instead towards being separated from God spiritually after you die. What questions does this raise for the Catholic Church moving forward? Is it harmful for Catholics to have contradictory messages coming from the Church about such a central question for their religion? Or does it represent a continuing struggle over liberalisation within the Church which may ultimately have positive effects for its followers. Perhaps seeing hell as this separation from God may move the Catholic doctrine forward from occasionally condemning groups, to welcoming them in. Just as Pope Francis has focused more on the marginalised groups within the church, maybe we will see the Church move towards accepting those, that to date have been alienated by it…?
Culture, Lifestyle and Opinions Editor