VATICAN CITY (LifeSiteNews) — In an interview to mark his 10-year anniversary, Pope Francis appeared to deny the existence of Hell, saying that “is not a place” but is instead simply “a state of the heart” and “a posture towards life.”
The pontiff’s comments formed part of a lengthy conversation conducted by Argentinian news site Perfil, one of a number of recent interviews the Pope granted journalists to mark his decade upon the papal throne. Touching on a number of topics he discussed with other reporters, Francis also spoke about his philosophical and theological thought, along with aspects relating to global politics.
As part of the in-depth discussion, Francis was asked, “What is your own interpretation of Hell and paradise, and what happens to people who go to Hell, and what happens to those who go to paradise?”
Giving a trademark lengthy, convoluted, and somewhat evasive answer, Francis appeared to deny the existence of Hell as an actual place. “Hell is not a place,” he said. “If one goes to attend the Last Judgment, and sees the faces of those who go to Hell, one gets scared. If you read Dante, you get scared. But these are media representations.”
Expanding on his answer, Francis described Hell simply as “a state” — a description which appeared to refer to a state of mind. “Hell is a state, there are people who live in Hell continuously.”
He clarified that he was not referring to suffering generally, but to “those who make a world of bad or sick self-referentiality, and end up living in Hell.”
Hell is a state, it is a state of the heart, of the soul, of a posture towards life, towards values, towards the family, towards everything. There are people who live in Hell because they seek it, there are others who do not, who are suffering. And who goes to Hell, to that Hell, to that state? They are already living from here.
Not content with appearing to deny the existence of Hell, however, Francis implied that there was no one actually in Hell — an about-turn in his argument that saw him appear to thus accept that Hell could be real.
“If you ask me how many people are in Hell, I answer you with a famous sculpture of the cathedral of Vézelay,” he said. Providing a description of the sculpture, Francis noted that the sculpture “has Judas hanging and the devil pulling him down, and on the other side they have the Good Shepherd, Jesus who grabs Judas and puts him on his shoulders with an ironic smile.”
“What does that mean?” he queried. “That salvation is stronger than damnation. This pilaster is a catechesis that should make us think.”
“God’s mercy is always at our side, and what God wants is always to be with his people, with his children, and not for them to leave him,” he ended.
His remarks echo those made in a controversial interview with atheist journalist Eugenio Scalfari, in which Scalfari claimed that Francis denied the existence of Hell and argued instead that “lost souls” were annihilated upon the death of the earthly body.
The Vatican subsequently issued a process of damage control following Scalfari’s publication of the interview. At the time, Fr. Thomas Rosica, English-language assistant to the Holy See Press Office, told LifeSiteNews: “All official, final texts of the Holy Father are found on the Vatican website,” and since they were never published by the Holy See Press Office they “should not be considered official texts.”
They were, said Fr. Rosica, “private discussions that took place and were never recorded by the journalist.”
Catholic teaching on existence of Hell
Pope Francis earnest attempt to deny the existence of Hell, or the possibility of anyone being in it, runs in the face of the Catholic Church’s teaching on the subject.
The Gospels present the words of Christ on the matter. In the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, Christ warns how the greedy and selfish rich man, who died unrepentant, “also died, and he was buried in hell.” (Luke 16:22)
So also in St. Matthew’s Gospel, Christ presents the account of Judgment Day and the separation of the just from the unjust. Those who did not follow the law of God “shall go into everlasting punishment,” teaches Christ. (Matt 25:46)
In yet another discourse with His disciples, Christ explained the meaning of the parable of the sower, likening it to the final days of judgement. “The Son of man shall send his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all scandals, and them that work iniquity. And shall cast them into the furnace of fire; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matt 13:41)
In his supplement to the Summae Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas draws upon the teaching of Scripture to clearly outline and defend the existence of Hell. Writing about where souls are borne immediately after death, the great theologian writes:
And since a place is assigned to souls in keeping with their reward or punishment, as soon as the soul is set free from the body it is either plunged into hell or soars to heaven, unless it be held back by some debt, for which its flight must needs be delayed until the soul is first of all cleansed.
“This truth is attested by the manifest authority of the canonical Scriptures and the doctrine of the holy Fathers,” he continues, “wherefore the contrary must be judged heretical as stated in Dial. iv, 25, and in De Eccl. Dogm. xlvi.”
Later in the same section, St. Thomas reaffirms the physical existence of Hell, drawing as always from the Fathers of the Church and Sacred Scripture. Citing St. Basil, Aquinas writes that:
at the final cleansing of the world, there will be a separation of the elements: whatever is pure and noble remaining above for the glory of the blessed, and whatever is ignoble and sordid being cast down for the punishment of the damned: so that just as every creature will be to the blessed a matter of joy, so will all the elements conduce to the torture of the damned, according to Wisdom 5:21, “the whole world will fight with Him against the unwise.”
This is also becoming to Divine justice, that whereas they departed from one by sin, and placed their end in material things which are many and various, so should they be tormented in many ways and from many sources.
So resolutely did St. Thomas teach regarding the existence of Hell, that he outlined the manner in which the tormenting fire – of which the Scriptures speak – would be real. “However, whatever we may say of the fire that torments the separated souls, we must admit that the fire which will torment the bodies of the damned after the resurrection is corporeal, since one cannot fittingly apply a punishment to a body unless that punishment itself be bodily.”
Aquinas further cites the teaching of Pope St. Gregory along with that of St. Augustine to support his writing.
In comments provided to LifeSiteNews, catechist and author Deacon Nick Donnelly highlighted the importance of teaching the physical existence of Hell, since doing so “upholds the objective reality of God’s Justice.”
“When our Lord referred to the punishments of Hell — the eternal fire and undying worm — He described them in very physical terms, not in terms of psychological or spiritual states of mind,” said Donnelly.
The Church Fathers understood Jesus’ depiction of Hell as being a literal description of a physical place. It is essential to teach the nature of Hell as a physical place because it upholds the objective reality of God’s Justice — God determines the punishment of the damned — and the objective reality of the resurrection of the body — the bodies of the damned suffer real punishments.
The English cleric slated Francis’ comments on Hell as ultimately being an “example of his dethronement of the true God for one of his own making.”
Pope Francis’ caricature of Hell as being a psychological state is yet another example of an idolatrous humanism that reduces everything to this world, as if man’s experience is the measure of God, rather than God’s eternal design and plan as being the measure of man’s destiny. Pope Francis’ offhand dismissal of our Lord’s description of the physicality of Hell is yet another example of his dethronement of the true God for one of his own making.