Does the Pope believe in hell? An interesting controversy has arisen as Pope Francis has allegedly denied the existence of hell in an interview with Eugenio Scalfari in La Repubblica. Francis is quoted as saying, “Bad souls are not punished. Those who do not repent and cannot therefore be forgiven disappear. There is no hell, there is the disappearance of sinful souls.” The Vatican responded quickly, asserting that the quote “should not be considered as a faithful transcription of the words of the Holy Father.” If the quote of Pope Francis is accurate, then he has contradicted the Catholic Catechism, which strongly affirms the existence of hell.
If Francis’ denial of hell is accurately recorded in the article, it would join a long list of those that deny that God allows people who have not believed in Jesus Christ to remain in their spiritual death during their earthly lives and ultimately to exist after their physical deaths in a literal place that we understand as “hell.”
The first related claim comes from Satan in the garden of Eden. He simply and straightforwardly denies what God had promised: “You shall surely not die” (Gen 3:4), Satan said. But what happened? Romans 5 explains that all died “spiritually” (meaning they became enemies of God and were condemned), and Adam and Eve did indeed die physically, as God directly intervened to ensure that fate (Gen 3:22-24).
Through the years there have been echoes of Satan’s denial of God’s judgment – most recently by men such as Henry Emerson Fosdick and Rob Bell. These men deny God’s right to judge through the consequences of hell, because it is outside of their expectations for God’s character. The essential premise of these contemporary denials is simply that a “good” God could not possibly condemn a person forever.
Should we believe in hell? We find many examples in Scripture where God makes judgments that just don’t generally match what we might tend to do. So we have a choice. We can argue that God must fit our own moral sentiments, or we can take Him at His word, and discover who He describes Himself to be.
Before presupposing (based on sentiment) that God shouldn’t have a hell, perhaps it would be better to avoid the Satanic temptation to deny God’s prerogative and promise to judge. God did promise death. Not only that, but He promised a second death – the lake of fire (Rev 20:14-15, Gr. limne tou puros). This concept was first discussed in the final verse of Isaiah (66:24), and was later reiterated by Christ Himself in Mark 9:47-48 (where the Gr. gehenna is used).
Ultimately, there are two ways that we can try to deal with the problem of spiritual death (separation from God). First, we can simply deny it. We can either say that there is no spiritual death at all, or we can deny that the consequences outlined in the Bible are real. This was Satan’s solution, but it was a lie. The second way we can deal with it is to follow God’s prescription: all who believe in Jesus Christ have eternal life (John 6:47).
Especially as we think about Jesus’ death on the cross to pay for sin as our substitute, and as we ponder that He rose again from the dead on the third day, we have a choice to make. Follow the claim of Satan, that there is no spiritual death or eternal consequences of separation from God, or follow the claim of God, that “the wages of sin is death but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).