MY father would have admitted to struggling with any sense of ‘faith’ most of his life, going to church often, spending time in contemplative mode, all the while fighting the demons of doubt as to whether God existed or not, and if my father didn’t, or couldn’t, believe he would go to Hell.
My sister says that had he been born of this generation he would have gone to university, instead of, like most of his generation, leaving school at 14. Despite that, he was well-read – he gave me love of Shakespeare and Dickens and Yeats – and there is little doubt that another 10 years in academia would have stood him.
And, as a more learned man, he would, perhaps, have come to the conclusion that death – of which he had a morbid fear, ie. his own annihilation – is perhaps the end and that neither God and His Heaven, nor Hell, exist. Then again, maybe not for even the most learned of men, philosophers, theologians and scientists have struggled with the Big Question.
‘Even the most learned of men have struggled with the Big Question…’
One wonders what my father would have thought of Pope Francis and his recent pronouncement that Hell does not exist, that is as a place where the damned and the none-believers suffer for eternity.
The word hell is derived from Old English hel or helle, and first attested around 725 AD to refer to a nether world of the dead. Hell appears in several mythologies and most religions. It is commonly inhabited by demons and the souls of the dead, often depicted in art and literature, perhaps most famously in Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Despite common depictions of a place of fire, some other traditions portray Hell as cold. Buddhist – and particularly Tibetan Buddhist – descriptions of Hell feature an equal number of hot and cold Hells
If, and it’s a big if given what can be lost in translation, Pope Francis did say that Hell does not exist, what might he have meant? To say that Hell does not exist is clearly not a statement about geography or cosmology. Neither Francis nor any other sane and educated person believes that a space probe will come back with a reported sighting of Heaven.
The difficulty for most of us is the idea that Hell entails eternal conscious torment, something almost unthinkable. That seems to have been what Francis was actually discussing.
The idea of eternal conscious torment has troubled Christians almost since it first arose. It seems entirely disproportionate to the sins it punishes. The sufferings of Hell are by definition worse than anything we can experience in this life: worse than cancer; worse than being burned alive; worse than watching your family die in Syria or Yemen – a Hell on earth for many. All those can be unendurable, but the sufferings of Hell, in the traditional doctrine, endure for ever – and then some. Death cannot end them: quite the opposite.
As I see it, to inflict such endless agony does not seem in the nature of a loving and merciful God; it seems disproportionate even to the demands of justice.
The real difficulty, of course, comes with the concept of eternity. The problem is not just that the universe has no place for Hell: it most likely has no time for it either. The universe, which had a beginning in the Big Bang, and will, science dictates, have an end, cannot contain eternity.
If there is eternity, it is outside any known realm, beyond space and time.Likewise a creator, a divine originator and also Heaven.
As for Hell, it seems Francis has given us one less thing to worry about.
Let’s be thankful for small mercies …