Pope Francis made the news earlier this week–Holy Week in the Christian faith–by saying that there is no hell. In an interview with Eugenio Scalfari, an atheist friend of his, which was published in La Repubblica, the Pope said, “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.”
A little inside baseball for non-Catholics:
- Both the Catechism of the Catholic Church and Holy Scripture point out the existence of hell.
- The Pope’s statement to Scalfari is just that–a statement. Papal infallibility does not apply to everything a Pope says. It’s used only twice–once to cover the Immaculate Conception and once about Mary’s assumption into heaven.
With that out of the way, it’s always seemed to me that the overriding desire to attain heaven or avoid hell misses the point.
If God is the father in the story of the prodigal son, then what he wants is to have a relationship with us, and then for us to have a relationship with each other. Hence, he waits every day for his wayward son and runs to him when he returns. For a Jewish patriarch of the time to do that was unheard of. It would be like Archie inviting the Meathead to sit in his chair.
After the reconciliation of the wayward brother, he practically begs the responsible son inside to accept his brother back. There’s no reference to heaven or damnation because the story ends there. It’s entirely about relationships, not eternal reward or condemnation.
In the Christian faith, we’re taught the necessity to surrender ourselves to God, to give back to him the most precious gift he’s given to us–our free will. Not because he demands it, but because of his desire for relationship. Sort of like you give up your right to date when you get married. It’s a desire for union, not a harsh command.
Beyond that desire to enter into a trusting relationship is the desire for us to love his other children, or do our best. He’s inviting us into that larger union that exists horizontally. He wants us to join everyone else in the messy, sometimes agonizing party.
It’s another request to trust.
If that trust exists, then heaven and hell are beside the point. The relationship with the Beloved is heaven and its absence is hell.
I’m not sure of heaven or hell. I’m not nearly as sure as I’d like to be about that loving relationship of the Father. But if I were sure, heaven and hell would be the last thing on my mind. When a relationship that overpowering occurs, there’s no room for anything else.