The Vatican denied last week’s reported conversation between Pope Francis and Eugenio Scalfari, the atheist editor of the left-wing daily newspaper La Repubblica. It seems that the Pope did not deny the existence of hell and that Scalfari’s report is “the fruit of his reconstruction” of what passed between the two. Predecessors of Pope Francis would have allowed no such ambiguity to arise, those who were not members of the Roman Catholic Church were doomed to everlasting perdition. But if the Pope does believe in hell, who is to be found there?
The idea of hell and the threat of being sent there were used constantly by the medieval church to terrify people into church attendance, into outward expressions of belief, even if there was no inward faith. Failing to believe, and not just believe, but believing in exactly the right way, meant that you would burn forever in hellfire. It seemed an objectionable attitude. What sort of god sent people to eternal punishment because their country happened to be Roman Catholic or Protestant? What sort of god punished working people because they obeyed what they were told? What sort of god punished the poor for believing the stories told to them by the rich and the educated? What sort of god punished people because of words said, or not said?
Hell seemed to have more to do with the control of people than with the love of the divine. Having attended a fundamentalist Christian school, where not a day passed without us being reminded of the eternal flames that awaited those who did not sign up to their brand of religion, hell seemed a word employed to intimidate the vulnerable. The school’s efforts resulted in me declaring myself to be a Communist, a sure and certain route to everlasting condemnation. Pictures of hellfire and damnation left me untroubled; if God was their god, I wanted nothing to do with him. A god who judged people on obscure points of theological doctrine, rewarding the rich and the comfortable, while turning his back on common folk, was not much of a god.
Jesus of Nazareth does talk about hell, and he also talks about those who deserve to go to such a place. In Saint Matthew Chapter 25, he says clearly that those who deserve to be condemned are those who do not respond to the poor, those who turn their eyes away from suffering and injustice. Had Eugenio Scalfari been in conversation with Jesus, he might have found that the Galilean preacher was much closer to the ideals of peace and justice pursued by La Repubblica than he was to the strange organisation that is the Vatican. It would be instructive to compare Jesus’ list of those who should be condemned to hell with any list that might be compiled by the Pope.