Another week, another manufactured press story involving Pope Francis. Did he deny that there is a hell? Did the Vatican intervene to massage his words?
Well no, almost certainly not, on both counts. But the enthusiasm with which the non-story has been lapped up suggests a hold that the idea of hell, and its perceived function within Christian doctrine, has on the imagination. Isn’t hell a big part of the whole thing? Isn’t it, moreover, a big stick waved to scare the faithful into submission?
Now, I take myself to be an orthodox Catholic: if anyone were finally to reject God’s love, then their soul, and ultimately they themself (after the resurrection) would live eternally in the absence of God’s fellowship. This is hell. It is misleading, I think, to put the issue (as did the BBC) in terms of whether hell exists. Hell is not a thing, such that it could exist, it is an absence (an absence of communion). All of this said, I am not bound as a Catholic to believe that anyone ever does finally decide against God. Indeed, I hope in God’s love and providence for universal salvation.
The point about hell, and Good Friday is the right day on which to make this point, is that its function within Christian doctrine is as that from which we are saved. Its power over us, the fear of it – these were defeated on the Cross, when God’s love showed itself as strong as death. Christianity does not think there are two equally balanced realities, good and evil, and two equally apt destinations for human beings, heaven and hell. Our attitude towards the world is the hard-won optimism of those who have spent hours at the Cross and seen there the victory of Love.
And yet, there is also a sense in which hell is seen day by day, not as an ultimate reality, but as a provisional one. Wherever God is rejected, wherever fellowship is broken, there is hell – in shop doorways, on battlefields, in lonely bedrooms and hospital wards. It is there, as it was on Calvary. Here, as there, may it not conquer.