LONDON, U.K.—The Pope did not say there is no Heaven. There is nothing intellectually embarrassing about the notion that good people go to Heaven when they die. It sounds a bit like a wish-fulfilment fantasy to outsiders, but it’s the sort of thing a loving and all-powerful god might provide for his creatures. However, the Pope did say there is no Hell.
As soon as he said it, the Vatican’s communications department mobilized to deny that he had said it, as they have done on several previous occasions when the Pope went off the rails. But of course he said it, and the reason why is obvious.
It is very hard for a well-educated person of modern sensibilities to believe that a loving god would condemn any of the human beings he created to an eternity of physical torture and mental anguish. That is not what loving human fathers do, even to children who disobey them, so the traditional notion of Hell is a permanent problem for many Catholic theologians.
If you do not live inside the bubble of faith, it’s not a problem at all: no Heaven, no Hell, no God, just us under an empty sky. But people of faith like Pope Francis, who want to believe that ‘God is love,’ struggle with the concept of Hell—and people like Eugenio Scalfari, who grew up in the faith but left it long ago, still sympathize with their struggle.
Scalfari, now 93 years old, was the founder of the highly respected Italian newspaper La Repubblica, and is still a practising journalist. He is an avowed atheist, but has been meeting Pope Francis in private for years for long conversations on religious matters. And Scalfari is an unusual journalist, in that he does not record his interviews or even take notes. Instead, he “reconstructs” the conversation from memory.
As somebody who has done thousands of interviews (and does record them or take notes), I envy Scalfari the freedom he enjoys to participate fully in the conversation. I doubt that he can always remember the interviewee’s words verbatim, but I am sure that he is rarely mistaken about the meaning of what was said. And I suspect that it is exactly the fact that Scalfari does not provide an undeniable verbatim text that draws Pope Francis to him.
Eugenio Scalfari, now 93 years old, was the founder of the highly respected Italian newspaper La Repubblica, and is still a practising journalist. Photograph courtesy of Wikipedia
The recent exchange between the two men, as recounted by Scalfari in Repubblica last Thursday, began with the journalist asking Francis where “bad souls” go and how they are punished. According to Scalfari’s account, Francis replied as follows: “Souls are not punished. Those who repent obtain God’s forgiveness and go among the ranks of those who contemplate him, but those who do not repent and cannot be forgiven disappear. There is no hell—there is the disappearance of sinful souls.”