Hell Isn’t for Real?

Depending on whom you believe—a 93-year-old atheist journalist or the Vatican's press office—Pope Francis either did or didn't scrap the Roman Catholic Church's concept of souls suffering eternal torment if they die unsaved.

According to media reports around the world, Eugenio Scalfari, the atheist who publishes Italy's La Repubblica newspaper, Pope Francis pulled no punches in a conversation on the afterlife: “Hell does not exist—what exists is the disappearance of sinful souls,” the pope reportedly said, according to an account published in the National Catholic Register newspaper. “They are not punished; those who repent obtain the forgiveness of God and go among the ranks of the souls who contemplate him. But those who do not repent, and therefore cannot be forgiven, disappear,” the pontiff is reported to have added.

If that's what the pope actually said—Scalfari took no notes and made no recording during their conversation—those words would overturn some two thousand years of Catholic teaching. Indeed, the doctrines surrounding the location of disembodied "souls" after death helped the pre-Reformation church raise money to fund various projects, including the construction of the Vatican. It was Martin Luther's distress at the solicitation of donations to "free" these "souls" from a supposed purgatory that led him to attack Rome's corrupt practices by nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church—an event celebrated worldwide last year.

Facing a global backlash, the Vatican issued a denial: "What is reported by the author … is the fruit of his reconstruction, in which the precise words uttered by the Pope are not cited." The papal press office went on to say none of the quotes "should be considered as a faithful transcription" of the pontiff's actual words, which the Vatican did not provide.

Many news reports pointed out the Catholic Church's Catechism—its official doctrinal statement—declares, "The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God," a punishment received "immediately after death." It also speaks about "the unquenchable fire" for those "who refuse to believe and be converted."

Ironically, if the pope was quoted correctly, he may well be onto something, despite the denials from the Vatican's press office. The writer of Ecclesiastes implores his readers to make the most of their time in this life: "Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going." (9:10) That suggests a lack of consciousness once we die.

But we also read, in Hebrews 9:27, "It is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment." Consider, also, Revelation 20:12, which reads, "I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books."

Just these three verses suggest a different picture than the one painted by religious traditions through the centuries. Even more astonishing to some, the Bible is clear on what happens when we die, and when we face judgment before God.

There's an entire Amazing Facts website devoted to the subject of hell. Click here to learn what it is, what it isn't, and what God wants for everyone—if only they would trust in Jesus and His promises!

Written by Mark A. Kellner

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