QUESTION: I have been reading about Pope Francis and the existence of hell. I don’t want to get into the media issues, but I am interested in what the Catholic Church does teach about hell.
ANSWER: The media picked up comments made by a former editor of an Italian newspaper (La Repubblica) claiming that the pope denied the existence of hell. That has been shown clearly to be inaccurate. But the publicity has raised interest in the church’s teaching on hell.
Late in the period of the Old Testament (especially in the three centuries before the birth of Christ) there was a great deal of discussion about God’s justice. The tradition held that God rewards those who do good and punishes those who do evil. That tradition was being challenged as people saw good people suffer and those who do evil prosper. How then does God’s justice work?
That question was being asked at the time of Christ. Many had come to believe that if God’s justice is not applied in this life it will surely be applied in the life to come (following our death).
Within that context, we find Jesus telling the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31): “There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day … and lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus.
The poor man died and he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried, and from the netherworld, where he was in torment, he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. He cried out, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am suffering torment in these flames.’ Abraham replied, ‘My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented.”
The teaching of the Catholic Church regarding God’s justice is that of the Scriptures. Those who do good are rewarded with eternal life with Christ in glory; those who do unrepented evil are punished by an eternal absence from God’s presence.
The additional factor that is important to note is the mercy of God. It is intriguing that the Catholic Church has declared saints, that is, proclaiming that some have lived lives of such virtue that we believe with certainty they are with Christ. Yet, the Catholic Church, to my knowledge, has never officially declared that anyone is in hell. This is because the mercy of God is known only to God. How that mercy is accorded is not known to us.
What the church proclaims then is that there is indeed both a heaven and a hell. Just who is in hell is not known because we do not define God’s mercy; God does. But the need for the existence of both heaven and hell are necessary elements of the conviction that God rewards the good and punishes those who do unrepented evil.
Father Bober is pastor of St. Kilian Parish in Adams and Cranberry townships.