March 23, 2019

People Don't Believe in Hell Like They Used To

“Last march, a story broke that must have had the sinners of the world praising whatever god they did or didn’t believe in: Pope Francis, leader of more than a billion Roman Catholics, had apparently declared that hell didn’t exist. Atheist journalist Eugenio Scalfari, co-founder and former editor of the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, reported that after a private interview, Francis had said that while the souls of repentant sinners “receive the forgiveness of God . . . the souls of those who are unrepentant, and thus cannot be forgiven, disappear.” In other words, it’s game over for those sinners, which is a little depressing, but at least they can expect no post-death punishment. As happens so often with this outspoken pope, however, the Vatican’s communication team quickly stepped in and denied that Francis made the statement at all.

It was not the first time that the idea of hell has been questioned by an influential Christian. Rob Bell, a former evangelical church leader, argued a similar point in his bestselling 2011 book, Love Wins: “Has God created millions of people over tens of thousands of years who are going to spend eternity in anguish?” he asks. “Can God do this, or even allow this, and still claim to be a loving God?” Clearly, the ancient idea, and veracity, of eternal damnation is still up for debate. According to a 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center, only 58 percent of Americans believe in hell, though 72 percent believe in heaven.

Almost all major religions, monotheistic or otherwise, have featured some hierarchy of reward and penalty after death. The specifics are debated—some faiths describe endless torture, others a place for introspection—but the concept of consequences in the afterlife has been a constant. Is our waning attachment to hell, then, a momentary blip, or are believers finally ready for faith that isn’t tied to fear of everlasting agony?”

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