With thoughts focused on the hereafter, Pope John Paul II expounded on heaven, hell and purgatory in his recent weekly audiences. The pope’s messages reached the headlines of major newspapers as he denied heaven and hell were physical places and seemed to reverse nearly 2,000 years of Christian teaching.
Heaven, said John Paul, is “a living and personal relationship of union with the Holy Trinity.” So far, so good. But in denying the spatial reality of heaven, the pope neglected the New Testament teaching that we will have resurrected bodies, which will require a spatial dimension.
The same issue arises in his rejection of the spatial dimension of hell. “More than a physical place,” the pope declared, “hell is the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God.” Nevertheless, the Bible speaks of hell as a very real place of torment and punishment, of unquenched fire and unspeakable anguish.
The pope’s denial of the traditional Christian understanding of hell is one more step in a progressive rejection of the very real and very horrible picture of hell revealed in the Bible. The temptation to “air-condition hell,” as one Roman Catholic magazine put it, is constant in a secular world that rejects hell as outdated and promises some kind of vague harmonic convergence in the afterlife.
In popular culture, hell has gone the way of the hula hoop. It simply doesn’t fit the modern secular mind. As British novelist David Lodge once remarked, “At some point in the 1960s, hell disappeared. No one could say for certain when this happened. First it was there, then it wasn’t. Different people became aware of the disappearance of hell at different times.”
Though Americans poke fun at “hellfire and brimstone” sermons, you are not likely to hear one in most pulpits, where hell has been conveniently domesticated for popular consumption. In liberal Protestantism, the traditional concept of hell is simply denied and “demythologized.” Among some evangelicals, the preferred practice is simply to preach the promise of heaven and avoid hell at all cost.
Polls consistently reveal most Americans believe in heaven — and believe they are going there. Far fewer believe in hell, and almost no one believes he or she is headed there. Modern Americans are quite certain their democratic deity wouldn’t do anything so rash as to consign their neighbors to eternal punishment, much less themselves.
The pope’s most serious revision of the biblical understanding of hell comes at the same issue. “Hell is not a punishment imposed externally by God, but the condition resulting from attitudes and actions which people adopt in this life,” he said. “So eternal damnation is not God’s work but is actually our own doing.”
John Paul’s statements are hardly revolutionary in the context of modern theology, but his decision to make such a public revision of the traditional teaching is highly significant. Just a few days prior to his statement a prominent Jesuit theological journal published the same argument. Clearly, a message has been sent.
We should note that Jesus had more to say about hell than about heaven, and he spoke of hell as a place of punishment where the wicked are “cast,” and where the fire is not quenched (Mark 9:44,47). He also warned of the judgment coming when he would separate “the sheep from the goats.” To those who bear his judgment, he will pronounce this judgment: “Depart from me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41).
Evidently, hell is indeed a punishment imposed by God, and the dire warnings in Scripture to respond to Christ in faith — while there is time — make sense only if hell is a very real place of very real torment.
As several modern commentators have noted, hell would be horrible enough if only for the absolute absence of God. But the Bible does not leave the matter there, nor should we. Our attempts to evade the biblical doctrine of hell weaken our understanding of the Gospel and confuse a world desperate for a word of biblical reality.
We are rightly warned to fear hell and to flee the wrath to come. Good advice comes from John Chrysostom, one of the greatest preachers of the early church: “Let us think often of hell, lest we soon fall into it.”