Did Pope Francis earlier this year (before the tsunami of negativity about priestly abuses) really scoff at the notion of hell? Did he really muse to an (atheist) Italian journalist that there was no theological justification for the eternal torment of unredeemed souls? Does he, indeed, believe that hell is just a useful fable?

Possibly, though not certainly – the press office of the Vatican hastily walked back what might or might not have been the Pontiff’s words. But even if he did say what the published reports claim, it is not much of a revelation. Nor will his milder view of the afterlife change any minds. Nor, indeed, will it be the first time a pope has said something similar.

It’s true that the Roman Catholic Church’s official Catechism still insists on the validity of hell as an actual place where actual sinners go to be actually punished. (“… The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, eternal fire.”) The online Catholic Encyclopedia says much the same. The church hierarchy may be undecided about it, but the authors are steadfast: only “atheists and Epicureans” do not believe in it.

But wait a minute … the Vatican has also said, “the chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.” And even this clever hedge has been diluted, by the Vatican itself. Pope John Paul II suggested that the church was rapidly backing away from hell as a real place, saying instead that the Bible uses a “symbolic language which must be interpreted correctly …” A correct interpretation, in his view, would define hell as “the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy”. Confusingly, an evangelical document issued in 2000 declared that while biblical images of burning lakes “are not to be taken literally, they do symbolize the horrors that are in store for people who reject Christian teachings”, which is known as having it both ways.

Then, in the middle of 2017 the newly elected head of the Jesuits, the Venezuelan Arturo Sosa, pooh-poohed the whole idea of a malicious fiend – he too said the devil was just an idea, an expression of man’s alienation from God. From this perspective, then, hell is not a punishment imposed externally by God but the inevitable development of premises already set by people in this life. So much for the vengeful St. Augustine’s assertion that “knowledge of the torments of the damned is part of heavenly bliss” (though it’s true Augustine did suggest that those who committed lesser offences, like over-eating and laughing too much, might be let off after a bout of purgatorial fire). And remember that the Pontiff, Francis, has suggested that even atheists, if basically nice folk, could get to heaven too, and more easily than hypocritical Catholics at that. Cue conniptions in the Vatican hierarchy.

Vatican “clarifications” aside, it does seem that hell, like Satan himself, has lost its sting in our world. The phrases are now trotted out without any sense of their residual meaning. To hell and gone. The hell with it. Go to hell. It is hellishly hot … hell is just an epithet, not a place “For a lot of people, hell is little more than a mental holding place for Hitler,” as Michael Gerson put it in the Washington Post.

And yet … removing hell from Christian doctrine leaves a hell-sized hole in the afterlife narrative. Which is why the idea of hell and its punishments persists, and in more than one not-so-obscure corner of the religious universe.

In our Eurocentric way, we sometimes believe our hell is the hell, but the Judeo-Christian world was far from alone in developing theories of hell – virtually every human society (with some interesting exceptions, including to a degree the Judeo part of the Judeo-Christian world) has imagined a version of sometimes everlasting horror. Hell is generally outside time and beyond physics, twin characteristics it shares with heaven – at least in our world, heaven and hell are intertwined and co-dependent, the fate of one bound up with the fate of the other, the ultimate Upstairs, Downstairs story.

The many Buddhist traditions, for example, have a rich tradition of the torments to come. For a religion without a god (not even a benevolent one, never mind one filled with malice) and certainly without a devil, Buddhism has long had an unseemly preoccupation with torture. Buddhist hells, and there are many of them, are filled with pain, and Buddhist writings (including the collected saying of the Buddha himself) have left us graphic descriptions of the torments suffered by those who have not yet expunged the evils that they did in life.

Take the hell of the sword leaf trees. The trees in this hell are 65 kilometers tall, with thorns 40 centimeters long. The wardens of hell drag sinners up the trees and throw them down, shearing their flesh and piercing their bodies. Those who in life ignored their families and had affairs, leaving their spouses to suffer, are all sent here. This goes on for many thousand cycles.


Even in the in the Christian tradition, the Fiend still has his purpose. And so do cauldrons of boiling oil to torment the sinners … and hellfire. Hellfire is in the armory of multiple religions, but Christian furnaces have always burned the hottest of all. A mild dousing shower from the Pope isn’t likely to change that.

(This adapted from my Hell and Damnation: A Sinner’s Guide to Eternal Torment, to be published next spring by the university of Regina Press.]