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Thomas Reese

Pope Francis and hell

by National Catholic Reporter

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The Briefing

Thursday, Apr. 5, 2018

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This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It's Thursday, April 5, 2018. I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part

Did the Pope deny the existence of hell? Why much modern theology targets hell for disappearance.

A bizarre theological controversy erupted last week, just before the Easter weekend. The center of the controversy was the Vatican and at the center of the Vatican, by no coincidence, the Pope. As the Wall Street Journal's Francis X. Rocca reported, "For Pope Francis, the untraditional has become routine. Still, the news last Thursday morning was startling. Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari, a friend and frequent interviewer of the pope, reported that the pontiff had denied the existence of hell. According to Rocca "Sinners who die without achieving eternal are not punished," the Pope said. This according to an article by Mr. Scalfari in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. Words directly attributed to the pope were these, "There is no hell. There is the disappearance of sinful souls."

The New York Times reported on the story. The reporter was Jason Horowitz. He wrote "The Vatican felt obliged to reaffirm that Pope Francis believes in a central tenet of Catholicism, that there is a hell." Horowitz went on to write "That odd declaration came after the newspaper, La Repubblica, published a front page article on Thursday of last week by an atheist, left-wing and anticlerical giant of Italian journalism, who reported that during a recent meeting the pope had said that hell does not exist." Eugenio Scalfari said "Bad souls are not punished, according to the pope." Again the New York Times attributed these words to the pope, "A hell doesn't exist."

Now almost immediately, the Vatican through its press operation issued a supposed clarification, somewhat a retraction. One of the explanations given by the Vatican is that the pope, in no conversation, allows direct quotations. So this was reconstructed set of quotations that came from an atheist, anticlerical, extremely liberal journalist, who by the way is also reported to be 93 years of age.

So the Vatican's defense against the accusation that the pope denied a doctrine central to Catholicism is the fact that the pope had done no such thing exactly or at least not so clearly, or even if he did, it shouldn't have been quoted in his direct words because that's journalistically out of bounds. The Papacy went into full public relations mode, also through the Vatican declaring that the pope, meaning Pope Francis, had affirmed several times in the past his belief in hell, which he did.

A review of the statements made by Pope Francis indicates that he has warned of hell, particularly he has warned Mafiosi, leaders of organized crime, of the potential of facing eternity in hell. But it's also clear that the pope is never very specific about major doctrines and when it comes to hell, he has been amazingly unspecific, extremely vague and thus, there's every reason to believe that the pope has very much wavered on the doctrine of hell, if not said the words directly attributed to him by a journalist.

But that raises another question: if the pope doesn't believe he was well-represented in this interview, then why doesn't he make an absolutely clear declaration of the doctrine that is held by the Roman Catholic Church and the doctrine that he supposedly exists in order to defend? But the pope has done no such thing.

But there's another fascinating wrinkle to this story. It turns out that Pope Francis has given interviews to this atheist, liberal anticlerical, ecclesiastical journalist over and over again. And we also come to understand, that as recently as the year 2015, that's just two years ago, in an interview with the very same journalist, the very same issue arose. Back in 2015, Scalfari said that the pope had affirmed that lost souls would simply be annihilated instead of damned. At that time the Vatican simply characterized that interview as a private discussion and the details of that discussion were neither to be confirmed nor denied.

Speaking of the pattern of this papacy, Francis Rocco in the report for the Wall Street Journal wrote "It was an extreme yet telling example of how Pope Francis has shaken up perceptions of Catholic doctrine, drawing widespread attention from the non-Catholic world and causing turmoil within the church." Well, he is indeed causing turmoil within the Roman Catholic Church and he has indeed drawn widespread attention from the secular world and especially from secular liberals, who believe that they have found a friend and a fellow traveler in Pope Francis and in many of those he has appointed to high office, particularly his bishops and archbishops and his cardinals of the church.

The pope, we should note, has just recently observed his fifth anniversary as pope. And in a half decade, he has injected turmoil into the midst of the Roman Catholic Church, a turmoil over issues of morality and now over basic issues of Catholic doctrine. Now as evangelical Protestants observing this phenomenon, one of the things we need to note is that the pattern of what is happening in the Roman Catholic Church should serve as a warning about the very same pattern happening in our own Christian communions, in our own churches, in our own denominations, our congregations and institutions. As we're looking at the Roman Catholic Church, we are looking at a present collision between the modern age and a church that claims to be unchanged and unchanging. We're looking at an office, the Papacy, that developed over time, and is now the central organizational claim of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Roman Catholic Church believes that it's doctrinal authority and it's unity is centered in one individual, a monarchial individual who reigns over the church. Pope Francis and a long line of popes, by most counts something like 266, he is now sitting on what is claimed by the Catholic Church to be the Throne of St. Peter. Now, this is where Protestants immediately want to turn to Scripture in order to demonstrate that there is no throne and there is no succession coming from St. Peter and there is no papacy. The papacy itself is a un-biblical office and the very unity and authority that is claimed by the pope actually is given by Christ to the Church and not to an individual. And furthermore, the Protestant impulse immediately arises here to understand the central claims of the sacramental office and the magisterial authority of the pope are deeply subversive, both of the Gospel and of biblical authority.

But we need to watch the patterns taking place here because the patterns of liberal Catholicism, now represented in this papacy are patterns that had previously existed in liberal Protestantism, and even as the Roman Catholic Church was a bit late getting to some of these liberal temptations, especially when looking at the Vatican itself, we also need to note that evangelical Protestant are not immune. That there are some who call themselves evangelical, who demonstrate the very pattern of theological temptation that is now all too glaringly clear in the case of Pope Francis and not, we must insist, simply on the question of hell.

As Francis Rocca had written back in that article in the Wall Street Journal about Pope Francis, "He has described the promotion of same-sex marriage and population control in the developing world as examples of ideological colonization by the West but he has warmly welcomed same-sex spouses and voiced compassion for those who decide to use artificial birth control. In terms of morality," said Rocca "Pope Francis is shifting the conversation away from saying there are the borderlines, step over them and you're off the reservation." He was there citing Christopher Lamb, known as the Rome correspondent for Britain's Catholic newspaper, The Tablet. Now Lamb went on to say "It's a move from the institutional and doctrinal towards a greater focus on personal conscience."

Part

The crisis of Catholic doctrine under Pope Francis and the lessons for evangelicals.

Well that is exactly the case, and no one has made that charge or described that pattern better than Ross Douthat, columnist for the New York Times, a Roman Catholic himself and the author of a very important new book, released just days ago entitled "To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism." Now in this book, Ross Douthat pulls no punches. It is very clear that he believes this pontiff to be nothing less than dangerous to the entire existence of the Roman Catholic Church. Douthat begins his book with a very personal word, "This is a book about the most important religious story of our time, the fate of the world's largest religious institution under a pope who believes that Catholicism can change in ways that his predecessors rejected and who faces resistance from Catholics who believe the changes he seeks risk breaking faith with Jesus Christ."

The amazing candor in that statement is that in just a few words, Ross Douthat, a veteran observer of the Roman Catholic Church, notes that what is threatened under Pope Francis is not just a doctrinal laxity but a fundamental re-definition of Catholic doctrine. But what Douthat also understands is the actual principal impossibility of that doctrinal change. The Roman Catholic Church claims that as the deposit of doctrine it possesses that doctrine in a way that is unchanged and unchanging. Now five years into his papacy, it is clear that Pope Francis is decidedly liberal in his direction. And this stands as a stark contrast to his two predecessors, Pope John Paul II, and Pope Benedict the XVI.

In the case of Pope Francis, what you have is a set of multiple moves. On the one hand, you have exactly what Francis Rocca pointed to, which is the fact that there is a liberalization of the way Catholic doctrine is applied and this especially when it comes to moral issues and particularly on the question of marriage, which according the Roman Catholic Church is a sacrament, a sacrament that cannot be broken. A marriage cannot, according to official Catholic teaching, ever come to an end before the death of one of the spouses, therefore remarriage after divorce, according to Catholic doctrine, is and must always be a state of adultery, and thus those who are in such a state cannot have access to communion, to the mass. This has placed Western societies over against the centuries of Catholic teaching and it has become increasingly clear that Pope Francis intends to allow the Church, if not to lead the Church, into a basic change in the way that doctrine is applied. But as Douthat says "There can be no basic change in the way that doctrine is applied unless there is a corresponding and eventual change in the doctrine itself."

Douthat, along with several others says that what Pope Francis is doing is transforming the Roman Catholic Church into a church that is far more like liberal Protestant denominations, allowing the entire of revisiting of doctrinal questions, the reformulation of basic theological truths, the redefinition of the Gospel and of course, revolution in sexual morality. And with that, of course, comes marriage.

But what we're looking at here is the fact that this pope has never openly declared that that is his intention, instead he appears to be a papal master of ambiguity. As one feminist Catholic wrote in the New York Times, just in recent days, she called him "the Pope of Hints." A hint here, a hint there, perhaps a hint in this interview with Scalfari but perhaps a hint too far. And then a hint from the Vatican that maybe the pope was just hinting or maybe his hints shouldn't be put in quotation marks at all. By the time you come to the end of Douthat's important book, he says that the story could end with Pope Francis as a hero and if the story ends that way, it would mean that a very liberal society now welcomes a very liberal Roman Catholic Church because it provides no kind of moral counterweight. But says Douthat, and I quote, "To choose a path that might have only two destinations, hero or heretic, is an act of great and dangerous presumption, even for a pope. Especially for a pope," he writes. And then in the concluding paragraph of the book, he writes that Pope Francis likes to say "Make a mess." Douthat then concludes "In that much, he has succeeded."

Now bringing this phase of our discussion to a conclusion, for conservative, traditionalist Roman Catholics Pope Francis is a disaster. It's not good having a pope if the pope basically undoes not only the papacy, but the authority of the entire Roman Catholic Church. And yet, for evangelicals, that's not the issue. For Protestants, for those who look at the papacy outside the Roman Catholic Church by theological principal, the bigger issue here is to observe that the kind of ambiguity, the kind of theological hints found in this pope are the very kinds of cues and clues we hear from some on the left-wing of Protestantism. Or increasingly, from some of those on the left-wing who call themselves, even now evangelicals.

Part

The collision of biblical Christianity and the spirit of the modern age over the doctrine of hell

But as important as noting that pattern is, and that's our first responsibility, we also have to turn to the specific doctrinal question. Why not once, but repeatedly, has Pope Francis been the master of ambiguity on a doctrine so important as hell? Why is he the Pope of Hints and why are others also very much leaning into hints about hell if not outright denial?

Well here we need to note that hell is theologicum odium, it is an odious doctrine in the minds of many moderns. It is absolutely unthinkable, morally and theologically unthinkable. It doesn't matter according to liberal theologians that the Bible is clear. There is virtually no doctrine in the New Testament so clear as the doctrine of hell. But what they want is a reformulation of a doctrine that is absolutely seen to be out of step with the modern age. How can any modern person, believing as we do, in modern ideals of justice and of love, believe that there could be eternal punishment or anything worry, in terms of justice, of eternal torment? But this is exactly where biblical Christianity flies into direct collusion with the spirit of the modern age.

The spirit of the modern age speaks to human beings in a humanistic frame of human worth and worthiness. The Bible begins with an even more exalted view of humanity. Not merely as worthy, but actually as made in the image of God. But the Bible is also exceedingly clear that we have sinned against God and the Bible is abundantly specific to tell us that even one sin would be enough as an insult to the divine righteousness to earn eternity separated from God and facing the full outpouring of God's wrath. Which the New Testament makes clear, is exactly what hell is created to be.

The New Testament is abundantly clear about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus, looking at the Gospels alone, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John had more to say about hell than heaven. Is that because hell is a more important doctrine? No. It's because in our fallen state, we need to be presented with the start reality of the wrath God that we as sinners face, that we righteously and rightly face. And Jesus was extremely clear to his disciples and to all that hell is a very real place, of very real eternal conscious torment.

Just think of the passage in Luke Chapter 16, where we encounter the story of the rich man and Lazarus, and Jesus speaks through the voice of Abraham of the reality of God's punishment in hell and also the promise of blessedness with God in heaven. And then Abraham speaks and remember Jesus is speaking here, telling this account, Abraham says that there's a great chasm that is fixed so that those that are there with the rich man in Hades cannot cross under where Lazarus is with Abraham, nor can anyone from Abraham and Lazarus go to be with those in Hades. It is a great eternal chasm that cannot be bridged.

But liberal theologians, going back further than you might think, going all the way back to the 18th Century, identified the biblical doctrine of hell as the single doctrine that must go first. And thus hell became the great catalyst for the spread and the influence of liberal theology and a liberal approach to doctrine throughout much of the Western world. The denial of hell, we should note, is one of the very first heresies to become apparent in pre-revolutionary America, even amongst the colonies.

By the time you get to the 19th Century in the United States, you could encounter theological liberals such as Washington Gladden, glad to be identified that way. Who said concerning hell "To teach such a doctrine as this about God, is to inflict upon religion a terrible injury and to subvert the very foundations of morality."

The British novelist David Lodge noted that hell in the culture had virtually disappeared by the 1960s. He wrote "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."

Church historian Martin Marty, the University of Chicago, said about the same period "Hell disappeared, no one noticed." Well of course, those that hold to biblical Christianity noticed but what we have seen in the Roman Catholic Church right now is something that has become an issue of open debate even in evangelical circles over the last several decades. Just consider the controversy a few years ago, over Rob Bell, the former evangelical who denied hell and who in particular affirmed a form of universalism, that is that all persons who are at least of good inclination, will eventually be received and accepted by God.

Other evangelicals or those who have identified as evangelicals, have affirmed what the pope appears to have affirmed in this recent interview and that is annihilationism, the argument that souls do not spend eternity in hell. That is sinners facing the just wrath and outpouring of God's justice, but rather they are simply annihilated, the simply upon God's judgment, cease to be.

But the critics of Pope Francis within the Roman Catholic Church, those conservatives and traditionalists who believe that he represents a papal disaster, they make the argument that you can't change the pastoral practice of the church without eventually changing its doctrine. But here, as evangelicals, we certainly agree with that principal, but we would go even further and say that you can't revise one doctrine, such as the doctrine of hell, without inevitably revising and revisiting the entire structure of biblical Christianity. If hell is redefined, then simultaneously heaven is redefined, the gospel is redefined, the church is redefined. The timeline of the biblical storyline is redefined. The very threat of hell disappears and then all we are left with is hell as something of a figment of our theological imagination.

Something else that we should note, tying all of this together, Thomas Reese, a prominent Catholic, he's also a Jesuit, writing for the National Catholic Reporter, offers another explanation of Pope Francis and that is that even if he said something close to what this journalist said he said, it's not all that far from where modern Catholic doctrine already stands. He said concerning hell "We choose it. We are not send there." Reese also, trying to explain what he claims to be mainstream Catholic teaching says "God did not create hell, we did." Meaning a self-chosen separation from God.

I hold in my hands right now the current catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, the current official statement of Roman Catholic doctrine, where in paragraph 1035 I read "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 chief punishment of hell," says the catechism, "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."

In other words, you can have these modern interpretations of Catholicism or you can have the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. What makes this moment in Catholicism so interesting is that this pope appears to be, by ambiguity and by hints, saying "You choose, choose which version you like." What's most important for us to recognize in this respect is that that is exactly what is being suggested by some who claim the label evangelical. "You just choose whichever brand of doctrine you like."

Part

Vatican attempts to bolster Pope’s conservative credibility by doctoring photo of letter from Benedict

Now before leaving this entire story, I want to turn to one last development that took place just days before the question about the pope and hell. It had to do with a major public relations embarrassment at the Vatican. As the Associated Press reported on the 15th of March, "The Vatican admitted that it altered a photo sent to the media, of a letter from retired Pope Benedict the XVI, about Pope Francis. The manipulation," says the Associated Press "changed the meaning of the image in a way that violated photo journalist industry standards. Now, as the story from the Associated Press goes on to tell us, "The Vatican's Communications Office released first the photo of the letter on the eve of Francis' five year anniversary. The letter was cited by monsignor Dario Vigano, Chief of Communications, to rebut critics of Francis who question his theological and philosophical heft, and say he represents a rupture from Benedict's doctrine minded papacy."

Well as the story unfolds, it turns out there was a direct misrepresentation of a letter from Pope Benedict concerning Pope Francis. What was covered up in the photograph was a statement by the now retired pope, that he hadn't actually had any time to read the writings of Pope Francis, or to render a theological judgment. The ploy didn't work as the Associated Press says "The missing content significantly altered the meanings of the quotes the Vatican chose to highlight, which were widely picked up by the media. Those quotes," says the Associated Press, "suggested that Benedict had read the volume, agreed with it, had given it his full endorsement and assessment. The doctoring of the photo was significant," said AP "because news media rely on Vatican photographers for images of the pope at events that are otherwise closed to independent media."

Monsignor Vigano had to resign after the controversy, even scandal, at the Vatican but all this suggests, in the course of just a few days, we were told that the Pope's statements as reported by a journalist, can't be taken at face value. We were told that by the Vatican and then we have to remember, that at virtually the same time, the Vatican admitted that it had manipulated the photograph and the message concerning the papacy. So when it comes to knowing exactly where the Roman Catholic Church stands on any number of issues, we're not sure whom we can trust. But the bottom line for evangelicals is this, there is no excuse whatsoever for responding to any theological question with ambiguity or mere hints.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

For more information go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can find me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.

I'm speaking to you from Destin, Florida, and I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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