Just as the term “White House” can no longer be taken as a metonym for the President, so too may it be that the term “Vatican” can longer be regarded as a metonym for the Pope. And that is because the Pope keeps saying things, or is reported to say things, that the Vatican denies were ever said, or were misunderstood, or were misreported by the media. First, the Pope seemed to want to go easy on homosexuals and the divorced, and then he was reported to have said that animals go to Heaven. These statements were later denied or qualified, by the Vatican, of course, not by the Pope. Now there is a report that the Pope said that Hell does not exist, that the souls that are not saved merely disappear, and this too has been denied by the Vatican.
In an article entitled, “Does the Pope Believe in Hell?” Pat Buchanan gives several reasons why denying the existence of Hell is unacceptable. First, it would be “rank heresy”:
Had the pope been speaking ex cathedra, as the vicar of Christ on earth, he would be contradicting 2,000 years of Catholic doctrine, rooted in the teachings of Christ himself. He would be calling into question papal infallibility, as defined in 1870 by the Vatican Council of Pius IX.
Questions would arise as to whether Francis is a true pope.
That is an argument primarily directed toward Catholics. However, even Protestants may be persuaded by the need to believe in Hell, inasmuch as its existence was affirmed by Jesus and others in the Bible.
Second, belief in Hell is needed to put a check on man’s wickedness:
Did the soul of Judas, and those of the monstrous evildoers of history, “just fade away,” as Gen. Douglas MacArthur said of old soldiers? If there is no hell, is not the greatest deterrent to the worst of sins removed?
And yet, Judas and all those other “monstrous evildoers of history” were not deterred by the concept of Hell, either because they did not believe in it themselves, or because people have no trouble adjusting their views on religion to suit their purposes. Presumably, Buchanan would argue that the world would have even more wickedness in it were it not for the threat of Hell, but that would be a counterfactual not easily justified.
Finally, Buchanan asks, “What did Christ die on the cross to save us from?” In general, it is claimed that the death and suffering of Jesus on the cross was necessary to atone for the sins of mankind. The doctrine of original sin has it that man inherited his sinfulness from Adam, and that he cannot be saved on his own, but only through the grace of God. Had Jesus not paid for our sins through his crucifixion, we would all be damned to an eternity in the fires of Hell. Take away the concept of Hell, Buchanan argues, and Jesus died for nothing. He does seem to have a point. Without Hell to save mankind from, it would seem that Jesus suffered and died because he was not a god, but just a man after all.
However, there is a way to square what the Pope is alleged to have said with Buchanan’s third argument. We could say that there is a Hell to which mankind would have been condemned, owing to man’s sinfulness, but when Jesus died for our sins, he did so universally and without qualification. As a result, Hell exists, but it is empty.
However, even the Pope supposedly made a distinction between the souls that repented and those that did not, the former going to Heaven, the latter merely ceasing to exist. I suppose even for the Pope, universal salvation would be a little too much, as it would be for most people. The idea that Heaven might be populated by the likes of Adolf Hitler and Charles Manson would be unacceptable. Needless to say, it is deeply hoped by the faithful that Hitler, Manson, and the like did not repent at the last minute, for that would spoil everything.
There is one function of the concept of Hell that Buchanan did not address. For many people, the idea that those who would otherwise be condemned to Hell would merely cease to exist is not enough. They need to believe that Hell is full of sinners and atheists. Otherwise, their salvation will not be as satisfying, for Heaven is thin gruel unless there is the accompanying thought that one has escaped the eternal fire. In the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, in Summa Theologica, III, Supplement, Question 94:
Now everything is known the more for being compared with its contrary, because when contraries are placed beside one another they become more conspicuous. Wherefore in order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned.
Of course, if there really were a God and an afterlife, the ones who would truly deserve a reward in Heaven would be those who had refused to worship a God that condemned people to Hell.