Last week, the Drudge Report cited an interview with Pope Francis in tabloid all-caps: POPE DECLARES NO HELL. The pope had allegedly told Eugenio Scalfari that “those who do not repent and cannot therefore be forgiven disappear. There is no hell, there is the disappearance of sinful souls.”
The Vatican quickly walked back the story. It wasn’t an interview. The quotation wasn’t a quotation. Readers shouldn’t assume that the non-interview contained the actual words of the pope. Pay no attention; nothing newsworthy here.
I can draw no conclusions about the pope’s views, but it wouldn’t be surprising if he believed in a form of what theologians call “annihilationism,” the view that those who refuse to repent and believe are snuffed out of existence.
Other Catholics are sympathetic to forms of annihilationism. In his 2014 Decreation, Paul Griffiths cautiously argues that annihilation is a possible end for human beings. The damned suffer during the intermediate state, between death and the final judgment. But, Griffiths says, they aren’t re-enfleshed at the end. Instead, their penalty having been exacted, they simply cease to be.
Revelation 20–21 tells a different story. Whatever the millennium is, it ends with Satan’s final, abortive rebellion, which leads to a final judgment. The dead—all of them, apparently—are judged according to their works. Those whose names aren’t found in the book of life are thrown into the lake of fire.
Immediately afterward, John sees a vision of “a new heaven and a new earth,” a new Jerusalem that appears as a bride in procession from heaven to earth. This is a vision of the final, consummate order of creation, the “civic” order of saints after the final judgment.
New Jerusalem is full of delights: God dwells with his people and wipes away tears; he destroys death, mourning, crying, and pain. But the lake of fire is still there, burning with “fire and brimstone.” It’s the “second death,” the eternal place for the cowardly, the unbelieving, the abominable, the sexually immoral, murderers, sorcerers, idolaters, and liars.
Make allowance for the visionary, symbolic, allegorical character of the Apocalypse. Acknowledge that the lake of fire is neither a literal lake nor a literal fire. After all, men and women aren’t the only ones in the lake of fire. Death and Hades are also thrown in.
Make all those allowances, and still: The lake of fire is one of the features of the final state of creation, and it stands for something. Why is it there at all if no one is in it? Why would God keep a fire burning if those who were put there simply ceased to be?
Revelation 21 doesn’t mention torment, but Revelation 14 does. An angel flies through heaven warning that those who worship the beast and receive his mark will be “tormented with fire and brimstone.” The punishment of beast-worshipers foreshadows the fate of all the unrepentant, who will also be tormented with fire and brimstone. Like Jesus, John warns of a fiery place of eternal suffering (Matt. 18:9; Mark 9:43–48).
Revelation 14 adds another important dimension to the picture. The fire and brimstone are “in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.” The lake of fire is, in one sense, an expulsion from God’s presence. At the same time, the lake of fire is in the presence of God.
Everyone, not merely the penitent who are saved, will spend eternity in the presence of God. Some will find his presence a delight. Some will find it a torment.
We may take a further, more speculative step. God himself is a “consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29), especially when he burns with jealousy (Deut. 4:24). God’s jealousy is expressed as punitive wrath, but it’s fundamentally an expression of divine love. Any good lover defends what he loves. Since God is Love, he is jealous when his bride flirts with strange gods.
If we follow this line of biblical imagery, we conclude that the fire of the lake symbolizes the burning love of the God whose Name is Jealous. An innumerable multitude (Rev. 7:9) will eternally warm themselves in the fiery love of the Triune God. Thrown into the same fiery love, the unbelieving and others will find it an eternal torture.
This is compatible with the vision of hell in Eastern Orthodoxy. According to an Orthodox theologian, Orthodoxy “makes no distinction, essentially, between the fire of hell and the light of God's glory.” Damnation is “the soul’s resistance to the beauty of God’s glory, its refusal to open itself before the divine love, which causes divine love to seem an exterior chastisement.”
Revelation goes a step beyond Dante. Dante recognized that hell is a “creation of primal love.” Revelation hints that hell is identical to primal love, as experienced by sinners who, in C. S. Lewis’s words, prefer self-righteousness to the righteousness of God and “the deformed sense of satisfaction from holding on to bitterness, resentment, and hurt” to the joys at God’s right hand.
It’s a line of meditation that Pope Francis might wish to revisit before his next interview.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.