Today I'm in a state of theological confusion, and if I'm to speak candidly, the fault lies with the Pope - or, at any rate, with the way he's been reported and interpreted. Let's start here. Pope Benedict warned on Sunday...
Jesus came to tell us everyone is wanted in paradise, and that hell, about which little gets said today, exists and is eternal for those who shut their hearts to his love...One natural interpretation of this is alarming for all non-Christians. Or aren't we to be thought of as having shut our hearts to Jesus's love? Maybe if our hearts are open to love more generally - love of others etc - we're OK. But in that case I'd expect the Pope to speak with more precision. From the same report:
The Vatican [has] asked the UN this month to adjust the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights to give doctors and nurses the right to boycott abortions and the manipulation of human embryos.I'd say another, more far-reaching, adjustment is called for if some people are heading for a punishment that is nothing less than eternal. This surely can't be consistent with the UN declaration as it stands. Michael Paul Gallagher, dean of theology at the Gregorian University in Rome offers something in partial mitigation here, namely that...
Hell is better seen as a state of self-separation from God or self-exclusion from love, rather than as God's punishment. We can opt to live that way here on Earth and terrifyingly we can choose it for ever.I'll come back to the point in the light of other reports of the Pope's speech, but even with this softer version of what hell is, I have a protest to lodge. If there are indeed some people who have opted to exclude themselves from love here on Earth, how and by whom was it decided that they also chose that state of separation for ever? This is an arbitrary interpretation of the choice, at least as regards all those of us who don't think we're going to be around indefinitely.
Another report of the same speech only adds to my disquiet. It begins by telling us that
Hell is a place where sinners really do burn in an everlasting fire, and not just a religious symbol designed to galvanise the faithful...This seems clear enough. Benedict XVI is reported to have said that certain people risk 'eternal damnation - the Inferno'. I go back to my thought that an adjustment may be necessary to the UN declaration on human rights. It won't accommodate people being burned for eternity. But then Vatican officials have said 'that Hell is a "state of eternal separation from God", to be understood "symbolically rather than physically"'. So it's only a symbolic inferno, after all. Is it hot, though? Hard to discover. According to Agostino Paravicini Bagliani, a Church historian:
Hell indicates the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy.I've already said what I think about 'definitively' in this context. Who decided? How could they tell it wasn't just a temporary thing? In any event, I now have a different complaint. 'The source of all life and joy'... that is some claim. Does it mean that there is only one way - the point with which we began? It could look like it:
Using the Gospel reading of John where Jesus saves the adulterous woman from death by stoning by saying "let he who is without sin to cast the first stone", Pope Benedict said: "This reading shows us that Christ wants to save souls. He is saying that He wants us in Paradise with Him but He is saying that those who close their hearts to Him will be condemned to eternal damnation..."Hellish stuff, as one might say.