Based on the evidence currently available, we should view Pope Francis as an annihilationist, and attempts from within the Vatican to downplay this fact are unconvincing. The current Pope does not believe the doctrine of eternal torment, affirming instead the biblical doctrine of conditional immortality: That the saved will have eternal life, but the lost will not live forever – not in hell or anywhere else.
The Catholic Church has caught up with the Anglicans! The ninety-eighth Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr William Temple was also a proponent of this view – the view that nobody will be tormented forever in flames (or some other terrible eternal place or state), but rather only those who are saved through Christ will live forever, and the rest will not live forever at all – not in hell or anywhere else.
The Pope’s comments were summed up by the elderly journalist and longtime friend of the Pope Eugenio Scalfari as follows:
They are not punished. Those who repent obtain God’s forgiveness and take their place among the ranks of those who contemplate him, but those who do not repent and cannot be forgiven disappear. A hell doesn’t exist, the disappearance of sinning souls exists.
Eager to ward off concerns about the Pope’s theology, the Vatican issued a statement soon after the interview became public knowledge. The Vatican warns:
What is reported by the author in today’s article is the result of his reconstruction, in which the literal words pronounced by the Pope are not quoted. No quotation of the aforementioned article must therefore be considered as a faithful transcription of the words of the Holy Father.
Scalfari has since confirmed that this is strictly true. He does not transcribe his conversations, but he recalls them when they are finished. But notice how little the Vatican is prepared to explicitly deny. The most they will say, in effect, is that these are not exact quotes (i.e. a “faithful transcription”). But that is a very mild caution indeed. Why not simply come out and say “this is not the Pope’s view. He does not think the lost will cease to exist”? How difficult would this be to say, if it were true?
Some things are easy to misunderstand. But when it comes to fairly specific claims like the ones in question, it is hard to see how they could be completely off-track. Take the claim that those who reject God’s forgiveness will disappear forever rather than stick around to be punished forever. That is a specific claim that is difficult to hear on the basis of misinterpretation.
In fairness to Scalfari, many Christians make this same mistake! … they report (incorrectly) that I have said that hell doesn’t exist.
Take, however, the claim that Francis’s Catholic defenders are all pouncing on: “hell doesn’t exist.” Catholics are making the point that elsewhere Francis has affirmed that hell does exist, and that he has (for example) warned organised criminals that they risk hell if they do not repent. This claim can easily be heard on the basis of misunderstanding. Scalfari, himself not a Christian, doubtless has a notion of hell that is shared in popular culture – it is a place of eternal torment in flames. But Francis denies that this place exists, affirming that the lost will cease to exist. So in Scalfari’s ears, this amounts to saying that hell doesn’t exist – so that is what he wrote. In fairness to Scalfari, many Christians make this same mistake! They hear people (like me) explain that the biblical view of hell is not eternal torment but rather the final end of the lost, who will not live forever. They have their own doctrine of hell as a sort of eternal prison where the lost suffer forever, they see that I am not affirming this view, so they report (incorrectly) that I have said that hell doesn’t exist. They might be generally describing my view correctly, but they are mistaken to report that I am denying the existence of hell. Rather, I am correcting misperceptions about what the Bible really says about hell.
All things considered, this appears to be what is going on in the case of Mr Scalfari and Pope Francis. The view of Francis, as reported, is that the lost who reject God and who do not receive forgiveness will one day be no more. In Scalfari’s view, this amounts to saying that there is no hell – but this is not what Francis said, and this is where there is truth to the Vatican’s warning. This is Scalfari’s summary, not a direct quote from Pope Francis himself.
But unless there is some quite clear evidence to the contrary, we should view Pope Francis as sharing with many other Christians the doctrine of conditional immortality – that the saved will live forever, and the lost will come to an end and be no more.
One of us! One of us!