Recent comments made by Pope Francis on a Sunday Prime time interview have caused debate amongst Catholics. The Holy Father is quoted as saying: “What I am going to say is not a dogma of faith but my own personal view: I like to think of hell as empty; I hope it is.”
How can we understand his statement in light of the Church's teaching? What does the Church actually teach about hell? Paragraph 1033 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls hell the “state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed.”
There are vivid descriptions of hell found in private revelations the Church has deemed worthy of belief. I hope to revisit these in a future post. For now, I will focus on teachings found in the Catechism paragraphs 1034-1037 and how they are based on Christ’s words in the Gospels.
Paragraph 1034 of the CCC references Jesus’ own teachings on the fiery Gehenna “who to the end of their lives refuse to believe and be converted where both soul and body can be lost.” See the footnotes in the link below for an interpretation of Gehenna.
In his teaching on adultery, Jesus preaches about how we may have to give up the things we like to avoid sin, saying “it is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go to Gehenna” (Mt. 5: 27). He also presents this teaching after the Transfiguration, before entering Jerusalem in Mt. 18: 9.
In paragraph 1035, the Church confirms the existence of hell and the eternal punishment of those who are there. In Mt. 25: 31-46 in the parable of the judgment of the nations Jesus speaks of the eternal reward for those who did and did not care for those in need while on earth. “And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
In paragraphs 1036 and 1037, the bishops remind us that the Church does not condemn anyone to hell, but anyone who is in hell is there by their own choice. They urge man to “make use of his freedom in view of his eternal destiny.” We should always follow Christ and must be ready for death. Christ reminds us of this in the Parable of the 10 Virgins in Mt 25: 1-13. Jesus ends the parable by saying, “Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know the day nor the hour” (Mt. 25:13).
Following Christ requires effort on our part. As mentioned above, we must avoid sin at all costs, even to the point of cutting people and things out of our lives. Also, we must perform good works. Paragraph 1036 quotes Christ’s words saying we must enter through the narrow gate mentioned in Mt. 7: 13-14. We need to stay the course and not wander the way that leads us to heaven.
If that is the case, can we still hope that hell is empty? There’s only so much to include in a sound bite. In light of what the Church teaches it’s likely that the pope meant that he hopes hell is empty of human souls. The pope cannot change Church teaching. Who else is in hell? The Church teaches that there are angels in hell who fell. These angels “radically and irrevocably rejected God and his reign” (CCC 392).
How can we understand the pope’s words? Can a person hope hell is empty of any human beings because God’s love can melt the hardest of hearts even at the hour of their death? Possibly. We see this in Jesus’ parable of the workers of the vineyard in Mt. 20: 1-16 and later in the exchange He has with the good thief while on the cross in Lk. 23: 39-43. People who hold this view might have loved ones who have left the Church, either because of their hardened heart, or some wound caused by those in it. They might be praying for these people in hopes that they come back home before they die.
Does hoping hell is empty mean that we can believe with certainty that no one goes to hell when they die? The Catholic Church does not teach that, and Catholics should not hold that view. Otherwise, that would mean free choice to follow God does not matter. It can also tempt one into thinking that hell isn't permanent or that it doesn’t exist. It also ignores Christ's teachings in the Gospels.
Is hell completely empty? No. Are there any humans in hell? Only God knows. God reveals to us that Satan and the other angels who disobeyed God are in hell. If there are humans in hell, it’s their choice. I only hope I do not go there when I die. If you are not sure if you are in a state of mortal sin, please go to confession. You should receive the sacrament of reconciliation regardless. It is a wonderful gift that God has given us to be forgiven of our sins. Also, after confession and performing your penance, receive the Eucharist. Welcome Christ back into your heart and receive nourishment and strength from him. Pray, read Scripture, study the Church’s teachings and stick with those if you are not sure what to believe.
There is only so much that can be said in an interview. Also, not everything the pope says is infallible. He does clarify his statement at the beginning by saying it “is not a dogma but my own personal view.” You can agree or disagree with it. Honestly, I don’t pay too much attention when the pope is interviewed because of other statements he’s made in the past. If it takes your focus away from Christ, don’t follow it. We should pay attention to Christ’s words and what the Church teaches on hell or any other matter of faith.
Finally, I would say pray for Pope Francis and the rest of the clergy. They are charged with the task of handing on Divine Revelation and need to teach it with clarity.