The latest brouhaha in modern society’s never-ending quest to feel outraged is over Pope Francis’s supposedly claiming there is no Hell. In a private conversation with a friend, the pope reportedly conveyed the idea that bad souls just disappear into the ether. The Vatican had to work overtime to reassure us all that Il Papa was not quoted verbatim and thus the sentiments purported to have come from him cannot be taken at face value.
Now I don’t believe for a second that Pope Francis is truly dismissing centuries of Catholic doctrine about Heaven and Hell. Despite his humane and conciliatory approach toward such issues as homosexuality and divorced Catholics, the pope has not asserted any challenges to existing Catholic beliefs.
But the issue got me to thinking about why many Christians need to hold up the prospect of an eternity in Hell in order to be faithful to God’s mandate that we love Him and our fellow human beings.
It’s true that it is very hard to be good. Our self-interest leads us to be greedy and competitive, and when others conflict with our needs or desires, we can be mean-spirited and cruel. Our pride causes us to build ourselves up while putting others down. Our anger often erupts in hurtful words or violence to others. In short, whether or not we believe in Hell, many of us deserve to spend eternity there.
But the overarching mission for which Christ came to Earth was love. Not some hippy-dippy-wear-beads-and sing-Kumbaya type of love, but an all-encompassing, self-abnegating, self-sacrificing love; a love that knows no boundaries of country, race, religion, gender, or ability.
And Jesus Christ made it clear: Our mission is to practice that same humble and self-sacrificing love with everyone we meet. We were made not just to aspire to communion with God in the next life, but to bring about the kingdom of God in this life.
It’s a paradox that the more we realize earthly life is hard, fleeting, and involves suffering, the more we are called to reach out in love to others: to alleviate suffering, to quench others’ loneliness, to swallow our pride so that our fellow human beings come first. In doing so, we can create a sort of Heaven on Earth. There can be as much joy in holding the hand of a dying friend as there is in holding a newborn baby – if we look through the lens of love.
I don’t need the fear of Hell to do what is right. I just need to look at what Christ did on the cross for me and for the world to know what my vocation is: to die to self and pour myself out for others in love.