Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of August 30, 1999
Pope points to the afterlife
He's cautious about saying whether anyone's in the 'fiery furnace'
By JOHN THAVIS
Catholic News Service
For centuries, Christians have imagined heaven as a blissful site somewhere "up there," God presiding, and hell as an overheated nether world full of very nasty demons.
In a brief series of audience talks this summer, Pope John Paul has sketched out a different and unusually modern picture of life after death.
Heaven and hell exist, he said, but not as places of celestial merriment or eternal fire.
They are states of being as well as physical locations, said the pope, and the best way to imagine them is to reflect on significant spiritual moments in this life - the pain brought by sin and the happiness experienced when doing good.
The three talks on heaven, hell and purgatory in late July and early August set aside the traditional geography of the afterlife, which has been depicted in countless paintings and in such literary masterpieces as Dante's Divine Comedy.
The pope said physical descriptions of these ultimate realities always fall short; it's better, for example, to probe the nature of communion with God than conjecture a material scenario for paradise.
And it's not quite accurate to see heaven as the dwelling place of God - God simply cannot be confined by such a concept, he said.
Heaven "is neither an abstraction nor a place in the clouds, but a living, personal relationship with the Trinity," he said.
Hell, on the other hand, is the state of everlasting frustration experienced by people who have definitively cut themselves off from God, he said.
The concept of hellfire, the fiery furnace and the "unquenchable fire" of Gehenna are all from the New Testament, and need to be interpreted as symbolic language, the pope said.
Hell is not the punishment of an angry God, but a self-imposed exile by people who have used their freedom to say "no" to God.
Like the Renaissance painter Michelangelo, whose Last Judgment fresco adorns the Sistine Chapel, artists through the ages have populated heaven and hell with real people. But the pope was more cautious.
It could be that hell is empty of human souls. Or as the pope put it, we don't know for sure whether any person has been "involved" in eternal damnation.
Father Severino Dianich, a prominent Italian theologian, said the pope's remarks struck a balance between the "pedagogy of terror" used in the past and the modern tendency to pass over in silence any discussion of heaven and hell.
The key to the pope's description is that, ultimately, human choice is the root of eternal separation from God or eternal happiness with God. Such a choice occurs only in an individual conscience, Dianich noted.
"So no one can say what may have happened when Stalin, Hitler or Judas had their final meeting with God," the priest said.
The pope said the biblical images of hell should not be misused to create "anxiety or despair" among Christians. On the other hand, he wants people to prepare themselves for the final reckoning.
As a "healthy reminder" of the eternal consequences of human freedom, he advised that individuals pay more attention to their sense of happiness or distress in this life. They can be clues to the next, he said.
For example, he said, the suffering caused by sin is often said to "make life 'hell."' On the other hand, people living in grace can better enjoy "the good things that the Lord showers upon us every day," and thus get a taste of the joy and peace to come, he said.
Another Italian theologian, Msgr. Inos Biffi, said the pope was hinting that "the person who lives in grace already lives in paradise."
He said the pope's point was that for today's Christians, "trying to participate in these ultimate realities is more important than describing them."