Skip to comments.No Physical Heaven/Hell ... says the Pope?
Posted on 09/23/2002 12:04:16 PM PDT by Quester
Saturday, August 14, 1999
New ideas about heaven and hell are being suggested
By JUDY TARJANYI
A multitude of words about heaven and hell lies within the pages of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the writings of Christianity's church fathers. But when Pope John Paul II chose a few to elaborate on in two recent addresses, he made headlines, even though he was merely drawing on current church teaching in his descriptions of the afterlife.
"The Pope drastically lowered the temperature of hell," crowed a report from the British newspaper, The Guardian. An July 29 article from Reuters News Service said: "Forget the flames and the devils with pitchforks. A week after telling the Roman Catholic faithful that heaven was not up in the clouds, Pope John Paul II said yesterday that hell was not a physical place either."
Even in Italy, home of the Catholic Church's Vatican, the Pope's thoughts on eternity unleashed a discussion in the Italian press in which Catholic theologians weighed in on the subject, according to the National Catholic Register.
In this premillennial time, when mediums who claim to have received reports of the hereafter are frequent guests on TV talk shows and their books are big sellers, no one should be surprised that talk of the afterlife from one of the world's best-known religious leaders would spark the kind of interest it did. The popularity of books by and about such mediums as George Anderson, James Van Praagh, and John Edward in which they share messages from the "other side" that describe what it's like over there indicates people want their curiosity about what comes after death satisfied by more than blind faith.
Such curiosity often stems from the desire to know the state of loved ones who have died. Indeed, much of Anderson's work has been in giving readings, or as he calls them, discernments, to bereaved survivors about their deceased family members. What they have to say is far more detailed than anything the Pope has said in describing heaven and hell, but in some ways it is similar to his characterizations of heaven and hell as closer to a state of being than a place.
The Pope's comments stand in sharp contrast to popular images of heaven as a mass of fluffy clouds and hell as a pit of fire. Heaven, the Pope said, is neither abstraction nor a physical place, but a "living and personal relationship with the Holy Trinity," the Christian understanding of God as one being in three persons of Father,Son, and Holy Spirit. Hell, he said, is "the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy."
However, none of this is new as far as the Catholic Church is concerned, said the Rev. Brian Daley, a Jesuit and professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., who said he found reports of the Pope's talks "completely unremarkable."
"It was kind of a standard Catholic presentation of heaven and hell." The church's view, he said, is based on the Christian hope that the relationship with God begun in this life continues in the next and that humans have the freedom to turn away from that relationship if they choose, knowing that it will lead to destruction. "The rest is imagery about what we can't describe."
Much as the Pope did, the Catholic Catechism describes heaven as a communion of life and love with the Trinity, with Mary the mother of Christ, the angels and "all the blessed." Hell is defined in the text as a state in which the chief punishment is "eternal separation from God."
Father Daley, whose background is in patristics, or the writings of the church fathers, said that the authors of the early church do some of their own imagining about the hereafter. St. Gregory of Nyssa , an early church father, for example, spoke of a spiritual fire, the anguish of knowing one is separated from God and consumed with longing, sadness, and frustration, Father Daley said.
Although St. Gregory offered a spiritual notion of what heaven and hell might be like, he said that humans can only form metaphors or images of it for themselves. "He imagines heaven as a kind of perpetual growth, becoming more and more united with God, more and more satisfied in a sense."
St. Thomas Aquinas, who was called the "Great Synthesizer" because of his ability to relate faith to reason and theology to philosophy, has a lot to say about what heaven and hell might be like, Father Daley said. "He emphasizes that the center of happiness and fulfillment for a person will be the beatific vision, a sort of direct understanding of God which makes us fully happy. He kind of put it in terms of a vision, not just with physical eyes, but with our minds."
Much imagery about the afterlife, however, comes straight from the Bible. In the Christian gospels, Jesus Christ speaks about hell as a fiery place where unrepentant sinners will be cast. Hell as a place of eternal fire where sinners will be thrown forever also is found in some late Jewish writings that would have been written about the time of the Christian scriptures or later, Father Daley said.
The hell of eternal damnation sometimes is confused with the hell to which Jesus is said to have descended after His resurrection from the dead. That hell, however, is seen as a subterranean place, like the Jewish idea of Hades or Sheol, where those who had died were in a kind of waiting room until Christ's resurrection from the dead, when Christians believe He went there to proclaim their redemption.
Images of hell as a fiery place, Father Daley said, are not generally interpreted literally by theologians. "More and more the church has taken these things as being metaphors, a way of imagining what we can know from our present faith: which is to choose not to accept God's love is to choose a situation and image of ourselves that is self-destructive."
Father Daley said one of his favorite presentations on heaven and hell was given as a sermon by John Henry Newman before he converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism in 1845. "He has this idea, which is very fascinating, that heaven and hell are in the same place, that we all come to be in the presence of God, but for the person who has lived in faith, coming into the presence of God is tremendously fulfilling and happy. And for the one who lived for self, power, and material things, it's hell."
People are likely interested in the hereafter, Father Daley said, because of their inherent awareness of the fragility of life. "There is something in us instinctively that doesn't want to see death simply as annihilation of any of us, because our experiences seem to be more long-lasting and valuable than that. We want to believe and have some sort of intuition that there is something permanent in the human person."
Most religious faiths, he said, claim there is some lasting value and existence to individual people, even if they speak of it in poetic ways. When people think about the hereafter, Father Daley said, they draw on their present experience of faith and sense of God and the invisible realm and then imagine what it would be like to share in that in some lasting way.
In art, more of those imaginings seem to deal with hell than with heaven. Hell in art often is depicted with monster images, said Iva Lisikewycz, associate curator of European paintings at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The first devils in art were merely dark figures, meaning that they didn't possess the light, she said. "Early images of devils were fallen angels, and that then was united with the idea of the grotesque, so that devils look like monsters with big teeth, pointy ears, and bat's wings --because they were night creatures."
In one painting of Christ pulling Adam and Eve from hell, hell is seen as a great mouth with flames and tormented creatures within, Lisikewycz said. Heaven is more difficult to depict, she went on. "Very often, it's related to gardens, paradise, the enclosed garden, the idea of water and plant life. "Heaven is where God is and hell is where God isn't. I think that's what his holiness the Pope is talking about now. Just the fact that you should be unhappy you're not there, because those who are are happy."
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.
We won't get our glorified bodies until the general judgement. It think the pope is talking about where we go after the individual judgement.
It took you three years to post this story?Just ran across it in my searchings for theories on the Heaven/Hell question.
Do glorified bodies need physical space, or do they exist metaphysically?
God is pure love, and it takes a lifelong series of conscious decisions against God to consign one to an eternity without Him.
More men will spend intensive periods in purgatory than will go to hell.
If there are people in hell, they will have made a firm decision to go there.
I suspect that the pope is in for a surprise.
But then, as a song by a local L.A. group called Snooky Tate said, lo, these many years ago...
"He the groove
He the man
He the Pope in the Vatican
He the groove
He the man
He the Pope in the Vatican
He ain't no dope
'Cause he the Pope
He the groove
He the man
He the Pope in the Vatican..."
Sorry folks, all those hundreds of years we've been telling you that you need to remain afraid of eternal damnation; that was all a joke. And all that effort you put into the Church to go to Heaven; that was in vain.
Could we be any denser?
The pope is just a man, thus, makes mistakes, like all of us do.
But he is also venerated as the "Vicar of Christ", something no ordinary man can claim with authority on this earth.