The recent comments from Pope Francis regarding atheists and Hell evoked quite a stir in the believing, and not so believing, digital orbit. In the minds of most who tend to employ a common sense approach to understanding public speeches, the Pope seemed to say that moral atheists will make it into Heaven.
While some were quick to embrace the Pope’s statement, others have sought to reinterpret it and rein it back into a more orthodox framework of soteriology (the doctrine of salvation). Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor and staff writer for the New Yorker, has called foul on the whole ordeal. He aptly detects the tension between the authority of the Pope in contrast to those who desire to “walk back his public comments.”
In his post “Hellbound After All?” he challenges the nature of efforts to reinterpret the Pope’s statements with the question, “who the heck is infallible around here, Pope Francis—the Vicar of Christ, Bishop of Rome, and Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church—or ‘the Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesman’?” After taking jabs at his perception of the Catholic ecclesiastical hierarchy with its corresponding public relations personnel, Hertzberg moves to the deeper and much more sensitive issue at hand by asking, quite bluntly, “Am I going to hell or not?”
This exchange, of course, is not uniquely Catholic. In recent history Protestants were the focus of an equal, if not greater, amount of media attention with the publication of Rob Bell’s book Love Wins. I published a brief response to Bell’s book in an two-part essay “Why I Don’t Like Hell & Why It Doesn’t Matter.”
A key difference in the contrast of the Pope and Rob Bell is that Protestants do not officially look to Bell as an authoritative mouthpiece for the movement at large. This does serve as a great reminder for Evangelical Christians, however, that we are to speak the truth in love and that the message of eternal judgment is extremely important, though highly sensitive.
Hertzberg concludes his article on a positive note, “For the time being I’m inclined to give Pope Francis the benefit of the doubt. After all, that’s what he’s given me.” His response to both the Pope and the Vatican spokesperson illustrate an unavoidable challenge for those who believe the Bible. While it might be momentarily less socially awkward if we mitigate the doctrine of Hell in a particular public setting, eventually believers will have to clearly articulate the lucid teaching of Scripture for those outside of Christ.
Let us pray that we can do so in a way, Lord willing, that those who hear our message clothed in compassion and spoken in love, will feel as though, like Hertzberg, we have given them the benefit of the doubt. Not that we compromise God’s holiness, but that we believe in the power of His goodness revealed in the gospel to reach even the most doubtful of skeptics.