How We Think About Hell

Published March 7, 2024

Wall Street Journal

Pope Francis was asked earlier this year what he thinks about hell. “It’s difficult to imagine it,” he replied. “What I would say is not a dogma of faith, but my personal thought: I like to think hell is empty. I hope it is.”

It was a pastoral pleasantry, kindly meant but theologically sloppy. It raised interesting questions: Has the traditional hell—fire and brimstone through all eternity—gone out of business, either because, as the pope hopes, there are no longer enough customers, or because hell has become an atavism: medieval, lurid, and not credible to the 21st-century mind? Is the eternal fire a metaphor? If so, what does it mean? Is hell a physical place or a state of mind? Is there such a thing as eternal life—and if God’s verdict goes against you, does that mean a life of everlasting torment? Is it possible to believe in hell if you don’t believe in God, or is hell the terrible solitude of living without God?

Pope Francis himself has defined hell as “eternal solitude.” By contrast, Jean-Paul Sartre, the pontiff of existentialism, wrote that “hell is other people.” Which is it?

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Lance Morrow is the Henry Grunwald Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His work focuses on the moral and ethical dimensions of public events, including developments in regard to freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and political correctness on American campuses, with a view to the future consequences of such suppressions.

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