Does the Pope Believe in Hell?

Does Pope Francis believe in hell? Eugenio Scalfari thinks not.

Should we trust this 93-year-old atheist, founder of Italy’s center-left daily La Repubblica? The Vatican tells us that his quotations of the pope are based on memory and not necessarily what the pope actually said. But the Vatican does not state clearly that “Pope Francis affirms the teaching in the Catechism that…” We are left guessing.

Some say if there’s no hell, what’s the point? Who needs Jesus and the Church if there’s no hell to be saved from?

I’ve heard people in 12-Step recovery programs say that religion is for people who fear hell, but spirituality is for people who have already been there and have no more fear. The saying doesn’t exactly put organized religion in a good light. The inference is that organized religion promotes a lower, less mature stage in human development. We religious people (including those of us who believe in the reality of hell) should think long and hard about this.

I suppose fear as a motivator has its place. Jesus seems to have used it – to the extent that we can discern what his words really mean. But Jesus certainly talked a lot more about how ridiculously merciful his father is.

It’s possible that Pope Francis doesn’t believe in hell, but I suspect he does. He certainly believes in the Devil and talks about him a good deal.

Maybe Francis thinks a bit of doubt and confusion is a good thing. He seems to think that traditional Catholics overly certain of church teachings are too rigid and even idolatrous in their attachment to abstract truths.

Maybe Francis’s intuitions gravitate so much toward divine mercy and forgiveness that he’s simply turned off by talk of fire and brimstone. It’s hard to know what a Jesuit is thinking.

There is a long spiritual tradition in the church that is so taken by the love of God that the reality of hell fades into unimportance.

The sixteenth-century Carmelite mystic John of the Cross, for example, wrote the text below, as conveyed to us in English verse by Thomas Walsh. St. John doesn’t so much say there is no hell as that he has no interest in it. The text has made a deep impression on me. I wonder if Pope Francis would like it. I suspect he would.



No me mueve
attr. St. John of Ávila or St. John of the Cross

I am not moved to love you, O my Lord,
by any longing for your promised land;
nor is the fear of hell my sure command
to cease from my transgressing deed or word.

’Tis you yourself who move me— your blood poured
upon the cross from nailed foot and hand,
and all the wounds that did your body brand,
and all your shame and bitter death’s award.

Yea, to my heart am I so deeply stirred
that I would love you, were no heaven on high
that I would fear, were hell a tale absurd.
Such my desire, all questioning grows vain;
though hope deny me hope, I still should sigh,
and as my love is now, it should remain.

   – English versification by Thomas Walsh (1875-1928)


  1. “Should we trust this 93-year-old atheist …?”

    As much as we trust any chatterbox on our faith community who claims inside info on half the population. What is most illustrative in this episode are the people who have latched onto gossip as some sort of truth. We know who these people are in our parishes.

    I think some Catholics want this to be true to reinforce their more-Catholic-than vibe. It’s only a matter of time before they start turning on one another. It’s a Galatians moment for the Catholic Right. I actually feel sorry for them.

  2. If the definition of hell is “existing without God” then I would say that there is no doubt that hell exists…I see it all around me in the world we live in. At the same time i can see heaven very clearly when godly people serve the needy, poor, etc following the Gospel with courage and conviction. As for me, i do my best to be a light in the darkness and hopefully be Christ’s servant while I am on this earth. Upon my death, as in life, I place myself in “…the hands of God where no torment shall touch them.”(Wisdom)

  3. Speaking of Divine Mercy, my understanding of Augustine’s view is that hell itself, the continued existence of the damned, albeit in torments, is a mercy of God when taken against the possibility of annihilation. God loves the damned too much, the argument would go, to annihilate them, so he gives them the best that they are able to receive… the ultimate instance, I guess, of quidquid recipitur modo recipientis recipitur, but God never stops giving mercy and love.

  4. I think you are perhaps trying too hard here. According to the interview, Pope Francis thinks the damned simply cease to exist – a belief that many atheists I know would prefer Christians to have. If Pope Francis “is so taken by the love of God that the reality of hell fades into unimportance,” then he should say so and correct Scalfari. That’s still a hopeful and challenging message. I think it can be good to challenge people’s beliefs and make them look at things differently, but I don’t think it is good to be disingenuous or sow confusion by purposely saying contradictory things. I think the Pope believes in Hell too, but I think it is wrong that we are to a point where we have to seriously wonder such a thing about the leader of the Catholic Church.

    I have mixed feelings about Pope Francis’ approach. I’ve found that virtually all the non-Catholics and lapsed Catholics I know love him – which is kind of refreshing – but they don’t love him in a way that makes them genuinely curious about Catholicism or Christianity in general. They seemingly like Francis because they (rightly or wrongly) see him as affirming their beliefs.

    1. Is the Holy Father really all that confusing on this matter? As Devin rightly points out, Pope Francis has publicly affirmed the existence of a Hell (and other traditional Catholic teachings) on multiple occasions. Mr. Scalfari may not have ulterior motives, but his methods lend him little credibility here. And if Mr. Scalfari actually got it right, then the Pope certainly would’ve corrected Greg Burke, who so quickly and publicly tried to set the record straight. HH doesn’t need to fight battles his aides have already fought for him.

      I think all of this is a lesson that we need to be much more critical in how we consume religious media, which is sadly not immune to the current credibility problems facing its secular brethren. If we read the entirety of what Pope Francis has actually written and spoken (like on, we can see that he is just as orthodox as his predecessors. People forget but JP and Benedict were misquoted by the secular press too, and I don’t remember them having to endure the accusations some are now making against Francis. I honestly don’t understand how he’s been made out to be a “liberal stooge,” and how many otherwise faithful Catholics have bought into this narrative. His words just don’t back it up.

      1. So far as I can tell over the past five years, Pope Francis’ purpose and method, such as it is, seems (and I very well could be wrong) to wean the faithful off the idea of papal statements as lapidary oracles.

      2. I think a lot of it has to do with how Francis is regarded by popular media. He’s usually thought of as a progressive or liberal, so when he says something vaguely liberal people latch onto it and read more into it than what is really there. As a result, he can’t really let his aids do the correcting for him without it coming off as “damage control” or a cover up of what he really thinks. I think that’s where the “liberal stooge” stuff comes from.

        Benedict, in contrast, was thought of as conservative and people read his comments in that light. It reminds me of his infamous “smaller purer Church” comment, which seemed more like a lament about an inevitable future reality in the western world, but which his detractors latched onto as if it was his goal for the Church’s future.

  5. 1: The title of this sonnet is: “NO me mueve”. In spanish language, “non” does not exist.

    2. I. have never heard that the author is St. John of the Cross. This sonnet is anonimous, and its first appearance was the “Vida del espíritu” of by Antonio de Rojas (1628), though it was not presumably its author (there are earlier handwritten copies). There are several scholar hypothesis: the most probable author is St. John of Ávila (not John of the Cross!); other candidates are Miguel de Gevara, Lope de Vega, Francisco de Quevedo… Other hypothesis are very improbable (santa Teresa de Jesús, san Francisco Javier, san Ignacio de Loyola, etc.). The older copies are found in jesuit circles, so the hypothesis of John of Ávila, who was not jesuit -actually he was a secular priest-, but a closer friend of St. Ignatius, is probable. I have not found scholarship who attributes this poem to St. John of the Cross.

    1. Thank you for this information! The John of the Cross reference is from the Summit Choirbook. This hymn is going into our forthcoming abbey hymnal – I will change the citation in it.

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