I was impressed by the volume of letters published last week in response to my article on conscience and choice, so perhaps this week’s will be somewhat less controversial. Or maybe not.

Against all the arrows, I am a staunch believer in the values of the Enlightenment, where the pursuit of truth, the reaching of conclusions through rational examination of evidence, a belief in reason and science as the key to human knowledge and progress, represent the highest ideals of mankind.

I remain firmly committed to Thomas Aquinas: “Omnis conscientia, sive recta, sive erronea, sive in indifferentibus, est obligatoria; ita quod qui contra conscientiam facit, peccat.” I’ll leave it to the Latinists among the clergy who wrote in last week to translate.

Prompted by a fascinating book, Heaven and Hell, by Bart D. Ehrman, an American theologian and religious scholar, and thoughts of the rising coronavirus death toll globally, has led me to speculate whether there is eternal life after death, and what that would be like. Ehrman’s book, covering early Greek, Jewish and Christian concepts of the afterlife, shows how doctrines within the Judeo-Christian tradition have changed over the centuries.

I am confident the majority of my readers will say that after you die, your soul escapes your body and ascends to heaven or descends to hell, depending on whether you lived a good life and held the appropriate beliefs.

From its inception, the Catholic church has sold itself to billions of people on the promise of an afterlife of bliss and the avoidance of an eternity of torment. We are offered a stark choice. Do you want to spend eternity in eternal conflagration? Or do you want to luxuriate in a lovely garden with the pleasant smells and cool breezes of eternal life wafting over you?

It’s a tough one. The choice is essentially a vision of life after death first articulated in a writing called The Apocalypse of Peter, which circulated in the second century. In it, the Apostle Peter recounts how Jesus is on the Mount of Olives and tells his disciples what will happen at the end of the world. There will be false Christs. The earth will burn. Stars will melt. And coronavirus will cover the seven continents. (Actually, I added that last bit).

Then Christ will return. The dead will be raised and everyone will face judgment. The separation of the good from the wicked occurs. In paintings so familiar to lovers of medieval and Renaissance art, the wicked are treated according to their crimes.

Blasphemers are hung over flames by their tongues. Women who make themselves sexually attractive are hung by their hair over similar fires. Lascivious men are hung by their genitals. It’s all graphically specific. Hell beckons.

But where did the idea come from? Ehrman concludes from the way the concept developed over the centuries, that this is a man-made construction. Not from the Greeks, although Plato was responsible for the idea that the soul leaves the body at death and journeys to some mysterious location of eternal bliss or torment. Not from the Jews. Nowhere in the Hebrew bible is there a hell and heaven. There is an ancient Hebrew theology called Sheol, abode of the dead. To the Jews, dead is dead. 

People believe in the afterlife for a host of reasons, including the natural desire to extend one’s life indefinitely- Martin Scicluna

By the time Christians came along, this is the intellectual and philosophical material they had to work with as they constructed their own complex theology. And to solve the singular problem of monotheism – there is only one good God who also allows horrors and pain – it became important to shift the cause of evil in the world elsewhere. To Satan, or the sinner, or both. And if it’s the sinner’s fault, punishment must follow.

As a Jew, Jesus – consistent with Jewish teachings – prophesied an imminent day of judgment where God would raise the dead, defeat evil forces in the world and create Utopia on earth to be enjoyed by the righteous, while the wicked would be annihilated forever. Jesus never speaks of any separate realm of heaven and hell, or of eternal punishment. Although he did speak of an eternal fire that the wicked would inhabit, he did not say they would burn forever.

People believe in the afterlife for a host of reasons, including the natural desire to extend one’s life indefinitely. But they do so for another reason too, namely the desire for justice. They noticed that it is invariably the case the wicked are rewarded for their sins and the good suffer for their piety. The only way for an infinitely just God to resolve this paradox was that their enemies’ souls would not simply be annihilated – as Jesus and the Jews taught – but rather would be tortured for eternity.

The Catholic Church’s teachings affirm the existence of hell and its eternity, saying: “The chief punishment of Hell is eternal separation of God”. In 1999, Pope John Paul II announced that hell was “the ultimate consequence of sin itself… rather than a place.” And Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said in 2007 that “Hell really exists and is eternal, even if nobody talks about it much anymore”.

My favourite pope put it more persuasively. When asked two years ago where “bad souls” go, Francis is reported saying: “They are not punished. Those who repent obtain God’s forgiveness and take their place among the ranks of those who contemplate Him. But those who do not repent, and cannot be forgiven, disappear. A Hell doesn’t exist.”

Perhaps, in all conscience, Hell and Heaven, like Limbo, are due for a major rethink.

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