Pope John Paul II has just revealed what the tabloids are calling a "shocking truth" about heaven and hell, and his revelation is turning into a serious theological sore point between Roman Catholics and American Protestant evangelicals.
In several recent public appearances, the pope took a few minutes to muse on the nature of heaven, hell and purgatory for the audience of some 7,000 tourists who gather at the Vatican every Wednesday afternoon. Forget the popular notion of actual physical places--fluffy clouds above, an inky inferno below--he told the audience. Think of hell as a state of mind, a self-willed exile from God.
Heaven, he said in late July, "is neither an abstraction nor a physical place in the clouds but a living and personal relationship with the Holy Trinity." Better to think of hell, he explained the next week, as "more than a physical place," as "the state of those who freely and definitely separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy."
The pope's discourse reflected more his tendency toward philosophical abstraction than new Catholic "discovery." Catholic teaching does not deny that hell may be a geographical spot where God will banish sinners but considers that concept merely a visual aid based on scant biblical references.
The pope was describing instead what Catholics consider the core essence of hell: knowledge that you failed to choose salvation in God. But to Protestant fundamentalists in America, who prefer the physical burning pit described in the Bible, any suggestion that hell is simply an abstraction is a dangerous, even blasphemous notion.
Copies of the pope's speeches began circulating last week among evangelical leaders, who accused the pontiff of "soft selling hell," said R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptists Theological Seminary in Louisville.
"My concern here is the temptation to make hell a state of mind, to psychologize hell," said Mohler. "As attractive as that may be to the modern mind, that is not the hell of the Bible. Jesus himself spoke of hell as a lake of fire, where the worms would not die and the fire would not be quenched. It's all very graphic."
From Hieronymus Bosch to the creators of the animated TV series "South Park," artists, writers and theologians have tried to mentally transport Christians to a miserable place called hell as a sure deterrent to sin. Early Christians tried to locate hell as a spot on the sun or a comet, but most used their imagination to keep alive the image of a Gothic torture chamber.
Lately though, that image is fading, say evangelicals, as modern Americans focus less on the wages of sin and more on the uplifting message of self-help. While 70 percent of Americans say they believe in heaven, only 50 percent believe in hell, and very few think they might be headed there.