‘Hell doesn’t exist’ said Pope Francis – allegedly – and then hell broke loose. The words were cited by Eugenio Scalfari, an Italian journalist and self-declared atheist. The Pope had a private meeting with Scalfari just before Easter without, however, giving him a formal interview. The Vatican quickly responded that the article didn’t report the Pope’s words accurately as no notes were taken. Given Mr Scalfari’s previous misquotations of the Pope, and Pope Francis’ own track record on the matter, I personally don’t believe that the Pope denies the existence of hell. So, ‘what the hell!’ was going on here? I think that Mr Scalfari might well have misunderstood the Pope’s ponderings on the nature of hell, and subsequently reduced the whole discussion to the rather catchy phrase ‘The Pope doesn’t believe in Hell.’ After all, at the end of the day, Mr Scalfari is a journalist…
We might wonder whether the Pope should discuss such fundamental theological matters at all, particularly with atheistic journalists? Is it not his job to teach the faith in solid, unequivocal, unambiguous terms? Absolutely! In that case, is there any room for pondering on specific matters? Definitely! Such deliberations are part and parcel of handing on the faith and have made it relevant to various peoples and cultures for the last twenty centuries. How’s that possible? There are two intertwined factors at play; when we understand both, there’s no contradiction between ‘continuity’ and ‘modernity’.
The first of the intertwined factors is the Bible, or Holy Scripture. We call it ‘holy’ because we believe it’s the word of God. But here a very important distinction needs to be made. The word of God isn’t ‘imprisoned’ in the written words. As the Letter to the Hebrews states: ‘Indeed, the word of God is living and active’ (Hebrews 4:12). It means that while God speaks to us through the Bible, we ought to read it in the context of our time. Let me explain it a bit more extensively. The original part of the Bible which we know as the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, but in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC many Jews living outside Palestine didn’t speak the language. So the Bible was translated into Greek, the common language of the Mediterranean. It was called the Septuagint in honour of the 70 Jewish scholars who made the translation at the request of Ptolemy II – as the traditional story has it. That Greek version, not the Hebrew one, was the one used by the early Church. The New Testament was written in Greek, but a couple of centuries later that language was superseded by Latin, the language of the Roman Empire. The entire Bible, comprising the Old and the New Testaments, was translated into Latin by St Jerome in the 4th century. It was that Latin version called the Vulgate (meaning common) that became the Bible in the Catholic Church, adopted officially in the 16th century. By that time Latin was no longer the language of the people and incomprehensible to all but the educated. Subsequently the Bible was translated into modern languages, sometimes with the approval of the Church and sometimes without. The best-known English translation was the King James Version, produced in the early 17th century and widely used throughout the English-speaking world. But not any more. Its dated language doesn’t speak to modern people, and now more modern English translations are in use. So, we see that over the centuries the Holy Scriptures were translated many times. Those who speak more than one language know that translation rarely involves the simple replacement of words from one language to another; it’s a much more complicated and challenging process, encapsulated in the well-known phrase ‘lost in translation’.
The difficulty thrown up by literal translation is one factor. The second of the intertwined factors is how to retain the interpretation and understanding of the message as conveyed in the forms which were adequate and clear at the time of writing, but which is not necessarily the case after the passage of time and in a different cultural climate. Let’s look at the ‘traditional’ depiction of hell as a fiery pit, with boiling tar and other unpleasant tortuous qualities. Taken literally, it is unbelievable. Should we then reject its existence? No. The message conveyed by such depictions, the message relevant for all time, is that hell an environment of despair, hopelessness and so on. We can speculate what hell might be like, and the sum of all those efforts will remain only that: speculation. But we believe that hell – in whatever form – does indeed exist.
In today’s gospel Jesus effects this kind of re-interpretation of the long-established understanding of the Scriptures: ‘everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.’ The Apostles, brought up in the Jewish tradition and its interpretation of the Scriptures, struggled to reconcile all that with Jesus’ death and resurrection. Eventually they did and became eager proclaimers of their Master and His message. They, and their successors succeeded in their mission to be witnesses to Jesus. Why? Because they kept adapting their way of preaching to the circumstances and cultural environment they were in, while remaining faithful to the core message. Their mission hasn’t been accomplished yet. Still, there are people out there who don’t know Jesus as Saviour and Redeemer, and the need to proclaim Jesus remains the vital mission of the Church. It’s my mission – and it’s yours as well.