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Hell makes a comeback


According to St Paul, it's not just gays getting a one-way ticket to Hell - better add the sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, thieves, drunkards, revilers, swindlers and the greedy. Photo / Getty Images

Thanks to Israel Folau and Pope Francis, fire and brimstone are trending.

Hell was once a staple of religious conversations, church services and street-corner preachers. Nobody much talks about it publicly these days — or the Devil for that matter — but it is having a mini-revival thanks to the Pope and a rugby player.

Pope Francis set tongues wagging around the world in late March when he was reported by a 93-year-old friend, journalist Eugenio Scalfari, as saying: Bad souls “are not punished,” and, “There is no hell, there is the disappearance of sinful souls.” 

Vatican Inc hurriedly corrected the record. After successfully scaring believers into submission for millennia by threatening them with endless fire and brimstone, it wasn’t going to let that vital part of their customer retention strategy be destroyed by a rogue article. The Pope, the Vatican quickly confirmed, does believe in Hell after all.

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Which, you’d think, he’s pretty much obliged to do, since the Catechism (#1035) states: “The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death, the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, ‘eternal fire’.”

Helpfully for the keepers of the faith in the Holy See, Scalfari is an impressionistic writer who prides himself on not taking notes or recording conversations and therefore whatever he writes is easily dismissed as the incoherent ramblings of an old man.

He’s done it before. In 2014, he wrote an article in which he said the Pope had estimated two per cent of the clergy — or 8000 members, possibly including bishops and cardinals — were pedophiles and hinted that perhaps priestly celibacy should be reconsidered. Once again, the Vatican had to quickly step in to put things straight. 

The fact that the Pope continues talking to this elderly, atheistic scallywag may be evidence of him wanting to fly a kite with heretical ideas to see how well they might be received in the wider world, or perhaps he merely wants to create mischief among the stuffed shirts of his papal court.

Israel Folau's religious beliefs have now been well aired - and he's not backing down. Photo / Getty Images

Australian rugby player Israel Folau, however, undoubtedly wasn’t being mischievous when he answered a query on Instagram in early April by stating that gays would go to hell if they didn’t repent and turn to God. He simply said what he believes to be true about this world and the afterlife, according to the tenets of his religion.

As he explained: “You see someone who is about to walk into a hole and have the chance to save him. He might be determined to maintain his course and doesn’t want to hear what you have to say. But if you don’t tell him the truth, as unpopular as it might be, he is going to fall into that hole. What do you do?”

For that reason, he believes, “It is a loving gesture to share passages from the Bible with others.”

All hell broke loose, of course, after his “loving gesture” to gays, but Folau was not for turning and said he would walk away from his lucrative rugby career rather than betray his faith.

It’s ironic that two prominent men of faith have set media alight for opposite positions on hell — one for allegedly denying its existence and the other for asserting it exists as a repository for the sinful, including unrepentant gays.

What is extraordinary is that anyone is surprised that Christians believe in hell and that most of us are going there unless we accept Jesus as our saviour and follow his extensive rule book. It’s been their policy for a while now (ie, 2000 years).

But what is mind-boggling is that anyone takes either the Pope or Folau seriously on a subject that most people regard as a fanciful delusion that would be evidence of a psychiatric illness if it were not covered by that catch-all category of “religion”. If Folau had said gays will be crushed under a giant turtle riding on the back of an elephant for eternity, we would have laughed ourselves silly or recommended he take medication rather than taking offence. The notion of hell as a realm of eternal fire isn't a lot more plausible or sane.

It’s true that some churches tell us that “eternal fire” should not be taken literally but there’s no escaping that it means unbearable, overwhelming suffering forever, which is pretty batty too.

And it’s obvious to anyone who understands even a little about Christian theology that although Folau singled out unrepentant gays as going straight to hell, it was only because he was asked directly about their prospects. He could have added any number of other unrepentant sinners who will, in his view, suffer the same fate.

And he did. As he later pointed out, St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians which directs unrepentant gays to hell also nominates the sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, thieves, drunkards, revilers, swindlers and the greedy. Many of us would fall easily into at least one of those categories, given the strict definitions applied by many Christians. Hell is a busy place.

St Paul was, of course, a notable killjoy but Jesus was fond of hellish warnings himself, including declaring, “If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life injured or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire”, where the “worm does not die and the fire is not quenched”.

While the road to perdition is wide, Jesus’s path to heaven is very narrow. Rich men, for instance, are out of luck, unless they know an easy way of squeezing a camel through the eye of a needle. That pretty much puts everyone on NBR’s Rich List out of the running, and it’s a fair bet that if Folau had reminded us of the plight of the rich, rather than commenting on gays, he would have boosted, not damaged, his popularity.

The Bible is littered with warnings about who will and won’t make the cut for entry to Heaven, and religions have refined and expanded the list. For some Catholic commentators, candidates may include anyone who uses contraception. Certainly, anyone who doesn’t accept that Jesus Christ is the one and only avenue of approaching God is heading for a fiery end.

On demographics alone, hell is going to be crowded. Our last census, in 2013, put the non-Christian segment of the population at 51 per cent, so most of us are going to be roasted forever, apparently. 

What Pope Francis and Israel Folau have unintentionally done is remind us that Hell never really disappeared from religion’s playbook, it has just been played down. The idea of a place where unbelievers are tortured for eternity — even if it is just by being cut off from God and suffering severe existential FOMO — is simply too silly and too cruel for most people’s sensibilities or credulity. Consequently, most religious people who believe in Hell as a torture chamber for the sinful want to keep it on the downlow.

The churches certainly don’t go out of their way to publicise some of the more graphic representations of it, as was their habit in earlier centuries.

Left To Right: Lucia De Jesus Dos Santos and her two cousins, Francisco and Jacinta Marto. They're the three Portuguese children said to have witnessed a vision of a Virgin Mary at Fatima. Photo / Getty Images

Take Lucia dos Santos’s horrifying vision of hell, for instance. She was one of three Portuguese children said to have seen a vision of the Virgin Mary at Fatima in 1917, who showed them a great sea of fire “where the souls of poor sinners go”.

“Plunged in this fire were demons and souls in human form, like transparent burning embers, all blackened or burnished bronze, floating about in the conflagration, now raised up in the air by the flames that issued from within themselves together with great clouds of smoke, now falling back on every side like sparks in a huge fire, without weight or equilibrium, and amid shrieks and groans of pain and despair, which horrified us and made us tremble with fear.

“The demons were distinguished [from the souls of the damned] by their terrifying and repellent likeness to frightful and unknown animals, black and transparent like burning coals.”

Far from repudiating her ghastly imaginings as unnecessarily cruel and completely deranged, the Catholic Church placed Lucia on the fast-track for canonisation after her death in 2005. (The speeded-up version has so far been available only to Church luminaries such as Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II.)

Last year, Lucia was named Servant of God as the first major step in that process. Her views, and imagery, of hell are clearly not considered to be heretical or even marginal.

Folau’s beliefs about gays are also not unusual among fundamentalist Christians (including Bishop Brian Tamaki, who tweeted his support). Most, however, would simply prefer not to talk publicly about the multitudes of sinners heading to hell.

As Izzy Folau and the Australian rugby union have discovered, what was once religion’s premier tool for recruitment has turned into really, really bad PR.