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I don’t remember the last time I heard a sermon on the eternal pains of hell. My parents and their contemporaries tell me fire and brimstone from the pulpit used to be commonplace in both Protestant and Catholic churches.

What has happened? Has there been development in theological assumptions about the afterlife? According to Pope Benedict, the answer is both “no” and “yes.” His remarks this week in a small immigrant church in the outskirts of Rome reaffirmed the Biblical teaching that hell is real, tragic, and eternal. In that sense, according to Benedict, Church teaching about hell remains unchanged.

But if we look beyond the sensationalistic headlines (“Pope Says Sinners Burn Forever in Hell,” etc.) and examine what he actually said, we can discover something very new in Pope Benedict’s teaching approach. Instead of invoking Middle Age images of Dante’s Inferno to catechize the faithful about what eternal life may be like for the unscrupulous, Pope Benedict suggests a new and, yes, refreshing way for each of us to penetrate the mystery of hell. He dismisses fear of damnation as the principle motivation for conversion. Instead, he underscores the power of love to engender positive change.

"Only God's love can change a person’s existence from within, and, consequently, the existence of every society, because only his infinite love liberates from sin, the root of every evil.”

In Benedict’s world, the man or woman who has experienced God’s love in a personal and profound way will want to be in heaven forever with God and will, therefore, reject sin because it closes him or her off from God’s presence. Love, for Benedict, is a more powerful motivation than fear of punishment.

"Christ came to tell us that he desires all of us in heaven and that hell, which isn't spoken about much in our time, exists and is eternal for those who close their hearts to his love."

While the media got hung-up on what they considered a retro idea — “hell exists and is eternal” — Pope Benedict is actually making a much broader point, a progressive one! Benedict teaches hell is not God’s choice for us. It is, rather, a logical consequence of a person’s free-choice to close his heart to God’s love. In other words, Pope Benedict says hell is always a free and conscious act of self-exclusion from heaven on account of disordered love or attachment to sin.

“Our real enemy is the attachment to sin, which can bring about the failure of our existence."

A related question we can’t avoid is how many people, then, actually end up in hell. There has long been debate among Christian theologians about this point. Some Bible passages suggest the final tally isn’t going to look good. “Enter by the narrow gate, for the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13-14). In another passage about admittance to the wedding banquet (an allegory of heaven) Jesus declares, “Many are called, but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:14).

Pope Benedict on this occasion made no numerical predictions about the population of hell. Nor would he ever. Catholic and many mainline Protestant theological traditions hold we can never know with certainty if anyone in particular is in hell. But Pope Benedict does give us reason to hope.

“While it's true that God represents justice, he is first of all love.”

Despite what headlines may insinuate, teaching complicated theology in an accessible and loving manner is classic Pope Benedict XVI. While the world knew Pope John Paul II for warming the world with smiles, Pope Benedict XVI is warming the world with down-to-earth explanations about the greatest mysteries of our time. He did so in Regensburg when he challenged all religions, especially Islam, to reject violence in God’s name as contrary to the dictates of sound reason. Now he does it in a little parish in Rome about a topic of eternal consequence. Don’t expect Joseph Ratzinger to be another John Paul II; but you can expect him to be Benedict XVI, and it seems that may be exactly what we need in these challenging times.

God bless, Father Jonathan

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