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Divine justice and compassion

“I like to think that hell is empty. I hope it is.” – Pope Francis

I am not sure how I can describe my feelings upon reading this statement of Pope Francis. Happy? Yes, because the issue is brought into the open by no less than the Pope himself.

Vindicated? Yes, because I have expressed the same sentiments in my class in Creation-Eschatology. (Oftentimes though, there are so many things to discuss in the theme of creation that I tend to rush when I reach eschatology.)

If one examines the statement of Pope Francis closely, there should not be any burning controversy about it. One should be able to differentiate between the denial of the existence of hell and the hope that it is empty. Between the denial of its existence and the confident hope that it is unoccupied is a hell of a difference (corny pun intended).

Let me quote Karl Rahner, whose orthodoxy is not in doubt. “… true eschatological discourse must exclude certain knowledge of damnation which has actually ensued.”

In a footnote to this sentence, the German Jesuit further explains, “Neither the doctrine of the Church in tradition, and the extraordinary magisterium nor the teaching of Scripture compel us certainly to affirm definitely that at least some persons are certainly damned, whether they can be named or must remain anonymous.” Rahner affirms the possibility of damnation but adds, (quoting J. Loosen) “…revelation leaves us ignorant whether some are in fact lost…”

At this point, I am done explaining the hope that hell is empty. But let me address a possible objection. This hope does not mean that our actions here on earth will not have consequences in the next life.

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But if our behavior here on earth means that we have rejected God, or at least have not given our firm yes at the moment of our deaths, then we are still given the chance to review our life, repent, and give our undivided love to God in the next life.

This is where the Catholic concept of purgatory comes in. This concept can be taken to mean that God is a patient lover who cannot take no for an answer.

Rather, no matter how long it takes, God waits for us to answer strongly in the affirmative. Purgatory is a dynamic interplay between divine justice and compassion.

It is also important to differentiate concepts from imagination. Divine justice is a concept. To be eternally fried by unquenchable fires is an imagination.

Reward is a concept. That a disembodied soul can listen to heavenly choirs is an imagination.

In our present lives, we can only imagine how the concepts of divine justice and compassion can be concretized in the afterlife. Yet, we hope…

Fr. Ramon D. Echica is the Dean of Studies of the San Carlos Major Seminary. He obtained his doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Catholic University of Leuven (Katholieke Universiteit Leuven) in 1998.

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