So I recently came across a headline somewhere outlining that Pope Francis said that hell did not exist. Given a recent uptick in my interest in philosophy, it struck me as an interesting article to dive into. Of course, anytime you really want to find an article you recently swiped past, the forces of the universe will conspire against you to make sure that you never succeed in finding it. So I resorted to the only thing that can consistently mitigate the forces of the universe - Google. A quick Internet search later and we were back in business. And I had got something altogether different.

Hell Picture
Photo by Luc Viatour under the CC Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 Generic licence.

Apparently the Pope did not say that hell did not exist but instead was misquoted. Rather the doctrine states that “the chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God”. Well, let’s go Aristotle on this and see if this latter interpretation is logically possible…

  • God is omnipresent
  • Sidenote (and axiom) - God created hell
  • Hell is defined primarily as a separation from God (as noted in the linked article above)
  • But God must be present in hell otherwise he is not omnipresent (ie. there would be places he cannot be - a contradiction)
  • Therefore it is not possible for one to be separated from God - as God is omnipresent
  • Conclusion - hell cannot exist as per that definition

So we may not quite have put the fallible in papal infallibility yet but we have arrived at an interesting place. Now there are some lines of attack on the above conclusion.

Omnipresent Slipperiness

The first place to cast doubt on the above logic is to bend the meaning of omnipresent. As we humans are well versed in experiencing and thinking about “being present” as a occupying a place in space and time, this can lead to defining presence as a physical location. And one could argue that hell could exist beyond what we know as space and time. To satisfy the separation from God claim, however, God still cannot exist in this hell. That would imply that there is an area beyond space and time that God does not exist in - and it would seem unlikely that this is a satisfactory conclusion for any interlocutor. So omnipresent means omnipresent in space and time as well as beyond space and time - no exceptions.

Separation Slipperiness

If omnipresent is taken to mean omnipresent in the broadest sense of the word, as noted in the previous point, then a next reasonable line of attack is to pressure the definition of separation. This, it could be argued, means a feeling of isolation from God rather than the (meta)physical separation from God that would immediately spring to mind. This would require God to somehow impart thoughts of isolation in the mind of the condemned. For the purposes of this argument we need to grant that something akin to feeling, thoughts and mind are possible in the metaphysical world. Once granted, we would also accept that God has omnipotence as per the doctrine and is all powerful. Indeed, this omnipotence could then be used to impart the thought of isolation. However, this would appear to be a rather bizarre employment of illusions - inducing a feeling of isolation in a subject that you created, for the purposes of punishing them for actions they took based on how you created them. At this point it would begin to simply look like a sadistic abusive relationship, which would hardly be compatible with the spirit of the doctrine (if you excuse the pun).

Dimensional Quagmire

One can argue and expend much energy on things like - if the logic proposed entertains a hell, which resides outside of space and time then how can it be created by God in the first place - as there would be no time dimension to allow hell to come into existence. However, the logic leading to the conclusion that “hell cannot exist as a separation from God” at the core of this article adds and subtracts nothing from the existing doctrine. So feel free to think for as long as you want about these issues but it would appear to be out of scope.

There you have it - there is no place quite like hell!