Following a lengthy report from the Vatican Theological Commission in 2006, Pope Benedict abolished the first circle of hell, known as purgatory. Unbaptised infants would no longer be trapped in limbo. More recently Pope Francis, a fine and profoundly spiritual man, seemed to be one step away from abolishing the notion of hell altogether. What are the consequences of these changes of interpretation for ordinary people, and how are we supposed to view them?
The first consequence must surely relate to the problem of evil, an old doctrinal difficulty that has plagued churches of all denominations the world over, and particularly the Christian church, which has often had differences of interpretation on the subject within its own ranks. How has the Christian Church viewed the problem of evil over time, and why has it been such a headache?
This is a huge subject and I will therefore keep it simple. The basis of the problem, for the Church, was as follows: if God exists, and he is all-powerful and good, why does he not prevent evil?
This was a tricky question for the Church to answer, to say the least, and the problem was confounded by men like Epicurus, a Greek philosopher who lived from 341 to 270 BC and who came to the logical conclusion that either God was able to dispense with evil, but was unwilling to do so, or he was simply unable to, willing or not – none of which was satisfactory from the Church’s point of view.
Thus, the debate raged on. Answers were suggested. Free will, for instance, was one of them. God had given humankind free will, but the choice of evil over good or the reverse was their own. Still, that did not entirely resolve the matter, since evil was still there – a stumbling block, a source of suffering or worse. In order for us to choose evil, it still had to exist. So, once again, who was responsible for that? There could only be one explanation, the Devil.
The Devil had always been present in Scripture, right from the beginning, in Genesis. This beginning was known as the Fall of Man and it referred to the temptation of Adam and Eve by the dragon snake. The dragon snake was revealed as being the agent of Satan, sent to tempt humankind to evil. But even the origin of Satan is a headache for theologians. So many different explanations have been suggested for his existence, that even the most Machiavellian of us can get confused. But the upshot of the Fall of Man was this: ever since the time of the Fall, the burden of sin has passed down the line from Adam and Eve, to you and I.
There is another angle to the Genesis, which I sincerely hope might yet be reconsidered, namely that Eve was specifically responsible for the Fall of Man (and Woman, presumably). While I understand that we women are not perfect, I do find it hard to accept that we should take full responsibility for sinfulness.
Be that as it may, what was interesting for me when I was researching the subject of evil for The Sultan, the Vampyr and the Soothsayer was the contrast between the Greek Orthodox position and the Roman Catholic one. The Greeks had always said that, theologically speaking (and Epicurus aside), the sin of the Fall was not passed down the line. In other words, we are born with a clean sheet, rather than being innately sinful. Instead of being driven to sin right from the start and requiring the purge of Baptism to set us right, we are born with a tendency to goodness, which is a nice thought, even if I have had occasion to doubt it.
To add another fly to the soup, the Greek Gnostics (from the Greek word: knowledge), who existed as a broad group of spiritual philosophers in the second century, believed that the dragon snake – the one that tempted Adam and Eve, should be thanked instead of vilified, for having encouraged Adam and Eve to taste the fruit of knowledge of good and evil in the first place. According to Gnostic thought, sin comes from ignorance. If this is the case, then might not hell, if it did exist, be some sort of state of ignorance, namely the condition Adam and Eve were in before they picked the fruit from the tree of knowledge?
Ignorance as a hellish state does not seem a bad interpretation, although personally speaking, I have no desire to ‘shake the tree’ any more than I have done already for fear of what might yet fall out of it, but the Greek perspective does seem appealing – particularly for the descendants of Eve. As Herodotus, a famous Greek, once said: The only good is knowledge, the only evil is ignorance.