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Hell is about spiritual and physical torment, says leading academic

Wednesday, March 28th, 2007

Hell is not primarily about physical torment, but about an inability to relate to other people, according to Dr Brendan Purcell. Dr Purcell, a senior UCD lecturer in philosophy, was responding to the controversy caused by Pope Benedict's remarks at the weekend concerning the reality of hell.

The Holy Father, speaking in the Parish of St. Felicity and Martyred Sons in Rome, reminded parishioners that Hell was a real place and was eternal. The Pope made the comments in the context of reminding the audience that God was essentially all love, and that sin consists in closing oneself off from the love of God.

Benedict XVI stated: "Jesus does not start a theological debate about the law of Moses; he is not interested in winning an academic dispute on an interpretation of the Mosaic laws. His objective is to save a soul and reveal that salvation can be found only in the love of God.

"Jesus came to tell us that he wants us all in heaven and that hell, of which so little is said in our time, exists and is eternal for those who close their hearts to his love."

Some media reports suggested that the Pope's statement seemed to contradict remarks by the previous Pontiff, John Paul II, who said in 1999  “Rather than a place, Hell indicates the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy".

However, according to Dr Purcell, such reports miss the point of the Pope's remarks.

“Pope Benedict was just reminding people that Hell exists, and that life is serious, it's not a joke,? he said.

“There are consequences for the actions we take or fail to take,? Dr Purcell continued.

Hell, he went on, was ultimately about “the pain of loss, the loss of the experience of love?.

The test posed by the Gospel was to try and love our brother. “That's how you stay out of Hell,? he said.

While past representations of Hell may have concentrated on physical descriptions of it as a place, this was not the core of it as a reality, Dr Purcell insisted.

“The atheist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre got to the core of this when he described the experience of people unable to relate to each other as Hell,? he said. "Thus, we can experience Hell on earth if we fail to love and be loved."