Politics & Policy

Pope Francis’s Honesty

If only all religious figures were as forthright about the consequences sin carries.

Last week Pope Francis warned Italy’s Mafia leaders that if they continue their evil ways, they will go to hell.

Hurray for the pope! More power to him for threatening evil people with hell.

I had begun to despair that in my lifetime I would ever again hear such talk from mainstream Christian or Jewish leaders. For the past two generations, God has rarely been depicted as judging and punishing. Instead all we have heard is “God is love,” which, when offered as the one description of God, is morally meaningless — and even morally dangerous.

If your aim is to produce moral behavior — and that should be the primary aim of every religion — “God is love” is no more helpful to that task than “Dad is love” is to producing a good son. Morally speaking, “God will judge you” is a far superior message. A recent academic study by Azim Shariff, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, concluded that “belief in hell predicted lower crime rates; whereas belief in heaven predicted higher crime rates.” (Italics in original.)

Because we live in the most secular age in recorded history, our culture lacks any concept of reward and punishment in an afterlife. Making things worse, ours is also a wisdom-challenged age that believes people are basically good — and therefore don’t need threats of punishment. Worst of all, this thinking has spread to mainstream Judaism and Christianity, most of whose clergy find threats of hell intellectually primitive and morally useless.

The “God is love” message alone is also religiously inaccurate. In Judaism and Christianity, God is many things. He is, for example, a “God of war” (ever heard of the “Lord of hosts”?). And most important, “God is just,” which means that God rewards and punishes. Indeed, if God doesn’t reward and punish, He is not a loving God.

There is a second reason Pope Francis’s message is so important.

It puts the spotlight on the world’s Muslim leaders.

Wouldn’t it be morally refreshing if leaders of Sunni and Shiite Islam made a similar pronouncement?

It is not enough for Muslim leaders to issue routine condemnations of violence and terrorism. Without specifying that the world’s premier practitioners of murder in God’s name will suffer punishment for it, these condemnations of violence and terror are worthless.

Muslim religious leaders — from Al-Azhar in Cairo to local imams throughout the world — need to say exactly what Pope Francis said to the Catholic members of the Mafia: “Any Muslim who commits an act of terror — that is, deliberately murders civilians of any nationality or religion — goes to hell.”

This would be particularly effective given how many Muslim terrorists have been convinced by some religious leaders that blowing up, or shooting, or slitting the throats of men, women, and children guarantees that they will go straight to heaven (where, moreover, they will be attended to by dozens of virgin women).

General condemnations mean nothing. Only when the perpetrators are specified and their actions are specified is there hope of having a moral impact. Pope Francis specified exactly whom he was addressing and for what sins.

Muslim religious leaders around the world need to specify that members of organizations such as these will go to hell unless they repent: Al-Qaeda and its affiliates around the world (such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula); Hizb ut-Tahrir; the Syria-based Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL); the Taliban and Haqqani network in Afghanistan and Pakistan;  the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (perpetrators of the Mumbai massacres); and the Nigeria-based Boko Haram (which routinely slaughters Christians).

Of course, such a proclamation is unlikely to happen. Muslim leaders are far more active in condemning “insults” to Islam or Muhammad. But at least the juxtaposition offers the world clarity about the contemporary moral state of Christian and Muslim leadership.

Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host and columnist. His most recent book is Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph. He is the founder of Prager University and may be contacted at dennisprager.com.


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