Last week, Pope Francis warned Italy's Mafia leaders that if they continue their evil ways, they will go to hell.
Hooray for the pope. More power to him for threatening evil people with hell.
I had begun to despair that in my lifetime I would 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 the phrase, "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 than "Dad is love" is to producing a good son. Morally speaking, "God will judge you" is a far superior message. As a recent academic study by Azim Shariff, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, published on the science website Plos One, concluded: "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 age lacks any concept of an afterlife reward and punishment. Making things worse, it 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 world 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 the Muslims who are the world's premier practitioners of murder in God's name, 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, 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).
Condemnations of actions in general 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-Qaida and its affiliates around the world (such as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and al-Qaida in Mesopotamia); Hizb ut-Tahrir; the Syria-based Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant; 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 (that 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.