Pope Benedict XVI has affirmed the literal existence of hell while his aids aren't so sure:
Pope Benedict XVI said that in the modern world many people, including some believers, had forgotten that if they failed to "admit blame and promise to sin no more," they risked "eternal damnation — the Inferno."Well, is hell symbolic or isn't it?
Hell "really exists and is eternal, even if nobody talks about it much any more," he said....
Vatican officials said that the Pope — who is also the Bishop of Rome — had been speaking in "straightforward" language "like a parish priest." He had wanted to reinforce the new Catholic catechism, which holds that hell is a "state of eternal separation from God," to be understood "symbolically rather than physically."
Now I think we can distinguish between the idea of hell itself being symbolic and the language used to describe it being so. When we read of heaven having streets of gold I would think few would insist that this spiritual 'place' actually has physical streets made of the actual element gold. I believe it to be language used to convey the wonderful spiritual reality that is heaven in physical terms we can grasp. As material beings we are limited in what we can understand about spiritual 'places', but heaven has been described in language that makes it clear to me that I want to be there. Likewise, hell is described in physical terms that make it clear to me that I do not want to be in such a place or condition. Is there literal fire that burns in the same way we understand fire? Well, there is certainly some difference as the fire of hell is neverending. The Holy Spirit reveals it in terms of eternal fire, which means that is the best way for us to understand it. Just as I believe a material description of heaven can never truly capture the full glory of that spiritual place, I think it also the case that a material description of hell cannot capture the full impact of the eternal misery, pain and hopelessness that accompanies condemnation.
In other news, it appears the pope isn't so sure about limbo:
In October the Pope indicated that limbo, supposed since medieval times to be a "halfway house" between heaven and hell, inhabited by unbaptized infants and holy men and women who lived before Christ, was "only a theological hypothesis" and not a "definitive truth of the faith."It looks like he and I are on the same page, because I missed the reference to limbo in my Bible, too.