A Baptist church in east Tennessee drew media attention for displaying a sign implying the late Pope John Paul II is in hell.

WATE-6 News in Knoxville on Monday reported on the marquee message outside Hilltop Baptist Church in Newport, Tenn. One side of the sign read: “No truth. No hope following a hell-bound pope.” The other side said, “False hope in a fake pope.”

The church’s assistant pastor reportedly refused to be interviewed but said off camera that people were misunderstanding the sign. He insisted the church wasn’t trying to say the pope is in hell, but the sign’s main message is that people shouldn’t put hope in the pope alone.

A Catholic clergyman responded that Catholics would say the same thing. “We don’t put our hope in the pope alone,” Father Vann Johnston of the Knoxville Catholic Diocese told the station. “The pope has a specific office, a specific function within the Catholic Church. But we only claim Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.”

Hilltop Baptist Church isn’t listed as a member of the East Tennessee Baptist Association, the Tennessee Baptist Convention or the Southern Baptist Convention.

The TV station’s Web site quoted an unidentified convention spokesman as criticizing the sign, saying, “It’s highly presumptuous for any person or church to assume they know for certain the eternal destination of any person.”

Dan Riley at the SBC-related Calvary Baptist Church in Knoxville told the station: “That’s pretty strong language. It’s really not about whether you’re part of the Catholic Church or if you’re a Baptist. I know some Baptists who I think are probably not going to be in heaven and I know some Catholics who I think are. That’s not our decision. It’s really all about Jesus and your relationship with him.'”

Despite the media attention, the folks at Hilltop Baptist aren’t the only biblical conservatives wondering if the pope ever had a salvation experience.

“How sad! How tragic! According to the Bible, Pope John Paul II went straight to burn in hell-fire on April 2nd, 2005,” lamented the Web site Jesus-is-savior.com.

Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., took its typical in-your-face approach. “Deal with it, you idolatrous morons: The Pope is in Hell!” proclaimed the controversial Web site GodHatesFags.com.

Louisiana Baptist pastor Jerry Moser, editor of the RADEN Report, pointed out that the pope “was responsible for a world-wide religion promoting an unbiblical sacramental system of belief to over a billion adherents.”

“It is not the good works of a man that earns him heaven, but faith in the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus Christ, a faith that stands distinctly apart from any human effort,” Moser said. “Throughout his long life, this man never professed to step away from a faith in sacramental religious works and over into this distinct and solitary faith in the finished work of Christ alone. The death of any such person is indeed an eternal tragedy, for no one may stand justified before God who trusts in any other means but Christ Jesus ALONE.”

For his part, Pope John Paul II rejected the idea of a literal hell.

“Rather than a physical place, hell is the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy,” he said in 1999.

The pope defined damnation as “definitive separation from God, freely chosen by the human person, and confirmed with death that seals his choice for ever.”

The doctrine of hell should “not create anxiety or despair,” the pontiff said, but is rather a reminder of the freedom found in Christ.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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