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Christianity doesn't hold a monopoly on the notion of hell

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Is there an afterlife? Compare your views with those of other Americans.

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Read Pope John Paul II's remarks on the subjects of hell, heaven, and purgatory. (From the Vatican's Web site)

Dante's Inferno. Read the famous and dark poem, canto by canto, in English or Italian. Illustrations by Botticelli and Dore accompany most canti.

The Hell There Is! Catholic Answers provides current and early church teachings on hell.

What about hell? This question-and-answer session was part of the Mars Hill Forum, designed to address common questions about Christianity.

Hell. A discussion of biblical and theological arguments regarding hell, from a conservative perspective. (From Christian Topics)

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Cover Story 1/31/00

By Jeffery L. Sheler

Hell Hath No Fury
With fire and brimstone out of fashion, modern thinking says the netherworld isn't so hot after all

The pit is prepared. The fire is made ready. The furnace is now hot, ready to receive them. The flames do now rage and glow. The glittering sword is whet, and held over them, and the pit has opened her mouth under them. . . . O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in.

Since long before the Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards struck fear into the hearts of 18th-century New Englanders, the threat of hell has served as a potent incentive to refrain from evil and cling to faith. For preachers like Edwards and his spiritual heirs, the eternal stakes were frightfully clear: There was a hell to shun and a heaven to gain. Hell and its flaming torments were real.

Edwards would scarcely recognize the hell of today. After decades of near obscurity, the netherworld has taken on a new image: more of a deep funk than a pit of fire. While the traditional infernal imagery still attracts a following, modern visions of eternal perdition as a particularly unpleasant solitary confinement are beginning to emerge, suggesting that hell may not be so hot after all.

The latest round of revisionism was touched off last summer by a surprising editorial in La Civilta Cattolica, an influential Jesuit magazine with close ties to the Vatican. Hell, the magazine declared, "is not a 'place' but a 'state,' a person's 'state of being,' in which a person suffers from the deprivation of God." A few days later, Pope John Paul II told an audience at the Vatican that "rather than a place, hell indicates the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God." To describe this Godforsaken condition, the pontiff said, the Bible "uses a symbolical language" that "figuratively portrays in a 'pool of fire' those who exclude themselves from the book of life, thus meeting with a 'second death.' "

The pope's more conservative critics complained that by dousing hell's flames, the pontiff had undermined a historic biblical doctrine and surrendered a potent theological weapon in the church's struggle against evil. "Scripture clearly speaks of hell as a physical place of fiery torment and warns us we should fear," says R. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. For unrepentant sinners, adds Prof. Douglas Groothuis of the evangelical Denver Seminary, "separation from God may seem like freedom from a domineering spouse or parent. Why fear that?"

But taking the sting out of hell was hardly what the pope had in mind. At a time when hell's imagery is invoked more often in the nation's comics pages than from its pulpits, the pope's remarks are better understood as an attempt to retrieve and update a

long-neglected doctrine of the church and to make it available once again as a prod to piety and virtue. "In a sense," explains the Rev. Stephen Happel, interim dean of religious studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., "the pope is telling us that we can recover some measured intelligent understanding of hell that makes sense for the 21st century."

Whether or not it proves effective, this more figurative view of hell fits neatly with a recent shift in public opinion. A new U.S. News poll shows that more Americans believe in hell today than did in the 1950s or even 10 years ago. But like the pope, most now think of hell as "an anguished state of existence" rather than as a real place.

It should come as little surprise, say some scholars, that modern educated Americans would reject notions of a blazing underworld where anguished souls writhe in endless torment. A literal hell is "part of an understanding of the cosmos that just doesn't exist anymore," says Prof. Stephen J. Patterson of the Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis. Were the pope to invoke images of hell with "flames and a red-suited devil with a pitchfork," says church historian Martin Marty, a professor emeritus of the University of Chicago Divinity School, "he knows people wouldn't take it seriously. It's cartoonish." Many modern Christians are simply ashamed of hell, explains Groothuis of the Denver Seminary. Even some evangelicals, who generally take a more literal approach to biblical teachings, he says, view hell as "a blemish to be covered up by the cosmetic of divine love." In increasingly secular American culture, adds Mohler, "hell has become about as politically incorrect a concept as one can find."

Yet few religious ideas have proved to be as riveting or resilient. Hell's roots run deep in Judeo-Christian teachings, although its lineage is sometimes difficult to discern. In the earliest biblical times, views of the afterlife were murky, to say the least. The ancient Hebrew texts of Genesis, 1 Kings, Psalms, and Job, for example, suggest that all the dead–both righteous and wicked–were dispatched to a gloomy underworld realm called sheol, a morally neutral place akin to the hades of ancient Greek mythology. In the book of Genesis, for example, the Hebrew patriarch Jacob, believing his son Joseph to be dead, moans: "I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning" (37:35).

By the second century B.C., when the Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek, hades replaced sheol in the Greek Bible, and the two concepts became firmly melded in popular thinking. Later, when belief in a final resurrection of the dead emerged in some parts of Judaism and in Christianity, hades became a temporary abode of the souls of the wicked only–the righteous went to heavenly blessedness to await the bodily resurrection.

In early Christian teaching, after the final judgment, the wicked will be condemned to a hell of fire called gehenna, a Greek word derived from the Hebrew Gehinnom and referring to the desolate Valley of Hinnom, south of Jerusalem, where trash fires burned incessantly and where ancient human sacrifices had been offered to Canaanite gods. The fiery imagery grew even hotter in the book of Revelation, written late in the first century A.D., which declares that any who are judged unworthy will be "thrown into the lake of fire" (20:15) along with Satan and his minions.

Words and deeds. But the nuanced differences and gradual shifts in the biblical concepts of post-mortem punishment often are obscured in English Bibles, which frequently translate all three terms–sheol, hades, and gehenna–simply as "hell." Greek texts of the gospel of Matthew, for example, use gehenna when quoting Jesus as warning: "Anyone who says, 'You fool,' will be in danger of the fire of hell" (5:22). But they use hades where Jesus vows that "the gates of hell shall not prevail" against his church (16:18). Rather than talking about a place of eternal punishment in this instance, some modern Bible scholars interpret Jesus's words as a dramatic affirmation of his power over death demonstrated by his own Resurrection.

Other New Testament passages offer frightening glimpses of hell as a place of "outer darkness" and of "weeping and gnashing of teeth" where the "worm never dies and the fire is never quenched." But the portraiture is far from complete. Many of the early church fathers, including the fourth-century Latin theologian Jerome, assumed that hell was a place of sensory torment. "We should indeed mourn for the dead," Jerome wrote, "but only for him whom Gehenna receives . . . and for whose punishment the eternal fire burns."

The view was far from unanimous. Both the third-century father Origen of Alexandria and Gregory of Nyssa, a theologian of the fourth century, thought hell was more a place of spiritual suffering–of remorse and separation from God. In the fifth century, the great Christian theologian Augustine of Hippo staked out a middle ground by suggesting that suffering in hell was both spiritual and sensory–a view that continues to hold considerable sway.

Uses and abuses. While most of the early church fathers taught that hell's purpose was to punish impenitent sinners, however, Origen suggested it was remedial–that in hell, even the worst of sinners could be rehabilitated and ultimately find their way to paradise. But his "universalist" view was rejected by church leaders at the Council of Constantinople in 543. And while a few theologians of the day believed that sinners ultimately would be annihilated, most held the belief that the torments of hell were unending.

In the early 14th century, the graphic imagery of a multileveled subterranean chamber of horrors became fixed in the popular imagination with Dante's fictional descriptions of the Inferno in The Divine Comedy. Two hundred years later, leaders of the Protestant Reformation rejected the terrifying depictions of hell in art and literature. While Martin Luther and John Calvin regarded hell as a real place, they believed its fiery torments were figurative. Hell's worst agonies, they said, were the terror and utter despair of spending eternity cut off from God.

Nonetheless, old notions of hell as a place of both physical and spiritual suffering experienced a resurgence in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Westminster Larger Catechism declared hell's agonies to include "grievous torments in soul and body," in addition to "everlasting separation from the comfortable presence of God." But Origen's premise that all would be saved also began to draw a new following. And the rise of liberal Protestantism in the 19th and early 20th centuries spawned renewed objections to the thought of eternal retribution in a material hell. Rather than becoming more uniform, the Christian doctrine of hell grew more fragmented than ever.

Indeed, the 20th century was nearly the death of hell. Lampooned by modern intellectuals and increasingly sidelined by preachers preferring to dwell on more uplifting themes, the threat of post-mortem punishment of the impenitent in an eternal lake of fire all but disappeared from the religious mainstream by the 1960s. Theological discourse on the subject at the nation's divinity schools almost evaporated. And while polls showed that the majority of Americans professed to believe in hell's existence, almost no one thought he would go there. Observing the dearth of fire-and-brimstone rhetoric, Marty of the University of Chicago was moved to remark a few years back that "hell has disappeared and no one noticed."

Image and reality. In outlining his view of hell last summer, John Paul II articulated a long-standing, if little emphasized, Roman Catholic teaching. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, which was updated and revised in 1992, proclaims that "the chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God." To die in "mortal sin" without repenting, says the catechism, "means remaining separated from him forever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called 'hell.' " And while the catechism cites without comment New Testament passages that refer to the punishment of hell as "eternal fire," the pontiff described these as "images" that are used "figuratively" and that must be "correctly interpreted."

Moreover, the pope declared that hell is "not a punishment imposed externally by God" but is the natural consequence of the unrepentant sinner's choice to live apart from God. "The thought of hell," said the pope, "must not create anxiety or despair" but is a "necessary and healthy reminder of freedom." This modern and more benign view of hell, scholars say, reflects a shift in much of Christian theology during the past 150 years away from literalism and physical imagery toward more psychological metaphors and symbols. In his own lectures and homilies, Happel of Catholic University says he speaks of hell in terms of "the reality of self-isolation and being so completely turned in on yourself that you have no relationships at all." It is an image that the noted Christian apologist C. S. Lewis applied with dramatic effect in his 1946 novella The Great Divorce. "To me, that's a pretty powerful metaphor for separation from God," says Happel. "As a preacher, I find it much more effective than talking about physical fires."

By the same token, scholars say, to people living in early Christian centuries, infernal images of hell no doubt conveyed quite effectively the horrific consequences of rejecting God. "One thing people feared most then was the burning and pillaging of their towns," says the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit journal America. "If you had described hell to them in terms of relationships and psychological experiences like loneliness, they wouldn't have known what you were talking about."

Old and new. To reimagine hell in a modern idiom, say Reese and others, is not as freewheeling a process as it may seem. "It's not as if we are simply saying, 'We don't believe in the fires of hell anymore, so let's make up something new,' " says Happel. Rather, it reflects the same careful process of doctrinal development that has been part of church tradition from the beginning: It took the Christian community 300 years to come up with the doctrine of the Trinity at Nicaea and an additional 125 years to articulate the dual nature of Christ at Chalcedon. "In every generation," Happel says, "the church must interpret and apply the Scriptures in the context of contemporary culture if we are to be faithful to the text as it is meant."

That is not to say that no one thinks of hell as a place of literal fire and agony anymore. This is still, after all, the predominant view in evangelical Protestantism and in some conservative corners of Catholicism. "Hell isn't something we celebrate," says Mohler of the Southern Baptist seminary. "It's simply a fact of Scripture to which we must speak." To play down hell and other harsh doctrines of the Christian faith, adds the Rev. Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, "does irreparable damage to our deepest comforts–our understanding of God's grace and love and of our human dignity and value to him. To preach the good news, we must [also] preach the bad."

At the same time, not all who believe in the reality of the fires of hell accept the view that hell's agonies are everlasting. A small but growing number of conservative theologians are promoting a third position: that the end of the wicked is destruction, not eternal suffering. Evangelical scholars such as Clark H. Pinnock, theology professor at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario; John R. W. Stott, founder of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity; and Philip E. Hughes, a noted Anglican clergyman and author, contend that those who ultimately reject God will simply be put out of existence in the "consuming fire" of hell.

Dead and gone. Proponents of this theory, called "annihilationism," argue that the traditional belief in unending torment is based more on pagan philosophy than on a correct understanding of Scripture. They base their belief on New Testament passages that warn of "eternal destruction" (2 Thessalonians 1:9) and "the second death" (Revelation 20:14) for those who reject God, and on the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel's admonition that "the soul that sins shall die" (Ezekiel 18:4). They also raise ethical arguments. "How can Christians possibly project a deity of such cruelty and vindictiveness" as to inflict "everlasting torture upon his creatures, however sinful they may have been?" asks Pinnock in the Criswell Theological Review. A God who would do such a thing, Pinnock argues, is "more nearly like Satan than like God." Stott observes that in biblical imagery, fire's main function is to destroy and that while the fire of hell may be eternal and unquenchable, "it would be very odd if what is thrown into it proves indestructible." And Hughes argues that the traditional belief in unending punishment is linked to the Greek notion of the innate immortality of the soul–a belief he says is based more on Plato than on the Bible. "The immortality of which the Christian is assured is not inherent in himself or in his soul but is bestowed by God," says Hughes. He notes Jesus's admonition in Matthew 10:28 not to fear men, who can kill only the body, but rather God, "who can destroy both soul and body in hell."

Defenders of the traditional view disagree, citing biblical passages that refer to hell as a place of "everlasting punishment" where there will be be "weeping and gnashing of teeth." Those descriptions, says Prof. Robert A. Peterson of Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, in his book Hell on Trial, signify "extreme suffering and remorse. . . . It is not possible for those annihilated to cry and grind their teeth."

Meanwhile, despite the efforts of the pope and others to revitalize the doctrine for the 21st century, many theological thinkers continue to reject any notion of hell that smacks of the supernatural. For them, hell's frightful imagery is paled by the flames of Hiroshima and the Holocaust. The only real hell, they say, is in the here and now. "Once we discovered we could create hell on Earth," says John Dominic Crossan, professor emeritus at DePaul University in Chicago, "it became silly to talk about it in a literal sense." Rather than looking to a hellish inferno in the afterlife, says Barry Kogan, professor of philosophy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, "the main concern is retribution in this life. The hottest fires of hell probably burn in the human heart, in the harmful ways we treat each other." And while some modern thinkers, like Alice K. Turner, author of The History of Hell, expect the traditional doctrine to keep fading from religious teaching, "as a flexible metaphor" for human evil, says Turner, hell "is far too valuable to lose."

In no small measure, hell's future and form in modern religious life are likely to hinge on its efficacy in influencing moral behavior. Can the threat of hell prod people toward piety and virtue? In seeking to retrieve the doctrine from the trash heap of modern skepticism, both the pope and his more conservative Protestant co-religionists seem convinced that it can. "If there is no God, no heaven, no hell," says Prof. Jerry L. Walls of Asbury Theological Seminary, writing in Christianity Today, "there simply is no persuasive reason to be moral." Modern theories of moral development and classical Greek philosophy, however, would seem to argue in another direction. At a primitive level of development–with children, for example–punishment and reward can elicit good moral choices, observes Reese. "The threat of hell basically appeals to people at that level." With teenagers and mature adults, however, says Reese, it is seldom effective. Nonetheless, he says, "there are times when we fall back into primitive behavior, when we want to kill somebody. If hell keeps us from doing it, I say, 'Bless hell.' "

Yet whether it is a help or a hindrance, and whether it has a ZIP code or is merely an ephemeral state of mind, hell undeniably has left a lasting imprint on the religious imagination. And whether one clings to frightful visions of fire and brimstone, searches for new, more-cerebral interpretations, or dismisses it all as imaginative folklore, hell's powerful images will no doubt continue to loom over humanity, as they have for more than 2,000 years, as a grim and ominous reminder of the reality of evil and its consequences.

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