US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Do you believe in hell?

By Bryan Cones | Print this pagePrint |

Prominent Grand Rapids evangelical pastor Rob Bell evidently doesn't, and his new book on the topic is stirring the pot in evangelical circles, with some claiming that Bell is moving dangerously toward heresy. The drama even got covered in The New York Times.

Part of the drama is obviously a PR campaign for his new book (Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived) orchestrated by Bell's publicist--one must admit evangelicals are amazing marketers. But Bell's position on Judgment Day is a challenge to a common evangelical worldview that anyone without explicit faith in Christ will go to hell.

Catholic teaching has always and still maintains hell as a radical possibility of human freedom (though we don't say anyone is actually there). In other words God doesn't "damn" anyone, but human freedom makes ultimate rejection of God possible, a condition we'd call hell. But Catholic teaching also affirms that explicit faith in Christ is not necessary for salvation, even as it maintains that Christ is "necessary" for human salvation. (You can check out the early paragraphs of Lumen Gentium, and we'll leave it to the theologians to parse what "necessary" means.) That position, of course, reflects a change in a previously commonly held and taught position that anyone not in the Catholic Church would be damned.

Of course, the desire to affirm the ultimate triumph of God's love may lead one to hope that not even the worst human being would end up eternally damned. Then again, you could read about Mexican drug traffickers and other sundry villains and maybe feel differently.

So, is there a hell? And does God "send" people there?