Has hell frozen over?

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Article Scripture and Theology
Church teaching has shifted away from damnation and now focuses on salvation. Is that a good thing?

To a young girl attending Catholic school in the 1940s, eternal damnation was no abstract concept. “The nuns really terrified us,” says Pat Conroy, who grew up in Maryland. The list of potential transgressions—from eating meat on Fridays to missing Mass on Sundays—was long. “It seemed like almost anything was enough to send you to hell. I became so scrupulous and worried about everything I did.”

“Hell was an important part of the religious landscape of my childhood,” recalls Peter Steinfels, who grew up in Chicago during the same period. “It was the hell of endless flames and eternal punishment; although even in second and third grade I recognized that there was something mythical about this.”

For Catholics like Conroy and Steinfels, who were raised on “fire and brimstone” images of hell, some of the changes associated with the Second Vatican Council brought spiritual and psychological relief. “There was much more emphasis on God’s love and how God really wants to save us. It was such a relief,” says Conroy, who now works to bring that message to the inmates of a county jail near her parish.

Over the last half-century hell has moved from being a fixture of the Catholic landscape to something that exists far over the horizon. “Other than hearing my father say ‘damn it to hell’ more times than I can remember, we didn’t discuss it much,” says Mona Cholowinski, who attended religious education at her parish in suburban New Jersey in the 1970s. “It did come up occasionally as the ‘place other than heaven,’ but the discussions were more about being good and avoiding temptation,” she says.

Annie Selak, a rector at the University of Notre Dame, sees a similar dynamic at work among a younger generation. “I would say that most of the high school and college students I’ve encountered rarely think of hell. The vast majority assume they are going to heaven. It seems like an automatic for them. They are good people, so of course they will end up in heaven.”

Some recent polling also bears out this change. The Pew Center on Religion and Public Life’s 2007 Religious Landscape Survey found that only 60 percent of Catholics believe in hell. While comparable to mainline Protestants (56 percent), that’s far below the 82 percent recorded by evangelical Protestant churches.

No way in hell

Though the discussion of hell as a place to be feared has seemingly disappeared in Catholic parishes, schools, and homes, the debate over hell’s existence, and whether anyone actually goes there, has been reignited among evangelical Christians, most of whom continue to affirm that eternal damnation is the fate of any person who does not make an explicit personal commitment to Christ.

In his recent book Love Wins (HarperOne), evangelical pastor Rob Bell recalls how his church sponsored an art show on the subject of peacemaking. One artist included a quote from Mahatma Gandhi in her work. Someone attached a piece of paper to it that read, “Reality check: He’s in hell.”

“Really?” writes Bell. “Gandhi’s in hell? He is? We have confirmation of this? Somebody knows this? Without a doubt? And that somebody decided to take the responsibility of letting the rest of us know?”

That experience led Bell to write Love Wins as a way of exploring one of the central tensions at the heart of the Christian faith: the desire of an all-powerful God to save every member of the human race and the willingness of this God to allow individuals to suffer eternal damnation. As Bell puts it more pointedly: “Will all people be saved, or will God not get what God wants? Does this magnificent, mighty, marvelous God fail in the end?”

As can be gleaned from these quotes, Bell’s work is more a set of questions for reflection than a work of systematic theology. Nevertheless it has provoked a strong reaction within the evangelical community.

Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, called the book “theologically disastrous,” and accused Bell of embracing “universalism,” the belief that God will ultimately save every human being (and, in some versions, even the devil himself) regardless of their beliefs or behavior.

Popular evangelical blogger Justin Taylor took issue with Bell’s rejection of “substitutional atonement,” the doctrine that, as Taylor puts it, “Christ absorbed the Father’s wrath on behalf of those who trust in him and repent of their sins.”

Not all evangelicals were as critical as Mohler and Taylor. Eugene Peterson, professor emeritus at Regent College and the author of a best-selling adaptation of the Bible titled The Message (NavPress), wrote that Bell’s book did not compromise “an inch of evangelical conviction.” In a subsequent interview Peterson noted that “Luther said that we should read the entire Bible in terms of what drives [one] toward Christ. If you do that, you are going to end up with this religion of grace and forgiveness. . . . There is very little Christ, very little Jesus, in these people who are fighting Rob Bell.”

The headlines over Bell’s book also piqued the interest of some Catholic bloggers, who began discussing anew the debate over hell. Father Robert Barron, director of Word on Fire Ministries, responded to controversy surrounding the book by explaining on his website that Catholic teaching affirms hell’s existence, but doesn’t tell us if anyone has ever been sent there. The church’s vision of hell isn’t as much about God’s punishment as it is about personal choice, Barron writes. “Think of God’s life as a party to which everyone is invited,” he says, “and think of hell as the sullen corner into which someone who resolutely refuses to join the fun has sadly slunk.”

Bell’s suggestion that God may not actually condemn anyone to hell isn’t the only idea he’s introduced to the evangelical community that has something in common with Catholic teaching. When Bell writes of the possibility that those who do not personally know Christ may nevertheless be saved through Christ, he is echoing the words of Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, which states that “since Christ died for all, and since the ultimate vocation of human beings is in fact one, and divine, we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to everyone the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery.”

Still, the controversy that Bell has caused with his book is not unlike the discussions about hell that raged for centuries in the Catholic Church; the Catholic Church has not always taken such an inclusive position when it comes to salvation. Indeed, for most of its history, the majority position among the church’s theologians and bishops was that the number of those damned to hell would outnumber those saved.

Hell: A history

In the Jewish tradition, the concepts of a final judgment or hell as a destination of the unrighteous do not appear until relatively late in the Old Testament period. Many of the psalms ask God to save the author from sheol, meaning the “grave” or “pit”—the place where all the dead would go, regardless of their deeds in life.

This began to change toward the end of the Old Testament period. “As Jewish belief in the resurrection of the dead evolved, reflection on hell evolved as well,” says Jesuit Father John Endres, professor of Old Testament at the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara University. Endres notes that in the Book of Daniel, the author writes that “many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (12:2).

In the New Testament Jesus often uses imagery of fire to describe the fate of the unrighteous. In the Gospel of Matthew, for example, Jesus states that “every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matt. 6:15). Matthew also contains the famous passage describing the division of the “sheep and the goats” based on their treatment of the hungry, the thirsty, the foreigner, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned (Matt. 25: 31-46). Those who fail in their duties to these people “will go away into eternal punishment,” says Jesus, “but the righteous into eternal life” (Matt. 25:46).

During the church’s early centuries, there was a range of opinion among theologians about how many people were going to hell. Theologians such as Origen and Gregory of Nyssa stressed the cosmic dimensions of Christ’s victory over evil, a victory so complete that even the evil within human souls would be destroyed and all would be reunited to God. As Gregory puts it, “Of all those who were made by God, not one shall be exiled from his kingdom.”

A more pessimistic view was taken by the fifth-century bishop St. Augustine of Hippo, who in his later writings sees the majority of humanity as massa damnata (“Damned Masses”) destined, justly because of human sin, for everlasting punishment. “Augustine takes the position that everyone is damned in principle,” says Paul Griffiths, professor of Catholic theology at Duke University. “You should be a bit surprised if you are saved.”

Griffiths notes that by the medieval period there was widespread agreement that hell would be populated, but the church never took a formal position on how large that population would be. In general, though, there was a rough consensus that more would be damned than saved.

It didn’t take long for some cracks to appear in that consensus, however. The voyages of discovery that began in the 14th and 15th centuries revealed potentially millions of human beings who had never heard the gospel. Was it really conceivable that a just God would consign them to hell without even the opportunity to embrace Christ?

By the 20th century other changes within the Catholic world were prompting a reevaluation of traditional thinking about hell. “I think the liturgical and biblical movements of the 20th century were tremendously important because they really re-focused people on the person of Christ,” says Jesuit theologian Father Randy Sachs, professor of theology at Boston College.

Sachs argues that the church’s theology from the medieval period onward focused heavily on a philosophical concept of God. “God is perfectly just, perfectly merciful, and so on. So you end up in a situation where God somehow has to ‘obey’ his own justice by sending people to hell. It has led to some horrible deformations of Christianity,” says Sachs.

By contrast, he says, focusing on Jesus Christ as he is portrayed in the scriptures leads to a different understanding of God. “I’m not talking about this or that verse, but the whole picture: Jesus having table fellowship with sinners, his readiness to forgive, his criticism of religious authorities,” Sachs says. “As our faith and our liturgy begin to take seriously the life and deeds of Jesus, we realize that God’s style of justice is not at all like our style of justice.”

These ideas began to work their way into the church’s theology, leading to a more optimistic tone on the subject of hell. The late German Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner once suggested that individuals who had not accepted Christ but nevertheless sincerely sought God could be considered “anonymous Christians” and be saved on that basis alone.

A case for hell?

The shift in Catholic attitudes about hell is understandable in light of the church’s recent history. Nevertheless, not everyone has been pleased by this shift. Before his death, Jesuit theologian Cardinal Avery Dulles warned that a “thoughtless optimism” about salvation had become a serious problem. He suggested that “more education is needed to convince people that they ought to fear God who, as Jesus taught, can punish soul and body together in hell.”

Cardinal Dulles’ discomfiting questions remain. Have Catholics become too optimistic, too inclined to embrace what the German Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoffer called “cheap grace”?

Steinfels, now the co-director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University, is willing to concede that there is a risk. “[Hell] did communicate a depth to life. Life was to be lived for high stakes.” Although he believes that there are better ways for the church to communicate those stakes, “I hope we won’t trade Deuteronomy’s ‘I set before you life and death: choose life’ for ‘I set before you unacceptable or nice: choose nice.’ ”

“This issue will always raise deep passions,” observes Duke University’s Griffiths. “I think many of us have a sense that heaven won’t be what it should be unless certain people are in hell. We all have a list of who those people are. But it’s a deeply unpleasant and irresponsible thing to do. The church has a list of the saved. We call them the saints. But we have no list of the damned. And that is a good thing.”

Griffiths cautions that we should not necessarily read widespread Catholic optimism about salvation as a denial of the possibility of hell. “There is a very important distinction between believing that it is possible that everyone will be saved and believing absolutely that everyone will be saved.”

Raised in the post-conciliar church, Mona Cholowinski says she never really believed in a “fire and brimstone” image of hell. Nevertheless she retains a belief that her choices in this life can have eternal significance. “I do believe that bad people will not be allowed entry into heaven, but I don’t really have an opinion about where they end up. Maybe they just cease to exist. ”

While Pat Conroy may have left behind her childhood images of hell, she still acknowledges that it remains a possibility. “I understand it more in relational terms now, as the absence of God’s presence. That should be scary enough for us.”

As for the younger generation of Catholics, Annie Selak is not convinced that a renewed emphasis on hell is what they need. “There is so much pressure on these kids to live up to the expectations of their parents, administrators, older siblings, high school teachers, and principals. The pressure is astounding! I think the move away from the fear of disappointing God and ending up in hell with one bad decision allows them to have a healthier relationship with their faith.”

A priest as well as a theologian, Randy Sachs has few regrets about the church’s change in tone. “In the confessional I’ve heard people talk about their understanding of God in ways that would turn your hair white. Some of our baggage is definitely worth losing.”

While conceding that less emphasis on hell could lead some to take their lives less seriously, Sachs counters that too much focus on our “eternal destiny” can lead to the same problem. “God doesn’t just come to us in Christ to save us from the world, but to save us from the sin and death that threaten it. He wants us to be living life in the Spirit now.”

This article appeared in the November 2011 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 76, No. 11, pages 12-17).

Image: Tom Wright