We now have a winner for the post which provoked the most comments on this blog. My post on The difficulty of hell has reached more than 600 comments, and despite a couple of other posts on the issue, is going strong.
Our Roman Catholic commentators have, rightly, commented that the traditional view is the one taught by their Church and that, for them, is that. This seems entirely right, and I am very grateful to those who have engaged constructively here. What the discussion has revealed is that views in the early Church were more varied than some had thought, and that the main dogma on this comes from as late as 1215, and endorses the view St Augustine put forth in his City of God. It is interesting that the subject has never been debated at an ecumenical council, but that probably reflects the overwhelming nature of the Roman Catholic consensus on the issue.
My reason for raising it at all is not to be controversial for its own sake, but because in active evangelisation I have found it to be one of the subjects most often raised by those willing to engage me and others on my little team in conversation. That, I think, has much to do with the way in which the Dawkinsite atheists have highlighted it as a major objection to Christianity. In so doing, my experience suggests, they have hit a rich vein. People, I have found, are very open to talking about Christianity in terms of Jesus and his teaching, and I have rarely found anyone mounting the argument against the faith from the “Jesus did not exist” or “Jesus’ teaching is repugnant” angles. The opposite is the case with two things – the existence of hell, and the fate of people who are not Christian.
The Church of England comes in for a fair amount of criticism for being ‘wishy-washy’, but that is because it is always easier to caricature attempts to work through theological concepts which time and custom have left undisturbed, than it is to engage with them. The early Church was often a ferment of discussion and debate, and our doctrine is the better for it. For a long-time the Roman Catholic Church, profoundly disturbed by the Reformation and then by the rise of nationalism and socialism, was so on the defensive that it became difficult to continue that tradition; even theologians as distinguished as de Lubac and de Chardin found themselves under suspicion. The Church of England has retained the intellectual self-confidence to confront contemporary questioning in the light of tradition. The Church of England, recognising the objections raised to the traditional concept, has responded not by saying” ‘this is what has always been taught and that’s that’, but rather by taking a serious look at the history and theology behind our concepts of hell. Early in 1996 a report by the Doctrine Commission of the Church of England was published. It was a book (called The Mystery of Salvation). Predictably, the press reacted to one paragraph and rushed out with headlines about ‘church abolishes hell’. But the report, like the debate in the Church, has tried to make the Christian understanding of salvation relevant and meaningful in the context of contemporary life and society. As the report put it when it rejected the idea of hell as a place of fire, pitchforks and screams of unending agony:
“There are many reasons for this change, but amongst them have been the moral protest from both within and without the Christian faith against a religion of fear, and a growing sense that the picture of a God who consigned millions to eternal torment was far removed from the revelation of God’s love in Christ”
The Roman Catholic Church has also, made some moves towards a deeper, and better, understanding of what hell really means. The Catechism has only seven paragraphs on the subject, and whilst it says that Jesus spoke of hell as an ”unquenchable fire,” it says hell’s primary punishment is ”eternal separation from God,” which results from an individual’s conscious decision. Bishop Robert Barron has recently commented: ‘“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.”
The Bishop, like anyone involved in evangelisation, knows that it is not possible to talk about hell without talking about heaven and salvation.
Salvation is not missing hell, hell is missing out on salvation, and we can only explain the one in the context of the other; Christ came to save us. If we are made to know and to love God, then we can find salvation only in that fate – salvation, now and in the life of the world to come, comes in knowing God. If that is the fate God intends for us, that is what we get by embracing his Son. If we do not do that, what happens? The traditional fire and brimstone version posits a second destiny for us. If we do not achieve the knowing and loving God, we are plunged into eternal fire and torment. Paul said the wages of sin is death; the Roman Catholic Church traditionally insists it is something worse than death. The Anglican report suggested that we might better read the Gospel passages on this subject more plainly – the wages of sin is death – we are not raised to eternal life with God, we cease to exist at all. That is not a comfortable thought, but it does not portray a God who hands us over to the devil for eternal torture. Which of these versions of God one believes may well reflect one’s own experience of love and of God: some seem quite comfortable with the idea (assuming of course that it will not be them) of those who displease God being confined to an eternal torture chamber; others cannot find in them an experience of the God of love who defines his live for his creation in that way.
The question I am often asked when teaching, is what sort of God created the traditional vision of hell, and why I, or any decent human being, would want to worship him. As one young woman said to me recently, ‘God seems a bit of a cruel narcissist – if you don’t worship him he will make you suffer eternal fire for ever’. That is not, I told her, what the Church of England teaches, and nor is it. The distinguished Anglican theologian, John Wenham wrote some years ago now:
I feel that the time has come when I must declare my mind honestly.
I believe that endless torment is a hideous and unscriptural doctrine which has been a terrible burden on the mind of the church for many centuries and a terrible blot on her presentation of the gospel.
I should indeed be happy if, before I die, I could help in sweeping it away.
Christianity is not a faith preserved in amber, neither is it a museum piece. It responds, as it always has, to the circumstances in which it finds itself. Traditional teaching about hell has been around, but in an unexamined way, since the days when even civilised men thought nothing of burning each other in the name of Jesus. In our own age, as with capital punishment, it is being examined and discussed in a way unparalleled in Church history. In Rome, as in Canterbury, theologians are responding to the challenge. Those comfortable with the idea of hell-fire and brimstone may object, but it is happening across the Christian community, and it will continue until we reach some kind of consensus on what hell is. No one is abolishing it, but modern theologians, reaching back to the early Fathers, are reexamining the idea – this is what happens in a living church led by the Spirit. Is it uncomfortable to those who have not kept up with what the theologians have been saying? To judge from the comments on my other thread, it is. But as their own Church moves in the direction my own one has pioneered, they can add that to the ever-lengthening list of ‘heresies’ taught by the ‘Novus Ordo’ sect, or whatever uncomplimentary description they apply to the Pope and those who think like Bishop Barron.