An Infernal Development

St. Andrew's Catholic Church

Image by Mike Chen aka Metalman via Flickr

I don’t think I ever believed in hell.  When I was young I didn’t think much about dying, but religion did interest me.  I think I’ve always had a streak of idealism.  But as for hell, it didn’t make much sense.  Why would a loving God create a race of creatures in His own image, put them in a challenging place, subject them to dangers, give them free will, and then commit them to everlasting torment if they failed to believe in something for which they had no objective evidence?  The image I get from this concept is that of a cruel and spiteful little boy playing with an ant farm and a magnifying glass in the sunlight.

As a teen I once attended a lecture series on Catholicism and was told some interesting things.  One was that the Pope is God’s main link to all

other mortals here on Earth, and that other priests complete necessary links in the chain.  There are two kinds of sins, venial and mortal.  If you die without confessing and repenting of a venial sin to a priest, you will go to Purgatory, which is just like hell, but temporary.  In the case of a mortal sin you go straight to the bad place.  Forever.  In this process, priests are indispensable, which makes for pretty good job security.  Why there was no provision for circumstances when good people died out of reach of a priest was unanswered.  But I know someone whose parents, both good Catholics, passed away and I witnessed first hand how terribly important it was to them that a priest be summoned when death was imminent.   (Is a priest who is a secret pederast still a valid conduit for a deathbed confession?  Also, what if the priest had a flat tire on the way to the hospital and missed the event?  Ouch.)

A kettle full of Jews (with white hats) burnin...

A kettle full of Jews, burning in hell, via Wikipedia

I don’t know whether the Catholic Church has changed their doctrine on death and priests in the several decades since I witnessed that.  I do know that they have changed some things.  For example, mass no longer has to be in Latin and Galileo has officially been forgiven for pointing out that the Earth is not the center of the universe.  And you can no longer buy an indulgence to get Aunt Lucy out of Purgatory early.  And, I recall recently that Pope Benedict has decided that the Jews are not (after all this time) collectively responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus.  My wife, who was raised Catholic but no longer is, tells me other things.  For example, if she were to eat meat on a Friday, the nuns told her she would be doomed to hell, which they vividly described to her as holding her hand over the flame on a gas cook-top.  And then there was the rite of confession.  As a girl she said she sometimes made up a sin to tell the priest about because she couldn’t think of a real one to confess.

Now comes Jon Meacham, Executive Editor at Random House, in a Time Magazine article about the topic of hell.  In “Is Hell Dead?”, he describes an interesting development in what can only be described as the continuing evolution of Christianity in America, i.e., the booming popularity of a Michigan protestant church headed by one Rob Bell.

Dante and Virgil in Hell

Dante and Virgil in Hell, via Wikipedia

A charismatic and popular preacher, Bell promotes a view, among others, that the concept of hell doesn’t make any sense and therefore may be safely ignored.  This is markedly different from other Protestant churches and certainly from the Catholic church, although I have noted media accounts from time to time over the past few decades that many churches seem to have drifted away from emphasizing hell, apparently preferring the carrot to the stick as being more effective.  It must work – Bell’s attendance is running about 7,000 people a Sunday.

Bell is embarked on a dangerous course here.  He speculates for example that it’s not unreasonable to think that everybody will go to Heaven, “. . . whatever that turns out to be . . .”  He is trying to be rational about religion.  Other churches are right to be alarmed, I think.  If this continues to catch on, a lot of priests may be out of a job.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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4 Responses to An Infernal Development

  1. ansonburlingame says:


    Over the last month or so I have been streaming some old TV shows on Netflick. One was a four season drama on the life of Henry VIII and another shorter drama on the reign of Elizabeth. My goodness, it was tough living in those times. Heads rolled (literally) and many died at the stake, all for views on religion. And England was mild compared to the reformation times in Europe not to mention what Jews went through with the Inquisition.

    And in Joplin we can at least on almost a weekly basis read the admonishons of Rita Crowell. Without hell, she would have no threats to level at us.

    I long ago decided to only consider the edicts of a loving God, not a vengeful one. As for afterwards, “ashes to ashes and dust to dust” sounds reasonable to me. But hell on the other hand is real, right here on earth, from time to time, particulary when Democrats are in power. (said with tongue in cheek for sure and a smile on my face).



    • Jim Wheeler says:


      Thus, you would fit right in with Rob Bell’s congregation. I do in fact sympathize with your view; there is a strong component of the human psyche which longs for spiritual comfort in the notion that there is a greater power which cares about us in a personal way. It is a comfortable niche in which to settle, there being no other straw to cling to. I would join you if not for the adversarial nature of my stubborn mind.

      You make an excellent point about Rita. Thanks for commenting.



  2. ansonburlingame says:


    You said “greater power which cares about us in a personal way”. I do not even take it that far. I have confidence, perhaps “faith” in a power greater than myself that if asked can provide a path forward based on patience, tolerance and love.



  3. ansonburlingame says:

    Hit “send” too soon. Would add to above, Obviously I don’t ask too often when writing blogs!!



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