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.)
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.
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.