Saturday, April 16, 2011

What the he--?

I prepared this post for the Chicago Tribune's religion blog after reading what the other contributors had to say on the Time magazine cover story casting doubt about the doctrine of hell.
Pastor Rob Bell has a new book out, and some readers are finding that he's selling hell short.
He calls that good news?

Bell isn't really introducing anything new: he's repackaging speculation that goes all the way back to 3rd century Egypt. (In Catholic circles, this was done by Hans Urs von Balthasar, who was named a Cardinal by Pope John Paul II.) But that Bell's book made the cover of this week's “Time” magazine underlines our cultural obsession with the thought of hellfire and damnation (along exorcisms and the fate of Judas).

And every so often, hell itself seems to oblige that obsession by breaking into history with the most diabolical of crimes against humanity. The last century seemed to host more of those infernal incursions than any age deserved. As apocalyptic and hellish as natural disasters are, (and we've seen plenty of them in recent years, too) they lack the dimension of evil that comes into play in massacre, torture and other inventions of twisted human freedom.

The stereotype of hell depicts the damned as weak, pitiful, beings groveling before omnipotent wrath. The reality is that the doctrine of hell reveals the terrible enormity of human freedom; it is the measure of our Godlike dignity, seen in reverse. And still, our culture grasps for the thin consolation that can be found in consigning hell to oblivion, clearly unaware that to believe that hell exists is not to claim that anyone is actually there (whatever “there” may mean).

Our skeptical age seems to be saying two things: “There is no hell” and “We are terrified of being sent there.” This is both interesting and ominous. We are living in a culture that fears that it is damned. In other words, a culture that has no hope.

The doctrine of hell is not simply a threat; a supernatural cudgel to force the recalcitrant sinner to shape up. It is the correlative of hope. It says that human freedom matters. So rather than eliminate the doctrine of hell, pastors might consider focusing more on hope. Not the flabby, “cheap grace” Bonhoeffer decried (in a hellish age), but a hope that, according to the classical description, involves a great good that is difficult, but still possible: Jesus spoke in terms of a “narrow gate” that leads to life; Paul urged the Corinthians to exercise the same discipline and perseverance they would in an athletic match.

In the words of Pope Benedict (in his encyclical on hope): “According to the Christian faith, 'redemption'—salvation—is not simply a given. Redemption is offered to us in the sense that we have been given hope, trustworthy hope, by virtue of which we can face our present: the present, even if it is arduous, can be lived and accepted if it leads towards a goal, if we can be sure of this goal, and if this goal is great enough to justify the effort of the journey.”

Whether it's heaven or hell, clearly our eternal destiny begins in the choices we make here and now. Human freedom matters.


Amber V. said...

A Fr. gave a talk on Hell & Purgatory last mos. & he said Hell is made up of the "leftovers of a human soul"...when the soul is damned to Hell (by his own choice)all of the good---even a little bit--is taken back from the soul & all that is left is thrown into the pit of Hell...because in Hell not one shred of good exists, hard/unthinkable concept to grasp...Even harder still is thinking that souls "can chose" to go there?? "Purgatory" is even harder to understand as so many do not believe it exists & it was something started for the Church to get lots of money to ensure people that they wouldn't spend a lot of time there.

Sr Anne said...

It is very hard for me to reconcile Catholic teaching with what you heard. It almost makes it seem as though the human soul was something that could be "scraped" of its good or evil--which certainly depersonalizes us! I think maybe Father was trying (unsuccessfully!) to use a figure of speech.
I think it would be better to go to the Catechism of the Catholic Church for the straight scoop, even though it can seem a bit technical in its language. You will see how very different the notion of Purgatory is from what people commonly assume.

Ultimately, to speak of hell or Purgatory is to speak of sin.
So here's the Catechism on Sin:

Here is the section on death and the "particular" (individual) judgment:

Here is the part on Judgment Day (you can see how very different it is from what you heard; this is the rather sober, official teaching of the Church)

And here is the Catechism on Jesus' own "descent into hell" after his death:

Anonymous said...

What Father says actually makes sense in light of Mt 13:12 ...

To anyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; from anyone who has not, even what he has will be taken away.

Joshua said...


I am confused.

I've heard of Von Balthazar, but never read him. Are you suggesting that his position on Hell (and therefore JPII's position in making him a Cardinal) was/is a belief in some sort of "Hell-light".

In other words, is there something in that position that goes counter to the teaching of the Church??

Thanks and God Bless

Sr Anne said...

Regarding von Balthasar, he is pretty widely acknowledged as a pillar of orthodoxy (he wouldn't have been named a Cardinal otherwise!), but his book "Dare we hope... that all be saved?" raises the hackles of some defenders of the faith.
What he seems to be doing, though, is revisiting the same early Church Fathers who speculated on the ultimate questions in the light of Paul's words about the "recapitulation" that brings everything "under Christ's headship."
But it is speculation, not doctrinal teaching. (I think some people forget that.)
Anyway, von B is not exactly light reading; I can only manage to grasp (to some extent) his more basic writings. I just referred to him in the post to say that the concepts that the evangelical minister brought up are not that original, and not ipso facto that suspect, either.
What seems to be the real point (if you read the Time article) is that our culture assumes that if there is a hell, it is populated, and we can more or less determine (i.e., judge) who they are. Further, the article explicitly states that the primary purpose of the doctrine of hell is to scare people into submission to Church expectations. But that is ridiculous, even if in some cases the doctrine is exploited that way. For Catholics, the existence of hell is a divinely revealed truth. We believe because God, who "can neither deceive nor be deceived," revealed it to us through his Son and his Church. It's part of the creed: getting rid of it is not an option!

Sr Anne said...

For a really profound understanding of a Catholic view of hell, you can always just go to Dante's Inferno!

Anonymous said...

Who among your readers really needs a more profound understanding of a catholic view of hell. Those flames give me the creeps and I can actually see an image of the Blessed Mother in the midst of them. Yikes