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.
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.