August 11, 2006

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

For heaven’s sake, what’s happened to hell?

It seems that the concepts of heaven and hell are going the way of the horse and buggy. They’re simply irrelevant in a world where human knowledge, experience and arrogance reign.

This fact was well documented in a recent Associated Press article written by Richard N. Ostling titled “Scholars say belief in hell, heaven is becoming vague.” The piece quoted Protestant religious scholars and Cardinal Avery Dulles of the Catholic Church to prove the point.

While a majority of Americans continue to tell pollsters they believe in some kind of heaven, it seems that “some kind of” are the operative words here. Ideas of what heaven means range from floating on clouds with angels to becoming rich here on earth.

Jeffrey Burton Russell, an emeritus professor of history at the University of California in Santa Barbara, said, “The percentage who say they believe in heaven has remained pretty constant the past 50 years, but what people mean by it has changed an awful lot. Some people are so confused that they believe in heaven but not God—I suppose a New Age thing.”

Well, yes. Furthermore, said the scholars, most people no longer believe in the concept of hell. In the Christian belief, hell is as much a possibility as heaven because salvation depends upon our faith exercised in free will. Non-salvation equals hell.

The article explained that the Second Vatican Council declared that non-Christians who believe in God could be saved as well as Christians. Cardinal Dulles said this is because, “The Church decided that requiring explicit Christian faith was too pessimistic.”

Christians are allowed to “hope that very many, if not all, will be saved,” he said. However, according to Christian teachings, there is “the absolute necessity of faith for salvation,” and all of us face two possible fates: “everlasting happiness in the presence of God” or “everlasting torment in the absence of God.”

Still, “thoughtless optimism is the more prevalent error” because many Christians mistakenly assume that “everyone, or practically everyone, must be saved.”

Cardinal Dulles’s statements reinforce the view of the Rev. David F. Wells of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, who believes that Christian teaching is being seriously distorted in our culture.

For example, he said, Christian belief in “ultimate right and wrong” is the basis for belief in heaven and hell. Without that kind of objective truth, “the dominant cultural belief, promoted by psychology” is “that people should choose whatever they want.”

Thus, something has to give. “And in our world today, in America and much of the West, what is giving is Christianity,” said Rev. Wells.

We seem to live in a world without personal responsibility. Consider the excuses we hear all the time: someone else’s fault, an abused childhood, an addiction, a disability or bad luck. For all the blame-laying that goes on in families, politics or the workplace, it’s hard to find someone who ever admits guilt.

Whether we believe in a heavenly place of joy, or simply fear the unknown that is hell, one thing is clear to me: I sure don’t want God mad at me for eternity.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)


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