In some parts of the country you run into more ex-Catholics than stoplights. Heck, my family is a Black Friday parking lot of disgruntled former Catholics. Chalk the theological exodus up to the Church’s delayed, dismissive handling of the sex-abuse scandal or de-traditionalizing of American life. But the Catholic Church has one big scriptural challenge to filling the rank and file: the problem of evil. The hot glow of fire and the sulphur stink of brimstone. Or, more specifically, Hell.
For much of Christianity’s history, fear of hell has loomed large over the faithful. Tired of the constant threat of damnation, however, in the past 50-some years the Catholic Church has moved toward a more positive, salvation-based stance. The trend has spurred U.S. Catholic magazine to wonder, “Has hell actually, finally frozen over?”
“Over the last half-century,” writes J. Peter Nixon, “hell has moved from being a fixture of the Catholic landscape to something that exists far over the horizon.” Nixon cites polling stats from Pew Center on Religion and Public Life: “60 percent of Catholics believe in hell. While comparable to mainline Protestants (56 percent), that’s far below the 82 percent recorded by evangelical Protestant churches.”
Even though hell doesn’t seem to trouble the layperson like it used to, religious scholars, writers, and clergy continue to question its theological place. Evangelical pastor Rob Bell, in his book Love Wins, pinged the problem of evil in contemporary spiritual discourse, wondering, if we have a just and all-loving God, “Will all people be saved or will God not get what God wants? Does this magnificent, mighty, marvelous God fail in the end?” Father Robert Barron of Word on Fire Ministries says we can’t forget about hell completely, that, Nixon summarizes, “Catholic teaching affirms hell’s existence, but doesn’t tell us if anyone has ever been sent there.” Is there any reason, though, why it might be advantageous for hell to exist?
Nixon lays out a number of reasons why hell may be a crucial component of Christianity. Are contemporary Christians too optimistic about their own salvation? Do they live in a state of what German Protestant Dietrich Bonhoffer would call “cheap grace”? As Peter Steinfels, co-director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University, explained to U.S. Catholic, “[Hell] did communicate a depth to life. Life was to be lived for high stakes.” That sentiment, I’d argue, is something folks of all faiths can agree on.
Then again, maybe not. One final anecdote from Nixon:
A priest as well as a theologian, Randy Sachs has few regrets about the church’s change in tone. “In the confessional I’ve heard people talk about their understanding of God in ways that would turn your hair white. Some of our baggage is definitely worth losing.”
Source: U.S. Catholic