MY GREAT-GRANDFATHER, the Reverend William Aitken, who was the Presbyterian Minister of Newcastle, New Brunswick, from about 1860 to 1900, often preached sermons on the terrors of hell. One Sunday morning he was warming to his familiar theme, advising his congregation that in hell there would be "wailing and gnashing of teeth."
Sitting in the front pew was an infirm but rebellious old lady who could stand it no longer. So through her toothless gums she muttered in the direction of the pulpit: "Not for me. I haven't got any teeth."
"Madam, in hell teeth will be provided," retorted the Minister.
This story may be apocryphal but it illustrates an attitude that is increasingly familiar. Hell has become a bit of a joke. For most people, including many good Christian people, do not believe in hell anymore. All that eternal fire and everlasting damnation stuff seems completely over the top. Liberal theologians ridicule it and promote their view of universal salvation, while many religious conservatives feel that the horrors of hell are largely symbolic. A loving God, so the argument goes, could not possibly behave in the cruel and punitive way those 19th-century Scottish preachers, not to mention their equivalents in other denominations down the centuries, used to assert.
The modern reluctance to think about hell comes from living in an age of easy believism. Pastors like to be popular. Old-fashioned subjects such as the day of judgment and the wrath of God don't fill the pews. Sermons on hell would empty them double quick.
Yet whatever the prevailing religious fashion, we cannot get rid of hell by overlooking it, let alone joking about it. Although virtually unmentioned in the Old Testament, hell is vividly and specifically depicted in the Gospels. Jesus spoke many times about hell. In the parable of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25: 31-46) he portrays a frightening judgment scene in which God says to those who have failed him: "Depart from me you cursed into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and all his angels."
These famous words, taken in conjunction with Jesus' many other references to the fate of the damned using metaphors such as outer darkness, tormenting thirst, everlasting fire, a growing worm, and gnashing teeth, have established a theological doctrine of hell which is not easily gainsaid. Pope John Paul II in his book Crossing the Threshold of Hope discusses the question of whether a loving God can possibly condemn any human being to eternal torment. But the Pope concludes: "Yet the words of Christ are unequivocal. In Matthew's Gospel he speaks clearly of those who will go into eternal punishment."
The clarity of Scripture on the doctrine of hell is a considerable obstacle to the doubters and jokers. Yet there are serious arguments in favor of ameliorating, if not totally amending, the doctrine. Origen, the greatest theologian of the early Church, held that the punishments of hell might not last forever. Among other Church fathers, on the side of Origen were Clement of Alexandria and Gregory of Nysaa, who spoke as though in the end, all will be saved. This is known as the universalist view and has become well supported by 20th-century theologians.
For example, the Jesuit Karl Rahner claims that no one ever goes to hell. He regards Jesus' words on this subject as admonitory rather than predictive. While not ruling out the possibility of eternal damnation for the worst of sinners, such as Judas, Rahner prefers to believe in "the truth of the omnipotence of the universal salvific will of God, the redemption of all by Christ, the duty of men to hope for salvation." From the Protestant corner, the Church of England's 1938 Doctrine Report stated that "the love of God will at the last win penitence from all." Even the neo-orthodox Karl Barth can be read as universalist. Among modern writers on religion and theology hell has become a hard sell.
THE OPTIMISTS' DOCTRINE OF UNIVERSALISM is attractive, but is it right? Those who believe in the supremacy of Scripture (who of course have no truck with purgatory, which does not get a single mention in the Bible) do not think so. Yet even the most hard-line of Hades believers have a problem reconciling the God of love with the God of hell. The most scholarly attempt to make such a reconciliation has been put forward in an outstanding book Dare We Hope "That All Men Be Saved"? by Hans Urs von Balthasar.
Balthasar rejects the idea that hell will be emptied at the end of time and that the damned will be reconciled with God. He does not assert that all will be saved. But he does suggest that Christian believers have a right to hope and a duty to pray that all sinners will be saved. For even the worst sinners may be moved to repentance by God's grace and granted salvation by God's mercy. The opposite is also possible, concedes Balthasar, since anyone can use his free will to reject the grace of God. The question of who may, or may not, go to hell is therefore an open one.
Cardinal Avery Dulles, in an article on hell published last year in the magazine First Things, implied that in his view, and in a recent change of view by the Pope, Balthasar is probably right. As Dulles puts it:
The position of Balthasar seems to me to be the orthodox. It does not contradict any ecumenical councils of definitions of the faith. It can be reconciled with everything in Scripture, at least if the statements of Jesus on hell are taken as minatory rather than predictive. Balthasar's position, moreover, does not undermine a healthy fear of being lost. But the position is at least adventurous. It runs against the obvious interpretation of the words of Jesus in the New Testament and against the dominant theological opinion down through the centuries, which maintains that some, and in fact very many, are lost.
How many people will go to hell is another continuous issue. Jesus' words on the subject are somewhat ominous. Throughout his time on earth he offered his hearers only two options after death. Everlasting happiness for those chosen to dwell with God. Everlasting misery for those who reject or are rejected by God. "Many are called but few are chosen" (Matthew 22:14), he declared, repeating the point about the high failure rate with metaphoric references to narrow gates and camels having difficulty in passing through the eye of a needle. These statements were traditionally interpreted to mean that the majority of those who die will be lost and will go to hell.
My 19th-century ancestor the Rev. Aitken and his ilk would have approved of the tradition and disapproved of the loss of it in the 21st century. But I agree with Avery Dulles when he wrote: "The search for numbers in the demography of hell is futile... it is good that God has left us without exact information. If we knew that virtually everybody would be damned we would be tempted to despair. If we knew that all or nearly all are saved, we might become presumptuous. If we knew that some fixed percent, say fifty, would be saved we would be caught in an unholy rivalry."
Actually, there's been plenty of holy rivalry on the subject of hell. Yet despite all the fire and brimstone that's been thrown down from pulpits about it across the centuries, nobody has a clue who will be going there. Even Judas may have repented in the nick of time. We just don't know.
My guess is that hell does exist and that its population will be full of surprises. The only sure way of not having to find out more about those surprises is to obey Jesus' first words recorded in the Gospels, "Repent and believe the good news."
Jonathan Aitken, The American Spectator's "High Spirits" columnist, is the author of seven books, including Nixon: A Life. This article appeared in the March issue of The American Spectator.
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