Time recently published a cover story, "Is Hell Dead?" about a "rogue pastor" called Rob Bell in Michigan. We don't know for sure that anyone is in hell, he argues. Maybe, but fantasizing free heaven passes for all doesn't make much sense, especially for a pastor. If Bell's message is that his parishioners are all going to enjoy an eternity of bliss whether they go to church or not, it's only a matter of time before they stop going. "The doctrine of universal salvation turns out to be as deterministic as the more strident forms of scientific materialism," Ross Douthat wrote.
Rob Bell represents "the tragedy of non-judgmental mainline liberalism," said R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. I agree with that. Meanwhile I keep thinking of C. S. Lewis's reminder: "All the most terrifying passages in the New Testament come from the mouth of Our Lord."
It should be clear by now that the theological liberalism that has dominated our age undermines religious faith, much as secular liberalism, intended to improve society, will end up bankrupting it.
Consider the Church of England, where every progressive cause is embraced. Gay bishops? Who, in our current climate, would dare to disapprove? Out of 60 million people in the United Kingdom, only 1.1 million, or about 2 percent, go to church every week. Once it was 10 times that. Even its leaders seem to have stopped believing in it. Declining congregations and growing costs make the C. of E. an unsustainable venture without the recovery of faith.
The trends in America are similar, although less advanced. The number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation has nearly doubled (from 8 percent to 15 percent) since 1990. In the same period self-identified Christians fell by 10 percentage points (from 86 to 76 percent).
The Catholic Church has likewise declined, and the sex abuse scandal is only partly to blame. One in 10 Americans now identify themselves as ex-Catholics, and one of three raised as Catholic have defected. The Jesuits, by far the most liberal order, have fallen from 8,400 members in 1965 to 2,650 in 2010. Social justice, which really means income redistribution, is their foremost article of faith.
All the most liberal orders of nuns -- the ones who threw away their habits in the 1960s and adopted a vaguely feminist mission of peace and social justice -- are withering away. Urgent fund-raising appeals are needed to preserve their elderly remnant. On the other hand, the orders that have restored the habit and insist on a strict interpretation of their respective rules are thriving.
The trend is unmistakable. But the senior archbishops in the U.S. remain cowed-intimidated by the zeitgeist. (The younger bishops tend to be much better, however.) The underlying problem can be put this way. The top archbishops are incapable of instilling the fear of hellfire in their most famous parishioners, who without rebuke openly support abortion and other activities irreconcilable with Catholicism. These bishops have been trained to believe that all problems must be addressed by diplomacy, and their faith has turned into a watery thing.
But our declining faith is caused by something more pervasive than non-judgmental liberalism. Rising prosperity makes its own contribution. We have seen this all over the Western world. People will avoid thinking about an afterlife, whether heaven or hell, as long as years of plenty stretch out ahead of them -- a new vacation, a new toy, a new mistress. And capitalism does bring prosperity. Not that I oppose it on the ground that it promotes worldly comfort. Nonetheless, if capitalism endures -- and we are seeing it spread to China and India -- then we may expect a further decline in faith.
What did Jesus say? First of all, he warned that riches put our souls in danger. He didn't mention the hazards of poverty. Repeatedly, throughout the Gospels, he insists on the need for faith. He also predicted a general decline in faith. He did miracles right in front of people's eyes but some of them still didn't believe. Tyre and Sidon would have repented in sackcloth and ashes if they had seen such things, he said. And at the Second Coming, "when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?" (The evangelists would hardly have invented a savior who foresees that his message will become less and less popular.)
Islam has flourished even as Christianity has languished. And notice that Islamic countries seem incapable of creating wealth on their own. When it gushes out of the Arabian sands in the form of oil, the basis of the wealth had already been created in the West (in the form of automobiles).
THE OTHER DAY, the pastor at our local Catholic church in Washington, D.C., wondered about the book-writing atheists in our midst. What goes through their minds in the middle of the night? I don't think they contemplate either heaven or hell. They assume that at death they enter the void.
Christopher Hitchens, who has written for this magazine, tells me in an e-mail that "annihilation is, to my knowledge, the post-death assumption of most if not all atheists." I think this also applies to many liberal intellectuals who do not explicitly identify themselves as atheists.
As to heaven and hell, Hitchens added, both have "the insuperable problem of compulsory eternity." But the "invention of purgatory" has its attractions, he finds, because it does entail "the possibility of some kind of appeal, or change of circumstances."
Richard Dawkins, the prominent preacher of atheist polemics, finds the doctrine of purgatory ridiculous. He calls it a "sort of divine Ellis Island." But he seems unbothered by the prospect of an eternal nothing. "Being dead will be no different from being unborn -- I shall be just as I was in the time of William the Conqueror or the dinosaurs."
I have been reading two of Dawkins's books, The God Delusion and The Greatest Show on Earth. He tells us that in his earlier books he forgot to disclose the scientific evidence that evolution is true. He will fill that gap (in The Greatest Show). But he has little to offer, because there isn't much evidence for evolution. Anti-religious polemics are his true forté. He's a true believer in the idea that life arose by chance and only seems to be designed. That is his cause -- the (bleak) faith that he lives for. His vituperative condemnations of religion are hard to reconcile with the claim (first made by Freud) that religious faith is "wishful thinking."
When we get up in years -- and I qualify -- we do think about the Last Things -- normally defined as death, judgment, heaven and hell. But so do young people, now that I look back. Maybe we do so even more when we are young. But we don't often hear about these things from the elderly, who are so fixated on aches and pains, hip replacements and the mundane details of health care (so tiresome to read about).
The one certainty, that we are all going to die, and some of us fairly soon, we mostly contrive to keep out of our minds. Probably the old are better at that kind of repression than the young. Often, the practical faith of the elderly intelligentsia is a form of Roman stoicism.
I sometimes meet people who tell me that they wish they had religious faith. I would only say this. Don't think of it as a switch that is either in the "on" or "off" position. It is more like a muscle that has to be exercised. It is to some extent under the control of the will and in that respect it is like love. Christian theologians tell us that love, too, is subject to the will. So if you want to have religious faith, it may be that you already do, to some extent. Pray for it to be strengthened.