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Mark Tooley on a Surprising Mainline Descent into Gehenna
The Christian Century, the long-time flagship magazine for liberal mainline Protestantism in America, recently featured a symposium on hell. Somewhat surprisingly, most of the respondents, coming primarily from Evangelical backgrounds, seem to believe in it. The liberal theological patriarchs who guided the journal through the twentieth century, wherever they are now, might be slightly aflutter.
Founded in the late nineteenth century, The Christian Century early on became a chief voice for the Social Gospel, which displaced orthodox doctrine with strenuous emphases on progressive social reforms. The magazine predictably but thoughtfully articulated the trends of mainline Protestantism, which dominated American religious life until the 1960s. Reinhold Niebuhr began writing for it the 1920s. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” made its debut in The Christian Century in 1963.
Such luminaries of earlier decades gave way to ever more radical and marginal voices of the religious left by the 1970s, reflecting the overall decline of mainline Protestantism. Christianity Today was founded in 1956 by Billy Graham specifically to offer an Evangelical counterpoint to The Christian Century. The Evangelical magazine eventually caught up with and surpassed its liberal rival in influence and circulation. By the 1990s, The Christian Century, confronted by plummeting readership, seemed poised for collapse.
But it hung on. It changed from a weekly to a biweekly publication. Presbyterian pastor John Buchanan became the new editor in 1999 and opened the magazine to more theologically orthodox voices. The Christian Century remains left of center but is no longer conventionally liberal. For example, a recent cover story on the political implications of the gospel was penned by English Bishop Tom Wright, a staunch orthodox defender of the bodily resurrection and virgin birth of Jesus, who also espouses leftist critiques of America’s “empire.”
More than Metaphor
The June 3 symposium on hell provides another example. Early in the last century, liberal mainline Protestantism overwhelmingly assumed universal salvation, to the extent that it addressed eternity at all. As a reaction against Fundamentalism’s supposed preoccupation with the afterlife, Social Gospel enthusiasts stressed building the kingdom of God temporally. Divine judgment became at most a metaphor for extreme human suffering.
In his exceptional introduction to the symposium, Jerry Walls, an Evangelical United Methodist who taught until recently at Asbury Seminary in Kentucky, noted that “it is simply impossible to take seriously orthodox Christian doctrine and not have a lively, indeed passionate, interest in the issues of heaven and hell.” He added that “universal salvation cannot be casually assumed as a matter of course for anyone who respects the authority of scripture and the tradition of the church.” Admitting that even theological conservatives have long been reluctant to talk about hell, Walls wrote that “we have been shamed by Freud, Marx and Feuerbach into thinking that concern with the afterlife is a childish fantasy that is not worthy of the attention of mature, responsible persons.”
In probably the most thoughtful essay, Paul Griffiths of Duke Divinity School in North Carolina wrote that hell is a “nonnegotiable item of Christian vocabulary” dating to the Scriptures and the earliest creeds. It is intertwined with the primary Christian language of confession, prayer, and hymnody, all expressing “fear, hope, sin and grace.” Griffiths, who is an English convert to Catholicism, warned that to “abandon this sort of talk, as some Christians recommend and some attempt, is a strange and sad form of self-hatred, like that of those who mutilate themselves in an attempt to see what it would be like to live without arms or legs.”
Griffiths observed that Christianity, including the Roman Catholic Church, has been “chaste” in formulating doctrine about hell, leaving the specifics to dwell in mystery. But he noted that hell is intuited by all fallen humanity, which senses that separation from God is the complete absence of hope and love. “It doesn’t do to skip lightly over this truth, the truth of hell’s obviousness and closeness,” he said. “If we, as Christians, do that, the gospel of grace is emptied and turned into a lie whose comfort is nugatory, like that of an empty chocolate Easter egg. We have something more important to say than that, but we can say it only if we both recall and talk about the reality of hell.”
Integral to the Gospel
Vitor Westhelle of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago recalled the chilling fact that the original term for hell in the New Testament refers to the site of the cult of Moloch, an idol whose worship demanded the incineration of little children. Pagan priests sounded cymbals and beat drums to drown out the screams of the burning little ones. After the pagan site was finally destroyed, it became an urban garbage dump, where the carcasses of animals and executed criminals were burned. This horrible image was what Jesus had in mind when he warned of hell.
Avoiding a lot of gloss, Alysa Pitstick of Evangelical Hope College in Michigan wrote, “Hell is an integral part of the Good News. If there wasn’t something to be saved from, why would we need a Savior? One is saved not only for something good, but also from something bad.”
With similar straightforwardness, Carol Zeleski of Smith College in Massachusetts insisted that the doctrine of hell is integral to Christianity’s belief in the permanence of human individuality. Whether blessed or depraved, personality is forever. “Abolish hell, and see how salvation dims down,” she wrote. “Strike the ‘Inferno’ from the Divine Comedy, and see how a blandness overtakes even ‘Purgatory’ and ‘Paradise,’ turning the cosmic drama of sin and salvation into a spiritualist soap opera of inevitable progress.”
John Franke of Biblical Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, in an essay perhaps calculated to persuade social liberals, opined that hell is integral to divine justice for the oppressed and marginalized of the world. “Christian teaching on hell reminds us that at the consummation of all things, when the will of God is done on earth as it is in heaven, these inhumane narratives will be consigned to the ‘eternal fire,’ where they will be banished once and for all,” he wrote. “What of those who have chosen to participate in them?”
Worthy of Reflection
Less forthrightly, famed Lutheran scholar Martin Marty, who has written for The Christian Century across five decades, characteristically avoided any firm view of hell. A witty historian who specializes in clever anecdotes while avoiding controversial topics, Marty came closest to expressing an actual opinion by sarcastically jibing, “Hellfire and brimstone preachers can’t digest their own message.” And Amy Laura Hall of Duke Divinity School, a thoughtful ethicist on biotech issues, in her concluding essay, confusingly rambled on about a Toni Morrison novel.
But give The Christian Century credit for seriously addressing a topic that even theological conservatives, Protestant and Catholic, often prefer to avoid. For decades, Social Gospel liberals preferred caricatures of “brimstone preachers” to substantive theological reflection on hell. The drama of Christian salvation, so formative of our civilization, deserves more than dismissive chuckles.
Mark Tooley directs the United Methodist committee of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (www.ird-renew.org) in Washington, D.C.