The Comforting Doctrine of Hell
The Four Last Things have been reduced to two. Modern Christians don’t deny Death, although they don’t like to think about it, and if they believe in an afterlife, they look forward to a pleasant Heaven. However, the other certainty, Judgment, and the other possibility, Hell, have vanished from the minds of Christians. Surely God is non-judgmental, as non-judgmentalism is one of the few virtues that receive public tribute. And surely no one goes to hell, if it exists. The strong universalist strain in modern Christianity has many variations, ranging from the hope that all will be saved, held by Hans Urs von Balthasar, Richard John Neuhaus, and perhaps by John Paul II (and with which I feel the deepest sympathy), to a total rejection of the doctrine of hell as a patriarchal trick that thwarts self-liberation.
However, the traditional teaching on hell is in fact a sign of the genuineness of Christianity, and it is therefore a cause for hope. Liberal Christianity is largely a human construct; it is what happens to a revealed religion after human beings finish redecorating it to modern tastes. H. Richard Niebuhr summarized the liberal gospel: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.” However, the darker parts of the Gospels are a sign of their genuineness, because they are not what we would have made up if we were inventing a religion to satisfy our desires. Promises of comfort on this earth, yes; promises of eternal bliss, yes; even viewing earthly troubles (whose existence can scarcely be denied) as an educational tool to discipline us and to make us grow spiritually, yes; but threats of eternal punishment, fires that are not quenched, and worms that do not die—no, no, no.
The fires and worms have been eliminated to make Christianity less dark, but the darkness guarantees that the Faith is a divine Word, and not a human construct. The gospel is good news, evangelion, like the imperial proclamations, not because it makes us comfortable but because it is an announcement from the innermost heart of a reality that is itself beyond our comprehension, a message we could never have dreamed of ourselves, even though creation contains hints and foreboding and dark promises.
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Leon J. Podles holds a Ph.D. in Old English and Old Icelandic from the University of Virginia and is a senior editor of Touchstone. His latest book is Losing the Good Portion: Why Men Are Alienated from Christianity (St. Augustine's Press, 2020). He and his wife Mary (author of the Touchstone column "A Thousand Words") are the parents of six children. He resides in Baltimore, Maryland.
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