Hell hardly a burning topic


Religion: While belief in damnation remains strong, the traditional fire-and-brimstone imagery has given way to the notion of separation from God.

July 13, 2002|By Mike Anton and William Lobdell | Mike Anton and William Lobdell,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Bill Faris believes in hell, that frightful nether world where the thermostat is always set on high, where sinners toil for eternity in unspeakable torment.

But you'd never know it listening to him preach at his south Orange County, Calif., evangelical church. He never mentions the topic; his flock shows little interest in it.

"It isn't sexy enough anymore," says Faris, pastor of Crown Valley Vineyard Christian Fellowship.

In churches across America, hell is being frozen out as clergy find themselves increasingly hesitant to sermonize on Christianity's outpost for lost souls.

The violence and torture that Dante described in Inferno and that Hieronymus Bosch illustrated on canvas five centuries ago have become cultural fossils in most mainstream Christian denominations, a story line that no longer resonates with churchgoers.

"There has been a shift in religion from focusing on what happens in the next life to asking, `What is the quality of this life we're leading now?'" says Harvey Cox Jr., an author, religious historian and professor at Harvard Divinity School. "You can go to a whole lot of churches week after week, and you'd be startled even to hear a mention of hell."

Hell's fall from fashion indicates how key portions of Christian theology have been influenced by a secular society that stresses individualism over authority and the human psyche over moral absolutes. The rise of psychology, the philosophy of existentialism and the consumer culture have all dampened interest in hell.

The tendency to play down damnation has grown in recent years as nondenominational ministries, with their focus on everyday issues such as child rearing and career success, have proliferated, and loyalty to churches has deteriorated.

The concept of hell is "just too negative," says Bruce Shelley, a senior professor of church history at the Denver Theological Seminary. "Churches are under enormous pressure to be consumer-oriented. Churches today feel the need to be appealing rather than demanding."

A 1998 poll by Barna Research Group, a company that studies Christian trends nationwide, found that church shopping has become a way of life. One in seven adults changes churches each year; one in six regularly rotates among congregations.

That fickleness has helped give rise to "megachurches" - evangelical congregations of more than 2,000 people that mix Scripture with social and recreational programs in a casual atmosphere. Megachurches routinely pay for market research on what will draw people to their ministries and keep them coming back.

"Once pop evangelism went into market analysis, hell was just dropped," says Martin Marty, professor emeritus of religion and culture at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Hell is far from dead. A Gallup Poll of adults nationwide last year found that 71 percent believe in hell.

They just don't want to hear about it.

Even among some "born again" churches, hell is a rare topic of conversation. Born-again Christians believe in hell, but they also believe that their decision to embrace Christ has earned them a one-way ticket in the other direction.

Traditional denominations also have pushed hell to the margins. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s first catechism, drawn up a few years ago by a committee, mentions hell only once.

George Hunsinger, a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary and the catechism's principal author, would have liked the document to address hell more directly and "talk about divine judgment in a responsible way." But the committee rejected the idea without much debate.

Where once hell was viewed as a literal, geographic location, it is more often seen now as a state of the soul.

In 1999, Pope John Paul II made headlines by saying that hell should be seen not as a fiery underworld but as "the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy."

As much as that seemed like a departure from church teachings, the pope's words weren't all that new. The Roman Catholic Church in the 1960s had moved away from the view of hell as a gothic torture chamber as part of the Second Vatican Council's modernization of church teachings.

Individual priests kept hell's fires burning for years, aided by a Catholic catechism of beliefs published in 1891 whose tone one priest calls "positively medieval." A new catechism, published in 1994, uses gentler language and emphasizes that hell's chief punishment is separation from God.

One measure of hell's continued decline is in the changed attitude of the Rev. Billy Graham, who came to prominence in the 1940s as a fire-and-brimstone Gospel preacher. His depiction of hell was unequivocal, an unpleasant address for unrepentant sinners. But Graham has reconsidered hell.

"I believe that hell is essentially separation from God. That we are separated from God, so we can have hell in this life and hell in the life to come," Graham told an interviewer in 1991.

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