... about hell, damnation, and sundry related matters. In a post titled, "Doing Away with Hell?", Dr. Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote:
All the same, there are particular doctrines that are especially odious and repulsive to the modern and postmodern mind. The traditional doctrine of hell as a place of everlasting punishment bears that scandal in a particular way. The doctrine is offensive to modern sensibilities and an embarrassment to many who consider themselves to be Christians. Those Friedrich Schleiermacher called the “cultured despisers of religion” especially despise the doctrine of hell. As one observer has quipped, hell must be air-conditioned.
Liberal Protestantism and Roman Catholicism have modified their theological systems to remove this offense. No one is in danger of hearing a threatening “fire and brimstone” sermon in those churches. The burden of defending and debating hell now falls to the evangelicals–the last people who think it matters. (emphasis added)
But, as former Evangelical Dr. Francis Beckwith points out, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says otherwise, most emphatically:
The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire.” The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs. (par. 1035)
A couple of months ago I was talking to an Evangelical about various points of Catholic doctrine, and he said, "I think the Catechism of the Catholic Church is a little vague and weak on a number of issues." I immediately asked for an example. He couldn't give me one, even though he indicated that he's read at least some of the Catechism. I wondered: did he say that becaus he really believes it, or was it some sort of strange bluff? I don't know. But as a Catholic who reads the Catechism and who attends a parish in which the words "sin" and "hell" and "confession" and "salvation" are used, I can only hope that Dr. Mohler figures out soon that liberal Protestantism and Catholicism aren't nearly as close to one another as he thinks they are—on this topic and numerous others.
Now, to be fair to Dr. Mohler, it's impossible to ignore the fact that many Catholics do indeed hear little or nothing about hell from the pulpit. While the formal, official teachings of the Catholic Church have not changed or equivocated, the past few decades have witnessed, in general, a massive case of "has the cat got your tongue?" among Catholics at large when it comes to the reality of eternal separation from God. The British journalist and novelist Piers Paul Read, in his essay, "Hell and the Bible", from the collection Hell and Other Destinations (Ignatius Press, 2006), writes:
My religious instruction began at Gilling, the Ampleforth Prep school, which I attended from the age of eight to twelve. It followed the Penny Catechism with its numbered questions and answers. To encourage us to remember the answers, we were set a 'stick test': too many wrong answers led to a beating. It was important to get them right not just to avoid being thwacked on the hands by a ferule in this world but to escape a more terrible punishment in the next. 'What are the four last things to be ever remembered?' asked Question 332. 'The four last things to be ever remembered are Death, Judgement, Hell, and Heaven.' What was Hell? Eternal punishment. What would lead to eternal punishment? Dying unrepentant in a state of mortal sin. What sins were mortal? Murder, adultery - and choosing not to go to Mass on a Sunday.
The essay which follows asks why these 'four last things ever to be remembered' appear to have been forgotten in today's Catholic Church. Why in particular are we so rarely warned that we run a real risk of spending eternity in torment? If the Benedictines at Ampleforth believed what they taught us in the 1950s, why was damnation dropped from Catholic preaching in the last few decades of the twentieth century when a monk from Ampleforth, Basil Hume, was Archbishop of Westminster? There has never been, to my knowledge, any clear and unambiguous statement from Archbishop's House, or from the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, that the Church has changed its mind on the question of Hell; yet one searches in vain for any mention of Satan or his domain in the press releases from the Bishops' Conference, in Catholic journals such as The Tablet, in programmes prepared for the teaching of the Catholic faith to Catholic children in Catholic schools such as Weaving the Web, or in booklets published to guide the small groups formed to foster spiritual renewal in the Diocese of Westminster, At Your Word, Lord.
Indeed, it would seem to a dispassionate observer that there is no longer any real belief among contemporary Catholics in the last item of the Nicean Creed, 'life everlasting'. There are calls to conversion and repentance, but no suggestion, explicit or implicit, of what may befall those who are not converted or fail to repent; much talk of salvation but no definition of what it is from which we are to be saved; no warning that while the gospel may be good news for some, it is decidedly bad news for others.
But it must also be said that Dr. Mohler's appeal to "the evangelicals" as defenders of this or that belief is a bit misleading since the fragmentation among Evangelicalism has become so pronounced and obvious, it's very hard to define "the evangelicals" anymore. That, however, is a post for another time.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Links:
• The Brighter Side of Hell | James V. Schall, S.J.
• Socrates Meets Sartre: In Hell? | Peter Kreeft
• Are God's Ways Fair? | Ralph Martin