James Kirk Wall, author of Agnosticism: The Battle Against Shameless Ignorance, seems to think he has come up with a clever line of agnostic apologetics to pursue in getting rid of Hell:
Pastor Rob Bell is arguing that there may be no Hell. Would Christianity still be able to sell without Hell, or would membership plummet?
Heaven and Hell make up the greatest marketing campaign ever created by man. If you buy what we’re selling, you will live forever in happiness. If you don’t, fire and brimstone for all eternity!
Uh, yeah, that's a perfect to way to put it—if you're into flippant, theologically-challenged, and historically-illiterate snarkiness. Which I'm sure is appealing to many people. Personally, I've never had a problem with belief in Hell; my issue, as a Fundamentalist, was with purgatory. But once I read what the Catholic Church actually teaches about purgatory, as opposed to the all of the Jack Chick-type silliness I was fed growing up, it made sense. (In fact, the fact that so many Catholics dismiss purgatory as superfluous or silly shows just how rotten catechesis has been generally since the 1960s.)
My experience is that people (some of them avowed atheists) who are dismissive of Hell have both a faulty understanding of what it is and isn't, but also a warped understanding of who God is and is not (or what orthodox Christianity says about God). This is understandable to a certain degree, as some Christians do indeed portray God as something of angry old man who can't wait to shoot sinners out of his celestial cannon into the fires of damnation. But if there only heaven, or no afterlife at all, it does beg the question: can we really speak meaningfully about good and evil, as well as justice? The short answer is, "No" (as I touched on a bit in this post yesterday). Ross Douthat, in his April 24th column, "A Case for Hell", writes:
Atheists have license to scoff at damnation, but to believe in God and not in hell is ultimately to disbelieve in the reality of human choices. If there’s no possibility of saying no to paradise then none of our no’s have any real meaning either. They’re like home runs or strikeouts in a children’s game where nobody’s keeping score.
In this sense, a doctrine of universal salvation turns out to be as deterministic as the more strident forms of scientific materialism. Instead of making us prisoners of our glands and genes, it makes us prisoners of God himself. We can check out any time we want, but we can never really leave.
The doctrine of hell, by contrast, assumes that our choices are real, and, indeed, that we are the choices that we make. The miser can become his greed, the murderer can lose himself inside his violence, and their freedom to turn and be forgiven is inseparable from their freedom not to do so.
As Anthony Esolen writes, in the introduction to his translation of Dante’s “Inferno,” the idea of hell is crucial to Western humanism. It’s a way of asserting that “things have meaning” — that earthly life is more than just a series of unimportant events, and that “the use of one man’s free will, at one moment, can mean life or death ... salvation or damnation.”
Hell make perfect sense if we have a sense of perfection desired, a hope for justice fulfilled, and a recognition of free will granted. To quote, once again, from Benedict XVI's Spe Salvi:
To protest against God in the name of justice is not helpful. A world without God is a world without hope (cf. Eph 2:12). Only God can create justice. And faith gives us the certainty that he does so. The image of the Last Judgement is not primarily an image of terror, but an image of hope; for us it may even be the decisive image of hope. Is it not also a frightening image? I would say: it is an image that evokes responsibility, an image, therefore, of that fear of which Saint Hilary spoke when he said that all our fear has its place in love. (par. 44)
Returning to Wall's question, I think that much of the evidence is in: those churches and Christian groups that deny the existence of Hell—that is, the real possibility of being able to freely reject God to live with that choice for eternity—don't have much long-standing appeal. Mainline Protestant denominations that have abandoned belief in Hell (along with other basic doctrines) are dying or dead. Why? There is the matter of Jesus and the New Testament writers making plenty of references to Hell; there is also the nagging suspicion (confirmed, upon thought and investigation) that promising heaven without the need to freely choose love, life, and goodness is a cop-out, a con job, and a contradition. It fails to make sense of sin and it fails to provide real hope:
From the earliest times, the prospect of the Judgement has influenced Christians in their daily living as a criterion by which to order their present life, as a summons to their conscience, and at the same time as hope in God's justice. Faith in Christ has never looked merely backwards or merely upwards, but always also forwards to the hour of justice that the Lord repeatedly proclaimed. ...
In the modern era, the idea of the Last Judgement has faded into the background: Christian faith has been individualized and primarily oriented towards the salvation of the believer's own soul, while reflection on world history is largely dominated by the idea of progress. The fundamental content of awaiting a final Judgement, however, has not disappeared: it has simply taken on a totally different form. The atheism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is—in its origins and aims—a type of moralism: a protest against the injustices of the world and of world history. A world marked by so much injustice, innocent suffering, and cynicism of power cannot be the work of a good God. A God with responsibility for such a world would not be a just God, much less a good God. It is for the sake of morality that this God has to be contested. Since there is no God to create justice, it seems man himself is now called to establish justice. If in the face of this world's suffering, protest against God is understandable, the claim that humanity can and must do what no God actually does or is able to do is both presumptuous and intrinsically false. It is no accident that this idea has led to the greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice; rather, it is grounded in the intrinsic falsity of the claim. A world which has to create its own justice is a world without hope. (Spe Salvi, 41, 42)
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Links:
• Hell and the Bible | Piers Paul Read | An excerpt from "Hell" in Hell and Other Destinations
• The Brighter Side of Hell | James V. Schall, S.J.
• Socrates Meets Sartre: In Hell? | Peter Kreeft
• Are God's Ways Fair? | Ralph Martin