A month or so ago, a conservation swept across the internet involving speculation about the hereafter. The main crux of the issue was hoping all humanity is saved vs. the possibility that some will not be saved. That is, some will spend an eternity separated from God in a place we commonly translate with the word Hell. It was an interesting conversation. It touched on many different points. What shocked me, however, was the number of Catholics who have already dismissed the doctrine of Hell as passe; at least, Hell as anything real. Two individuals had "Fr." before their names, though on the Internet, that might not mean much. Several spoke of Hell existing, for Satan and the fallen angels, but in a Barth-like turn of doctrine, all humanity will be saved. From St. Peter to Hitler and Mao, it's going to be the great banquet feast!
I realize this is not a new idea. In fact, for most of the Faith's history, there have been those who have questioned the idea that God would allow people to suffer for all eternity, to be cast into the outer darkness for all that is outside of time and space. That's even worse than the Sarlacc! How could God do it? Especially when there is already so much suffering, and our only hope is through mere faith, not by God actually appearing in front of us in human shape to tell each generation here He is.
Nonetheless, the Church's historic answer has been: tough. Basically, it's said whether we like it or not, that's the makeup of eternity. That's why we needed saved. That's what makes the Good News so damn good. That's why God sent a savior. To save us from the penalty of our sins. Sure, salvation is more than just an insurance policy that eliminates the need for 900000 point sun blocker. But the escape from an eternity separated from God was certainly one of the main selling points of the Gospel.
Plus, to be honest, it incorporated a concept I'm hearing less, and less, and less of in the Church, and that's the concept of Justice. That idea that God is a merciful God. God is a loving God. But God is also a just God. The idea that justice is real, and not only when it comes to bending governments and societies to taking care of the widow and the orphan's healthcare and nutritional needs. There is a sort of 'all accounts are reconciled in the end', an opening of the books and judging the dead based on what they had done. I realize that the thief on the cross had his famous 11th hour and 59th minute conversion. I know the biblical passages of 1 Timothy and 2 Peter. I got that.
But this has always - and I mean always - been balanced with the sheer fact that despite God's wishes, not all will be saved. God doesn't desire sin, but yet we sin. God doesn't desire the little ones to suffer. And yet they suffer. The promise of Justice has always been that those who call upon the Lord will be saved, they will be redeemed, they will have their rewards who may have had nothing in this world due to the evil that men (and women) do. And this is more than a promise of justice. It's a reality. A notion that this whole world isn't just one big test drive for eternity, where nothing really matters, where everything is just a temp tag for what's real in the netherworld. Justice says that this created order is as integral a part of reality as the next. What we do here does have ramifications, because the one small moment of a baby's precious breath is a part of the whole fabric, one that ultimately includes an eternity in heaven before the throne of the Almighty - or not, as the case may be. It's why we're judged. And it's why, if we follow the wide path that leadeth unto destruction, well, you know.
Now, I'll admit that ditching the idea of Hell goes a long way toward opening up to other things. It's not some cosmic coincidence that mainline Protestant denominations that have ditched Hell tend to be more focused on the individuals, disdaining the death penalty and all armed conflicts, focusing less on authority and more on the right of each person to define his or her own reality. Things like war, punishment, negative reinforcement - they just crush the individual's right to be an individual. As for the ramifications? Well, in the end, we all end up in heaven anyway. It's just not worth it down here, and if an innocent suffers well, there's automatic salvation, however vaguely or new-agely that salvation is defined.
How the Church will continue to hold onto its historic teachings if it begins to jettison key doctrines like Hell, I don't know. But then again, I'm not sure I'm convinced on it's jettisoning of teachings like Capital Punishment or Just War (which seems to be going the same direction that Capital Punishment was going a couple decades ago). Maybe it isn't. Maybe it is. Will it hold firm? Will it toss it and other doctrines out with the bathwater? Will it look back and say 'we used to believe silly things like that but we're much better now'? I don't know. I just found the discussion interesting. And yet, not altogether shocking.
I leave you with a couple of verses from a lyric we used to sing in Seminary. It was a humorous tribute to Rudolf Bultmann the famous German Protestant Theologian who popularized the idea of demythologizing the New Testament. That is, admitting that the New - as well as the Old - was just a collection of myths, fables, and fairy tales. Bultmann promoted a sort of existentialist spin on Christian doctrine, though some of my professors who actually heard him said that he could preach the old time religion as well as Billy Graham. For him, it was not a contradiction to say 'The Christ who died for your sins' and elsewhere say 'it was all a made up legend to put a philosophical and spiritual spin on events that may not have happened.' So out of humor, an individual rewrote the words to the Protestant hymn "Jesus, Jesus How I love You." I can't remember the whole song, but I remember these two verses, one of which is quite pertinent to my musings:
Rudolf, Rudolf we've been thinking
What a pity it would be
If our faith were transformed into
You have shown us
Heaven here on earth must dwell
Purgatory's gone to Limbo
Rudolf where the hell is Hell?
I wonder if there will be a similar cant directed at the Church someday. Time will tell I guess.