Hell, Air-Conditioned

June 1996Dale Vree

Dale Vree is Editor of New Oxford Review

What should a Christian magazine do if it's in trouble? How 'bout write a creed! "Preposterous," you say?

Well, Christianity Today (CT), which is suffering from sharply declining circulation and recently had to go from being essentially a bi-weekly to essentially a monthly, has come up with what it calls its "statement of faith."

In a recent issue the Managing Editor introduced the statement by saying how pleased he is that his readers often describe CT as "objective," "balanced," and "fair." Ah, but that's not sufficient. The question is, says he: "Are we honoring God?" Hence the creed, by which "to measure our work." CT was founded way back in 1956: better late than never?

Well, introspection begets introspection, and we feel prompted to ask a couple basic questions.

(1) Is the NEW OXFORD REVIEW fair, objective, balanced?

Fair? We try to be, but probably fail from time to time. Objective? No way; we're engaged. Balanced? Well, balanced between what and what?

Could it be that CT, an evangelical Protestant magazine, is too objective, too balanced, not evangelical enough anymore? And is that why it appears to be having trouble? We at the NOR are not hi-tech; unlike CT, we're not "on-line" and we don't have e-mail, but we are plugged into the grapevine. What we hear from our evangelical acquaintances is not how wonderfully "objective" and "balanced" CT is, but how bland, tepid, and intellectually breezy it is.

Once upon a time, when it was edited by Carl Henry, CT was an intellectual brawler. It was printed on newsprint and had virtually no color or graphics. It was headquartered on the front lines in Washington, D.C., and it made waves. Now CT is ensconced in Carol Stream, Illinois, and it only makes ripples. It is printed on slick paper, and has oodles of color ads and snazzy graphics. It has lots of bytes, but has lost most of its bite.

(2) Should the NOR come up with its own "statement of faith"? (Yes, we hear you laughing. But let's take the question seriously for a moment.)

The NOR already has, among other things, the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Magisterium, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. What more do we need, and by what authority could we presume to come up with something better?

But many evangelicals are, so to speak, creedally challenged: Certain kinds of evangelicals despise any and all creeds, while others, forever reinventing the wheel, seem to write statements of faith with the same ease with which one writes one's grocery list. The evangelical doctrine of private scriptural interpretation begs for a proliferation of private creeds. So why shouldn't an evangelical magazine have its own creed?

Given what seems to ail CT, is a creed the cure? Certainly not the one they've concocted. We orthodox Catholics look to evangelicals to keep hammering home the bottom-line truth that, if we truly know Christ and live in Him, we will be saved. Saved from what? From the punishment for our sins, which is eternal damnation. Only because the bad news is so horribly bad is the Good News so wonderfully good. Too many Catholics don't understand that, so we want evangelicals to keep pounding away at that ultimate truth. But here's what CT says: "At the end of the age, the bodies of the dead shall be raised...and the wicked shall be condemned to eternal death."

Wouldn't you know it, CT has wimped out again. There are many ways of speaking of Hell, but "eternal death" is among the most pallid of all. Alas, it stands to reason that what is widely regarded as a breezy magazine would give the reprobate an air-conditioned Hell.

Let's get real. Imagine yourself an atheist. You say, "Well, I could be a believer, in which case I'll have to go to church every Sunday, give up certain pleasurable activities, spend time praying and reading the Bible, and even do some painful, self-denying things. Of course, I don't know if Christianity is true, but if it is, I can expect to go to Heaven. On the other hand, if I continue not believing, I'll have lots more time to do fun things, I can do sinfully delicious things without being made to feel guilty, I won't have to deny myself anything, and if the going gets rough, I'll just take an overdose of sleeping pills and blissfully sleep forever, and without any nightmares. And if I'm wrong about Christianity, and this here CT creed is right, I'll be awakened for a bit, and then God will give me another overdose of sleeping pills and I'll be able to resume my eternal sleep."

Assuming you're rational, which option would you gamble on? You'd probably take the bird in hand over the two that may -- or may not -- be in the bush.

So what does the Catechism of the Catholic Church teach? Hell is not only "eternal death." It is, among other things, where "punishments" are "suffered" eternally; it is "outer darkness where ‘men will weep and gnash their teeth'" (#1035 & #1036). We Catholics may sincerely hope that this teaching, which is faithful to Scripture, will in the end prove to have been a kind of divine bluff, but we have no doctrinal basis for such a hope.

Imagine yourself an atheist once again. What the Catholic Church says puts things in a different light, doesn't it! That one bird in hand won't be worth anything in the long run.

Oh yes, we've heard it a zillion times: We mustn't scare people into Heaven. But think about it: Why mustn't we? We're scared into all kinds of things all the time: Do these exercises, eat your fruits and vegetables, take those vitamins, eliminate that needless stress from your life, and you probably won't get cancer or have a heart attack. The media throw this kind of stuff at us constantly, and we lap it up like thirsty vagabonds in a desert.

But what difference does it make if Hell is eternal punishment or just an unconscious "eternal death"? Ask Dr. Bernard Nathanson, a former abortionist who presided over some 75,000 abortions. He is preparing, with the assistance of an Opus Dei priest, to be baptized and received into the one Holy Catholic Church. Why? Because, he says, he is "afraid" of Hell, of "an eternity perhaps more terrifying than anything Dante envisioned...."

If Nathanson goes to Heaven, which is his earnest desire, he will have been scared into it by a healthy fear of Hell. Yes, "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom..." (Ps. 111:10). Of course, as Nathanson grows in grace, his motivation will less and less be the fear of Hell (what the Catechism calls "imperfect contrition") and more and more the sheer love of God ("perfect contrition"). But the Catechism does not minimize imperfect contrition: "It is born of the consideration of sin's ugliness or the fear of eternal damnation..."; this "stirring of conscience" is "a gift of God" and "a prompting of the Holy Spirit" (#1453).

Now imagine you're Dr. Nathanson, or someone of similar background: Instead of encountering a no-nonsense Opus Dei priest, you dialogue with some fuzz-ball priest in a turtleneck sweater who tells you, "Oh, I've outgrown that medieval fire-and-brimstone stuff. Dante's Inferno is merely the product of a wild imagination. Don't worry about Hell. That's childish. The very worst you can expect is eternal death. God is a loving God, and He or She wouldn't actually let people feel pain, experience punishment, in the next life." You might feel quite relieved, so relieved that you feel no need to repent, convert, and change the way you live, and you decide to ignore your conscience when it stirs again. That's what difference it makes.

"Eternal death" doesn't intimidate or challenge the immoral atheist, for that's exactly what he already expects, exactly what will please him. We get no pleasure from saying this, but say it we must: Won't he be surprised! Ah, but don't we have some obligation, in charity, to warn him and others who are at risk?

Could it be that the only result of attempts, however well-meaning, to air-condition Hell is to insure that more and more people wind up there?


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