Back in February, I wrote in rebuttal to a silly piece of nature-worship fluff, “God loves us: this is a fact. But God desires us to become holy, for that is what’s best for us. To reject the path to sainthood because it’s difficult and causes us inconveniences — even suffering — is to reject Heaven. There is no third option, where we get to have our own way and still go on to some blessed comfort in the afterlife.”
The topic isn’t quite done.
Recently, TIME Magazine featured as its cover story a book titled Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, and its author, evangelical preacher Rob Bell. Bell was led to question the doctrine of hell by a note one of his parishioners left on a quotation of Mohandas Gandhi: “Reality check: He’s in hell.” Now, Bell speculates that Jesus’ redemptive sacrifice means that “‘every person who ever lived’ could have a place in heaven, whatever that turns out to be.”
And even more recently, the University of Oregon released a study of the effect of one’s perception of God on moral behavior. Sure enough, they found that students who believed in a God who punishes are less likely to cheat than do students who believe in a God who forgives. (The study was designed so that students could express belief in a God who both loves and punishes.)
Ever since Karl Marx wrote his dictum, “Religion is the opiate of the masses,” the idea that ruling classes developed the idea of supernatural punishment to keep people in line has become a meme among political and religious liberals. And there’s no doubt ruling classes have found the idea handy, as have social scientists.
But to say that political leaders, especially the most demagogic, have taken advantage of this facet of religion is not to prove that that’s all religion is, or that such doctrines exist only for public manipulation. Cynicism isn’t self-validating; a thorough-going cynicism is as blind to contradicting evidence as any faith can be, because it’s faith in the worst of man.
So the UO study shows that too much emphasis on God’s forgiveness is deleterious to civic values such as honesty. According to Rich Lowry, the editor of the National Review, the working class (the bottom 30% of the income scale) is suffering an erosion of three civic values Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute calls “the richest sources of social capital: marriage, two-parent families, and church-going.” There is also a definite upward trend in unemployment among the bottom 30% that has held through booming and soft markets, going from a low of 5% in 1968 to 12% in 2008.
This brings the question into sharper focus. Most people have seen the tie between the softening of Christian church culture against divorce and single parenting and the collapse of marriage. The increase of unemployment among the 30-49 age bracket over the last forty years may simply point to a segment of the Generation X cohort left behind by the shift in the American economic base over the last twenty years. However, it may also finally give evidential presence to the storied Gen-X “slacker”.
So much of the cultural wars have been fought over the deadly sin of Lust. However, the increase of obesity (sadly, one of the few things in which the US leads the world) and the home-lending bubble whose collapse triggered the current depression should tell us that the other six deadly sins are also being ignored, if not celebrated as positives.
The decline of our belief in Hell is inextricably entwined with our loss of belief in sin, both of which are tied back to declining religiosity. Without a doubt, all this results from the progressive/secularist meme that sin, guilt and Hell are tools of social repression: we get rid of them, the theory went, and we’ll become a healthy society.
So this is what a healthy society looks like?
The inestimable Ross Douthat points out that “a doctrine of universal salvation turns out to be as deterministic as the more strident forms of scientific materialism.” Indeed, it’s not any better than religious determinism, where man is saved or damned from all eternity regardless of his acts. “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.”
The thing about heaven which many people forget—or never learn—is that God is under no compulsion to offer it to anyone, good or evil. The problem really isn’t that God punishes sins. It’s that the doctrine of Hell teaches us that some people whom we think are “good enough” will go to Hell, often for unrepented acts they never considered to be sins.
On the other hand, getting rid of Hell means that there’s no ultimate justice for mass murderers and genocides, that—let’s play “Speculation!”—to let Gandhi into heaven we also have to admit Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler. Get rid of Hell, and there’s no place for Jeffrey Dahmer to rot. Either they’re accountable to God for their actions or they’re not.
So it turns out that the doctrine Hell not only makes better sense of Heaven and free will, it also turns out to be better for society at large. As someone once said, the true test of morality is not what you would never do, but what you would do if you were sure you would never be caught. With God holding us accountable for our behavior, such assurance is never possible … even if you’re an atheist.
Hell gives our moral choices meaning.
Update—April 27, 2011
Randy at Speak the Truth in Love also has some comments on a video posted by Fr. Robert Barron of WordOnFire.org, discussing Hans Urs von Balthazar's position that one can hope nobody is in Hell. I haven't read Balthazar myself, but it seems to me that Randy's right: The position can be no more than a forlorn, pious hope, and a misleading one at that.
The major stumbling block is that, if God doesn't carry through with the threat, then Jesus is a liar. The position is only defensible if the "sheep and goats" passage (Mt 25:31-46) is a fabricated retrojection; but such a defense would open up a-whole-nother can of worms about the indefectibility and infallibility of Scripture. Go to Randy for the rest!
 Murray’s work focuses solely on white Americans, to avoid seeing his discussion pulled down the rabbit hole of racial relations.