Hell freezes over

Saturday, July 27, 2002

Bill Faris believes in hell, that frightful netherworld where the thermostat is always set on high, where sinners toil for eternity in unspeakable torment. But you'd never know it listening to him preach at his south Orange County, Calif., evangelical church. He never mentions the topic; his flock shows little interest in it.

"It isn't sexy enough anymore," said Faris, pastor of Crown Valley Vineyard Christian Fellowship.

In churches across America, hell is being frozen out as clergy find themselves increasingly hesitant to sermonize on Christianity's outpost for lost souls.

The violence and torture that Dante described in the "Inferno" and that Heieronymus Bosch illustrated on canvas five centuries ago have become cultural fossils in most mainstream Christian denominations, a story line that no longer resonates with churchgoers.

"There has been a shift in religion from focusing on what happens in the next life to asking 'What is the quality of this life we're leading now?'" said Harvey Cox Jr., an eminent author, religious historian and professor at Harvard Divinity School. "You can go to a whole lot of churches week after week and you'd be startled even to hear a mention of hell."

Hell's fall from fashion indicates how key portions of Christian theology have been influenced by a secular society that stresses individualism over authority and the human psyche over moral absolutes.

The rise of psychology, the philosophy of existentialism and the consumer culture have all dumped buckets of water on hell.

Everyday issues

The tendency to downplay damnation has grown in recent years as nondenominational ministries, with their focus on everyday issues such as child-rearing and career success, have proliferated and loyalty to churches has deteriorated.

"It's just too negative," said Bruce Shelley, a senior professor of church history at the Denver Theological Seminary.

"Churches are under enormous pressure to be consumer-oriented. Churches today feel the need to be appealing rather than demanding."

A 1998 poll by Barna Research Group, a Ventura, Calif., company that studies Christian trends nationwide, found that church-shopping has become a way of life: one in seven adults changes churches each year; one in six regularly rotates among congregations.

That fickleness has helped give rise to "megachurches" -- evangelical congregations of more than 2,000 people that mix Scripture with social and recreational programs in a casual atmosphere. Megachurches routinely pay for market research on what will draw people to their ministries and keep them coming back.

"Once pop evangelism went into market analysis, hell was just dropped," said Martin Marty, professor emeritus of religion and culture at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Hell is far from dead. A May 2001 Gallup Poll of adults nationwide found that 71 percent believe in hell. They just don't want to hear about it. Traditional denominations also have pushed hell to the margins, though many are beginning to talk more about it and evil since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

The Rev. Clayton Smith, senior pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church, said tragedy tends to drive people back to their basic beliefs. He's preached several times about the nature of evil and how to claim God's power in confronting evil.

People tend to avoid the realities of life and death, heaven and hell, good and bad, Smith said. But the events of Sept. 11 forced people to see evil. "During a national tragedy there is a drive to know and deal with some basics," he said. "A lot of things that have been neglected have come back to us."

And hell was a topic that had been neglected by many pastors. Part of that reason is because it's a negative topic that no one wants to hear about. And while many parishioners would prefer not to speak about hell or negative things, "that's not a good biblical message or theological message," Smith said.

Avoiding tough issues leads to complacency in society and that is a dangerous thing, Smith said, since it tends to mean there is a lack of Christian influence.

Taking on hell

Mark Ramsey, pastor of the Church of God in Cape Girardeau, said many people tend to avoid discussions of hell because it seems offensive. Ramsey preached about hell earlier this month.

His sermon addressed whether there was really a hell, what it would be like and who would go there.

Many pastors don't speak about hell from their pulpits because it might offend. Ramsey said he spoke about hell because it was relevant and people have questions.

Ramsey said he didn't want to use scare tactics but to preach the truth from Scripture. "I wanted to inform and give them facts," he said.

Where once hell was viewed as a literal, geographic location, it is more often see now as a state of the soul. In 1999, Pope John Paul II made headlines by saying that hell should be seen not as a fiery underworld but as "the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy."

As much as that seemed like a departure from church teachings, the pope's words weren't all that new. The Roman Catholic Church in the 1960s had moved away from the view of hell as a gothic torture chamber as part of the Second Vatican Council's modernization of church teachings.

Individual priests kept hell's fires burning for years, aided by a Catholic catechism of beliefs published in 1891 whose tone one priest calls "positively medieval." A new catechism, published in 1994, uses gentler language and emphasizes that hell's chief punishment is the separation from God. "When you take hell away as a threat, everything changes," said the University of Chicago's Martin Marty.

Features editor Laura Johnston contributed to this report.

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