Saturday, 20 October 2012

Hellfire and brimstone: not in my name

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While the current bishop’s synod in Rome is a joy to follow (with gems like Archbishop Williams’ talk or the pope’s opening sermon and contributions from many of the world’s bishops as well as other invited participants), there are the inevitable oddities swirling around its periphery.

Today, for example, I came across a piece about one of the synod’s observers, Dr. Ralph Martin, Director of Graduate Theology and New Evangelization at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, who argues that “Evangelization should include fear of hell” and that “[t]he assumption that almost everyone is basically good and destined for heaven is a “silent apostasy” infecting a culture “drifting toward destruction.”” Martin then proceeds to invoke Lumen Gentium (the Vatican II document I am reading now) and say that while it “does allow the possibility “for certain people to be saved without hearing the Gospel under specific conditions,” [...] very often people aren’t inculpably ignorant of the Gospel, they’re not seeking God, they’re not living according to the light of their conscience, they’re not responding to God’s grace, and they actually exchange the truth of God for a lie.” In summary, “we can’t presume that everyone’s on the way that’s leading to Heaven.”

I couldn’t disagree more!
  1. While Martin (rightly) points out that people are often “not living according to the light of their conscience” (and who isn’t at some time or another?!), it is some stretch to go from there to suggest that they (we!) are not on the way to heaven.

  2. Lumen Gentium makes absolutely no mention of hell (or any related concept I could think of) whatsoever, so brandishing it as the justification of one’s views is a bit of a leap of (non)faith.

  3. Martin’s approach seems divorced from both Benedict XVI’s and John Paul II’s teaching about hell:
    “[H]ell is the ultimate consequence of sin itself... Rather than a place, hell indicates the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy.” (Blessed Pope John Paul II, general audience, 28 July 1999)

    “Who will [be in hell]? The Church has never made any pronouncement in this regard. This is a mystery, truly inscrutable, which embraces the holiness of God and the conscience of man. The silence of the Church is, therefore, the only appropriate position for Christian faith. Even when Jesus says of Judas, the traitor, “It would be better for that man if he had never been born” (Matthew 26:24), His words do not allude for certain to eternal damnation.” (Blessed Pope John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope)

    "Perhaps there are not so many who have destroyed themselves so completely, who are irreparable forever, who no longer have any element upon which the love of God can rest, who no longer have the slightest capacity to love within themselves. This would be hell.” (Pope Benedict XVI, question and answer session with the priests of Rome, 11 February 2008)
    With the above concept of hell (a voluntary separation of oneself from God, in the face of God!), it is hard to see who would be there. Benedict XVI only goes so far as to say that there are perhaps “not so many” there, while John Paul II flatly refuses to speculate! Both of their positions are very much aligned though with the view that Martin opposes (“[t]he assumption that almost everyone is basically good and destined for heaven”) and calls a “silent apostasy” … Not the smartest of criticisms to level at a pope and especially not at the current and previous ones.

  4. Threatening others with hell just seems to be contrary both to the Golden Rule and the Good News that Jesus taught, as can be seen also from what some of the early Church Fathers had to say about the subject, including St. Gregory of Nyssa’s belief that “all free creatures will share the grace of salvation” (i.e., apocatastasis) and another exclaiming: “If anyone has to be in hell, let it be me.” Even just from the perspective of charity, I cannot see how I could wish for anything other than for hell to be empty.

  5. Even from a psychological perspective, reinforcement of good behaviour is more effective than threatening to punish bad behaviour (e. g., see Kahneman’s treatment of the subject).

  6. Jesus’ call is a positive one: love your neighbor as yourself, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit prisoners, ... Following it leads to heaven, while just trying to avoid transgressions that are punishable is not enough.
I don’t mean to deny the reality of hell - just like heaven (communion with God-Love), a foretaste of hell (separation from God-Love) can readily be had in this life already. What I am saying though is that a focus on hell is counterproductive. By keeping my eyes on God in my neighbors, I am leaving myself less time to be absorbed by myself. Hell is kept at bay by my being busy with the pursuit of heaven.