Theologians who may have missed their latest copy of the Economist should (not) rush to check out this muddle of the Christian doctrine of hell, which runs together works of fiction, speculation, and actual dogma, folklore with official teaching, and different denominations of Christianity and world religions with one another.
There’s a gesture at the actual theological controversy somewhere in here (I think I spotted an allusion to Origen and early-church minority-school speculation about universalism?) though nothing engaging the twentieth-century discussion of the subject by such figures as Hans Urs von Balthasar and Karl Rahner, nor anything pointing to the recently revived debate over the subject’s relevance for the Catholic Church’s New Evangelization and its unfortunate neglect in the years following the Second Vatican Council. Charles Taylor summarized this as the “decline of hell,” and he meant this to apply to both the popular imagination and Christian piety itself.
So why the interest from the editors of that magazine? Justin Hawkins offers a thoughtful explanation at Fare Forward:
The doctrine of hell is implausible to The Economist’s editorial board because the intellectual constraints of modernity render Christianity itself implausible. But if we approach this topic first by observing in our world the grave and horrendous evils that beset it, the human soul cries out for justice to be met. Perhaps it is comforting then, to the oppressed and the violated, to know of a God whose ire rises at systemic mistreatment of the poor, at humanity’s affinity for wanton hatred expressed in killing fields and school shootings, at justice so often both unattained and mocked. Though few have ever been converted to Christianity because of our doctrine of hell, it is nevertheless rationally defensible. But a rational defense demands a shifting of the plausibility structure away from emphasizing the winged demons and creative contrapasso and toward the deeply human desire for the world to be set to rights, for justice to reign, for good to be vindicated and evil punished.
Indeed, as the very existence of the Economist article indicates, it tends to be intrinsically interesting to everyone from amusement park operators to Augustine scholars; even the most irreligious and theologically disinclined people find the concept, not to mention the imagery, somehow still resonant (the number of otherwise secular citizens, for example, who wished Osama bin Laden to “rot in hell” upon receiving word of his death was telling).
I’d originally planned some snark about the Anti-Corn Law League, but on second thought it’s encouraging to realize theological debates still have the power to capture the imaginations of an otherwise totally secular crowd. Because, at the end of the day, these aren’t lacy theories but matters of, well, life and death itself.