The news media’s customary production of feature stories at Easter time this year followed an atypical path down the road to hell. That may not have been such a bad thing, given the Paschal Mystery. Here’s my tale from the Triduum:
On Holy Thursday I agreed to a Fox News producer’s request that I be interviewed on one of their next morning’s programs about Italian press reports that Pope Francis had in a one-on-one conversation asserted that no hell exists. A few hours later the producer emailed to say the segment had been scrapped. Assuming that more urgent (or perhaps titillating) news was breaking, I shrugged this off, only to learn that the veracity of the story was highly in question. Anyway … my Good Friday would be quieter for it!
On Good Friday morning, nonetheless, I received an email from a BBC journalist working on an article about the Vatican’s denial that Pope Francis had said there is no hell.
The journalist’s asked if I could please explain “why the concept of hell is so important for the Catholic Church.”
An excellent question! Her inquiry struck me as cutting straight to the core of the Christian religion, for which the widely recognized primary symbol is the cross and, in the media’s coverage of “Easter Weekend,” even some more explicit image of Jesus crucified on Good Friday. What did this ancient Jew so horrifically die for?
How to respond to the question of hell in a relatively succinct manner (as desired in journalism) to a reporter (and her religiously pluralistic readership), whose even basic knowledge of Christianity I could not presume?
Here follows my quick effort, sent as an email reply to the journalist:
The importance of hell to Roman Catholicism (and nearly all Christian churches and denominations) lies in the fact that Christianity is a messianic religion of salvation.
The fundamental conviction is that God’s good creation, the world but especially humanity, are in mortal danger of a magnitude such that only God’s intervention can save people. Prophetic strands of biblical and turn-of-the-Common-Era Judaism, when Israel was under yet another brutal imperial occupation (Rome), gave rise to varying expectant beliefs that God would wipe aside the current world order and usher in a new, messianic age in which the people could live in peace and joy.
Christianity, of course, arose out of the conviction (faith) that Jesus was this Messiah (Christ, in Greek) and that through his death and resurrection God had made him the “first born of the new creation.” But from the start, one needn’t look long or far to recognize that the world continued in suffering and sin. The persistence of evil actions by social bodies and individuals forced (and still forces) the question of what this new religion believed people are saved from (versus, for example, the Exodus story of the Hebrew slaves being clearly saved from deadly slavery in Egypt).
The Christian focus shifted from the messianic deliverance of an entire people to that of each individual, starting with Jesus as the first to be raised from death “to the right hand of God.” That sets up a particular notion of heaven but, also, its obverse: hell.
Earliest Christianity (and Eastern Orthodoxy, to this day) focused on death as the enemy to humans’ lives; thus, deliverance (salvation) from death remains the message. But sin is the tool or minion, if you will, of death insofar as people’s sinful or evil acts (individually or systemically) often cause literal deaths to people, as well as figurative deaths, in that people are left depleted and weary of life. Divine salvation is deliverance from sin and death.
But where is the evidence that God’s messianic justice now reigns? Well, certainly not in any consistent way in this current world. Christianity comes to shift the question of justice to the individual soul and one’s fate in the life after death.
Belief in hell, then, is important to Christianity because the religion’s fundamental claim about God’s having acted definitely on God’s biblical messianic promise of “new heavens and a new earth” (Isaiah 65:17) requires it. Christianity is a religion proclaiming definitive salvation from death and sin on a Planet Earth where both manifestly persist. The positive message is that in the resurrected Christ, God has inaugurated eternal life after death.
But the message necessarily carries a negative side, as well, insofar as the problem of divine justice is not thereby solved in this world. Hell is the theological answer to the problem of not only divine deliverance but also justice. Church doctrine (teaching) builds that answer on a certain appropriation of Jesus’ numerous parables figuratively describing resolute (unrepentant) evil-doers ending up thrown to eternal flames or into an endless brutal night.
I would generously give myself a “B -” for that effort, which I needed to write rather quickly and with the need to keep it brief (yet the need also to presume no theological knowledge on the part of the audience). A couple days later the reporter did reply, saying she’d found my answer informative and helpful. As best I can tell, she did not end up publishing a story on the topic.
Perhaps Pray Tell participant-readers might wish to weigh in on how you answer the question of whether there is a hell and, if so, whether anybody is in it. I realize that Pope Benedict spoke to this problem. I note my colleague Martin Connell’s excellent writing on the topic of the Harrowing of Hell (in Worship, year ago, and elsewhere) as a neglected, important topic in the history and development of Christian liturgy. More recently, a senior liturgical theologian commented, during a sacramental-liturgical theology session at the annual CTSA convention, that a reason for declining participation in Sunday Mass is simple: Hell emptied out!
In any event, I wish all much joy in Eastertide, whether this be the Easter Octave (for Protestants and Catholics) or Holy Week (for the Orthodox): “Christ’s has trampled down death by death!”
Featured image: Thomas de Saluces, Le Chevalier errant, Paris ca. 1403-1404. BnF, Français 12559, p. 192