Thinks It’s a Good Trend : Belief in Hell Declines, Church Historian Says
Church historian Martin Marty sees a decline in the belief in hell among contemporary Christians and says that may not be a bad thing.
“I have no doubt that the passing of hell from modern consciousness--compare the art of the Christian past with piety today--is one of the major if still largely undocumented modern trends,” Marty said.
Marty, a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School, says that one of the “great events in modern Roman Catholic history is the decline of purgatory and hell.”
It is a decline that is matched, if not surpassed, among most Protestants, with the exceptions of some fundamentalists such as television evangelist Jimmy Swaggert whose preaching of hell, Marty finds, is reserved for “secular humanists and Soviet communists, not for the nice people in the congregation or on the other side of the tube.”
Marty, writing in the current issue of the Lutheran, denominational magazine of the Lutheran Church in America, said that neither Catholics nor Protestants have repealed the doctrines of eternal damnation but are “ceasing to make much of them.”
“They (believers) are shocked to hear what their parents were taught and, so far as we can tell, believed,” he said.
But he said such “fudging” on the notion of hellfire and brimstone could be found as early as 1952 when a Catholic Digest poll found that 42% of the American people did not believe in hell and few who saw it as a threat to them.
In 1983, U.S. Catholic polled its readers and found that only 1% pictured the possibility of going to hell and only 3% thought of hell in the traditional image of fire. A mere 22% were ready to picture Hitler in hell and, adds Marty, “If not he, who?”
Marty said some theologians believe that “hell wanes as different aspects of the doctrine of God are preached” and that currently many seek to portray God as “the fellow sufferer who understands,” an image incompatible with damning unbaptized children to an eternity of fiery flames.
God’s ‘Dark Side’
At the same time, Marty warns against sentimentalizing such images so that God’s “dark side"--the mysterious, threatening, impassioned, justice-seeking element of God--is lost.