Hold the Fire and Brimstone

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Bill Faris believes in hell, that frightful nether world 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 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 Hieronymus Bosch illustrated on canvas 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 the 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.

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 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. "When churches go door to door and conduct a market analysis ... they hear, 'I want better parking spaces. I want guitars at services. I want to have my car greased while I'm in church.' "

Hell is far from dead. A May 2001 Gallup poll of adults nationwide found that 71% believe in hell.

They just don't want to hear about it.

Log onto www.pastors.com, the Web site run by Lake Forest's Saddleback Church, whose senior pastor, Rick Warren, says the Bible's teachings on hell guide his ministry. Scan the list of sermons for sale. There are sermons on abortion, addiction and ambition. Laughter, leadership and love. War, work and worry. More than 350 topics in all.

Nothing on hell.

Even among some "born-again" churches, hell is a rare topic of conversation. Born-again Christians believe in hell, but they also believe that their decision to embrace Christ has earned them a one-way ticket in the other direction.

"When you have a group of people who are born again, you're not going to hell," said Bob Anderson, 51, a lawyer who attends an evangelical church in Fullerton. "So why talk about it?"

Traditional denominations also have pushed hell to the margins. The Presbyterian Church (USA)'s first catechism, drawn up a few years ago by a committee, mentions hell only once.

George Hunsinger, a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary and the catechism's principal author, would have liked the document to address hell more directly and "talk about divine judgment in a responsible way." But the committee rejected the idea without much debate.

"It's a failure of nerve by churches that are not wanting to take on a non-popular stance," Hunsinger said.

Where once hell was viewed as a literal, geographic location, it is more often seen 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 beliefs, the pope's words weren't all that new. The Roman Catholic Church in the 1960s moved away from the view of hell as a gothic torture chamber as part of the Second Vatican Council's modernization of church teachings.

New Catechism

Softens Language

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 Marty. "Who goes to confession anymore? Time was, a [Catholic] church had 16 booths and people snaked around the block. Today, a church might have one left."

One measure of hell's continued decline can be found in the changed attitude of the Rev. Billy Graham, who came to prominence in the 1940s as a fire-and-brimstone Gospel preacher. His depiction of hell was unequivocal, an unpleasant address for unrepentant sinners.

Even Graham has reconsidered hell--not whether it exists, but what it is.

" ... I believe that hell is essentially separation from God. That we are separated from God, so we can have hell in this life and hell in the life to come ... ," Graham told an interviewer in 1991. "But to describe hell in vivid terms like I might have done 30 or 40 years ago, I'm not at liberty to do that because ... whether there is actually fire in hell or not, I do not know."

The history of hell is long and complex, a product of evolving religious thought that has shaped--and been shaped by--literature, art and popular culture.

Hell's roots are tangled up in the Hades of Greek mythology and the ancient Hebrew concept of Sheol--locales where the dead, both good and bad, resided.

Hell became more hellish when the early Christians infused it with a serious fear factor.

Jesus is quoted in the Bible describing hell as the "outer darkness" consumed by an "everlasting fire." The book of Revelation warned that sinners would be "thrown into the lake of fire." Matthew's Gospel offered a soundtrack: the "weeping and gnashing of teeth."

During the Middle Ages and through the Renaissance, a lurid image of hell was firmly cemented in people's minds.

Dante wrote that within the seventh circle of hell runs "the river of blood, within which boiling is/Whoe'er by violence doth injure others."

Bosch depicted naked souls being devoured by a birdlike creature, pierced by spears and tormented by half-human demons.

For churches, the fear of hell became a colorful--and effective--tool to teach the consequences of a sinful life devoid of God.

In the centuries to come, scientific discoveries and the European Enlightenment would crack hell's veneer, undercutting all things supernatural and questioning whether a merciful God would be so cruel.

Amid this rethinking, more palatable theories of hell have developed: Souls not ticketed for heaven simply cease to be. Hell is a temporary state before heaven. Everyone goes to heaven.

"How can something as wonderful as redemption ... be based on fear?" asked Father Wilfredo Benitez of St. Anselm of Canterbury Episcopal Church in Garden Grove.

As a young preacher, Benitez warned nonbelievers that they would burn in Satan's lair. He later dropped the tactic. "Can we accept a gift at gunpoint? This is total nonsense and madness."

Perhaps more than any other pastor, the Rev. Robert H. Schuller is credited with inspiring the movement to supplant hell with feel-good messages.

The "Hour of Power" televangelist is founder of the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, a forerunner of the thousands of nondenominational congregations that have popped up in recent decades to serve believers uncomfortable with the formality of old-line faiths.

Schuller is another believer in the concept of hell as an eternal separation from God. Yet he stopped preaching on the subject 40 years ago, moving on to a theology that stressed individual success in such books as "If It's Going to Be, It's Up to Me!"

"I don't ever want people to become Christian to escape hell," Schuller said.

His take: Why threaten people with God's stick when dangling a carrot is enough to close the deal?

By contrast, Ray Comfort embraces the stick--and isn't afraid to use it.

A Protestant preacher from Bellflower and the author and publisher of dozens of religious books, Comfort is fast becoming a rarity: a pastor who unabashedly delivers an unpopular message.

Hell is real, Comfort believes. Break even one of the Ten Commandments, do not seek God's mercy, and you will go there. And it will be as bad as advertised in the New Testament.

The Church as

Moral Compass

Churches that abandon their role as moral compasses by ignoring or sugarcoating the Bible's warning will become irrelevant, Comfort said.

"God will remove his spirit, his power from them, and they'll become just like social clubs," Comfort said.

"What we've done is make things comfortable for people with padded pews and air-conditioning and a promise that we won't say anything that will offend you."

The 52-year-old New Zealand transplant crisscrosses the country to preach at churches that still embrace his tough-love approach to Scripture.

Until recently, Comfort reached out to the lost--mostly young urbanites--from atop a plastic storage crate in Santa Monica every Friday night. He was twice beaten up for his efforts.

"I'm like a police officer who's going into a group of criminals," he said one recent day before stepping on the crate before a crowd of heckling students at Cal State Long Beach. "I know I won't be Mr. Popular."

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