Several years ago, a friend described a conversation that took place at her office:
People were preparing to depart for Easter, and everyone was sharing their plans. When someone asked my friend about her weekend, she politely responded that, as Buddhists, her family doesn’t celebrate Easter. Without hesitation, a co-worker responded she would pray for my friend’s family, as they were destined to an eternity in hell unless they accepted Jesus as their savior.
In telling the story, my friend, although stunned, said she calmly voiced her reaction to her co-worker at the same time I thought it: Buddhists don’t believe in hell, least not an eternal place filled with literal fire and brimstone.
Newsweek’s religion editor Lisa Miller explores the concepts of heaven and hell in a conversation last week on washingtonpost.com’s On Faith. While discussing her new book, “Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife,” Miller noted that Americans are increasingly challenging the traditional notion of hell.
When asked by On Faith’s Sally Quinn if she believes in hell, Miller responded:
“No…well, I’m not alone, just so you know. Belief in hell in this country is tanking, like the economy tanked last year. Belief in heaven is pretty stable, around 80 percent, but belief in hell is just going down the toilet, and I think that is partially because Americans are more and more willing to see there are many paths to God.”
Miller goes on to cite research demonstrating that, while our collective belief in hell is plummeting, for those who still believe in it, almost none of them think they will end up there.
Some possible causes for this change, which I’m certain will never amount to a wholesale “dropping” of hell by mainstream denominations in the United States:
- Christianity is on the decline, with more Americans responding to surveys that they are either agnostic, atheist or simply non-religious.
- Mainline churches — and even some of the evangelical branches — seem to have abandoned fear as a method for getting people in the door. I’m amazed when I visit the Web sites of churches and denominations that previously used vivid imagery of sinners burning in hell as a recruitment tool — the notion of “love the sinner, hate the sin” seems to have finally taken hold.
- Extremist groups that actively promote hell as a place for non-believers may be simply wearing down the general public’s tolerance or creating such a credibility gap that people simply abandon a belief that was, in many cases, instilled by preachers or teachings from their childhoods.
- A new type of holistic — bordering on metaphysical — Christianity is rapidly emerging in the United States in response to our larger faith crisis. My spouse goes to a very progressive Methodist church, and not once have I ever heard “hell” mentioned in a sermon, scripture reading or church bulletin.
Perhaps the larger societal trend leading people to abandon traditional views of hell is that we seem to act as if consequences simply no longer exist, and if that is the case, then why even contemplate something like hell? We use natural resources like they will last for ever, and purchase products without thought to what happens to the product (or its components) after we’re done.
On a personal, spiritual level, we all tend to act as if we, as individuals, are permanent fixtures on this planet. Politicians fret about their legacies, while some among us amass wealth as if there is an expectation that maybe, just maybe, we can take it with us when the end comes.
I’m reminded of the approach of various indigenous groups whose entire basis of governance is focused on future generations. Imagine if the U.S. Constitution, or the U.N. Charter, opened with a statement similar to first mandate of a Haudenosaunee Iroquois chief?
“What about the seventh generation? Where are you taking them? What will they have?” —Great Law of the Iroquois
Certainly, it’s easy to see how the history of human and societal development made it necessary to frame decision-making and action-taking in the context of good and bad consequences. It’s as basic as the notion of karma: we need reward and punishment to guide us to operate within a moral context.
But if hell, as Miller posits, is no longer a hot place, then what’s the alternative? Do we create such a unbearable “hell on earth” (which may very become an unbearably hot place) that we drive ourselves into a great spiritual transformation, a sort of global great awakening? Maybe a belief in hell fills a vital need in an organized and highly connected society.