The Guardian newspaper is not known for its religious sympathies, and a number of its columnists are noted and outspoken secular humanists.
It was surprising therefore to read in the 26 November edition a long article on theology. Written by a former Conservative Evangelical from the USA, it considered the apparent disappearance of Hell from Christian discourse, even in some evangelical circles. And it came to some rather surprising conclusions.
The author had lost her faith after a period of study at a conservative Midwestern college where Hell was taught in its full rigour. Her objections to the doctrine were familiar enough and will be shared by many of us. It is unjust, sadistic, and not even (if you look at the Bible and Christian history) even internally consistent. The sooner we put it away the better.
Or is it?
She analyses some of the voices of new-style evangelicalism in the States – from Willow Creek Church to Pastor Rob Bell, the author of the universalist Love Wins. She notes that Hell hardly gets a mention in this new style of preaching, and there is more concern with the problem of low self-esteem than the problem of sin. Why? Because, she suggests, the Churches, pretty much as a marketing ploy, have sold out to the prevailing upbeat culture. Accentuate the positive; eliminate the negative. Get happy-clappy. 'Hell on earth' is real enough in some places – but will be overcome as the human race gets better and better.
Her one counter-example, and it is an important one, is from the Willow Creek pastor’s reaction to 9/11, inviting his hearers to face up to the demand for revenge – the evil – in their own hearts. She could hear Jesus in those words.
Is she right? Have we given up on evil at the same time as giving up on Hell? Have we (or most of us, hardline conservatives apart) given in to the 'Disneyesque' Gospel of which she accuses Bell? And have we, in the process, given up on the very raison d’etre of Christian faith – the reality of evil (even in terms something like the doctrine of Original Sin) and the possibility of redemption?
These questions, raised by an ex-believer in a very secular newspaper, are of the utmost importance. Most liberal Christians are probably revolted by some of the traditional ideas about Hell, and nervous to say the least about doctrines such as Original Sin and Atonement which go with it in the traditional faith. The idea that we are 'conceived and born in sin', and all of us destined for Hell unless we put our explicit faith in a substitutionary sacrifice, are not popular in Modern Church. But she is asking seriously whether, in dismissing all of this, we are striking at the very foundations of our faith, and failing to address real questions about evil which people are still asking, even within our apparently upbeat culture.
Augustine famously said to the upbeat Pelagius 'You have not considered the weight of sin'. I don’t think we have to go all the way with Augustine – certainly not in his attitude to sex – to recognise that he has a point, and a point with which many people, conscious of sin and evil in the world and in themselves, will resonate. The doctrine of Original Sin may have been grievously misused, but there are times when it rings uncomfortably true for many. Theologians and philosophers may argue how far human beings are inherently self-seeking, and whether they should be blamed for living according to their nature. But sometimes evil is all too real – not just out there, but in here. Likewise, they may argue about exactly what the Cross means; penal substitution is by no means the only way of looking at Atonement. But the need for atonement, reconciliation, and healing of the world’s sin – and our own – is again more powerful than we might imagine, for more people than we might imagine.
Whether there is indeed such a 'place' as Hell, for those who simply cannot accept, or deliberately reject, the way of reconciliation, is surely an unanswerable question. We may want to go with Rob Bell (and St Paul) in believing that all people and all things will somehow ultimately be saved. But we will still be bewildered by stories of people and situations where there seems to be no hope of deliverance. Yet this can be balanced by the story of this writer who, in rejecting what she believed Christianity to be, may have ended up a lot closer to it than she thinks.