Around the Holiday season, mainstream publications everywhere can’t resist the temptation to publish articles attempting to debunk religion. They are right to include coverage of theological and religious issues, since any magazine that claimed to give a whole, multifaceted view of the world must include mention of the sacred. But The Economist’s most recent foray into religion, an article on hell included in the recent Holiday Double Issue, proves again that mastery of international financial indicators does not a theologian make.
Entitled “Hell: Into Everlasting Fire,” the article carries the précis “For hundreds of years, Hell has been the most fearful place in the human imagination. It is also the most absurd.” Then begins the 3,000-word exposition of the absurdity of hell, drawing upon the history and literature of the world’s religions to give a description of the general nastiness of the place. It is not clear that there is any real thesis to the piece, except perhaps that the notion of hell ought to have been excised from our collective consciousness along with everything else medieval. Indeed, the Economist is not queasy about using “medieval” as a pejorative, in exactly the way that C.S. Lewis proscribed as so much “chronological snobbery.”
One of the article’s central points is that the idea that the Christian hell is a uniquely foul construct compared to other ideas of divine punishment. The authors contrast it with the Greek Hell that includes “the Titans who defied Zeus in Greek myth—Prometheus, Tantalus, Sisyphus, and the rest…” This list of hell’s denizens shows that in these conceptions, unlike in the Christian one, hell was “a club for unruly super-humans” and contained no average humans. This is supposed to make the Greek idea of hell a much nicer one than the Christian idea, but this narrative is complicated by the stubborn fact that it is factually wrong. Prometheus was certainly a titan, but Tantalus was a Hercules-like hero with one divine and one mortal parent, and Sisyphus was a mortal altogether. In the Greek imagination, regular mortals did go down to hell.
When they are not busy misrepresenting non-Christian belief systems, the article’s authors make blunder after blunder about Christian belief. It is not correct, as the article seems to imply, hell’s physical punishments are impossible because that “the body [is] obviously left behind at death, mouldering (sic) under the earth.” Here The Economist begs the question against a fundamental Christian doctrine; the body is resurrected both for the blessed and the damned. This is why Christianity always had tenuous affiliations with the Greek dualists of its infancy. (Even so, Christian orthodoxy does not demand that the pains of hell be physical; the greatest pleasures in life affect the soul, not the body, so it would follow that such is true also for the greatest pains).
The description of the Roman Catholic Church’s position is likewise confused. I’m not a Catholic, but since the article seems to use the Catholic Church’s position on hell as somewhat representative of all Christian teaching about hell, we should correct the record there. The article notes, “theologically, even the Vatican now defines Hell as a state of exile from the love of God.” A later paragraph suggests that this is something like vacillation by asserting, “the Vatican may be undecided about it [hell]…” But this is to misunderstand the position. The article gives the sense that modernity has somehow dragged The Vatican into making concessions about the nature of hell, but The Economist’s history is as bad as its theology. For a body that has always held forth the omnipresence of God himself and God’s essential nature as love, certainly the state of exile from the source of all love, goodness, and beauty in the world must be unthinkably despicable. Furthermore, the notion of apokatastasis (the idea that we can definitively know that the universal restoration of all mankind is a reality) is a heresy in the Church’s reckoning. The Church continues to affirm that hell is a real, extant place, just as it always has.
What has been a matter of debate in the Church is just how full hell is- how many people go there. As a matter of particular interest, the RC magisterium has never said that we can know a person has been consigned to hell, or indeed that hell is populated at all. And Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Pope Benedict’s favorite theologian, has asserted that all Christians have the duty of hoping that all man will finally be saved, and Von Balthasar has good reason to think that this is likely, although he admits with the magisterium that to presume certain knowledge of that in this life would be too hasty. This is hardly a fire-and-brimstone dogma from a recalcitrant Papist sycophant or an insufferable medieval. Nor is it just some recent development- Christians have been debating the occupancy of hell since the time of the early church fathers (apokatastasis was first proposed by Origin in the second century). Of course, there are Catholics who take a quite different understanding of hell that is closer to what The Economist understands the Church’s position to be. But this is not doctrine; rather it is a sign of the intellectual leeway theologians have.
But this round of the Economist’s excursus into theology is most valuable for the Christian not because it shows how loathsome the idea of hell is. Certainly we, of all people, must be quick to admit that hell is certainly the most unsettling of all Christian doctrines, one that even Christians should not bandy about flippantly. Rather, the article has value because it highlights the importance of plausibility structures in presenting Christianity to any audience. The doctrine of hell is implausible to The Economist’s editorial board because the intellectual constraints of modernity render Christianity itself implausible. But if we approach this topic first by observing in our world the grave and horrendous evils that beset it, the human soul cries out for justice to be met. Perhaps it is comforting then, to the oppressed and the violated, to know of a God whose ire rises at systemic mistreatment of the poor, at humanity’s affinity for wanton hatred expressed in killing fields and school shootings, at justice so often both unattained and mocked. Though few have ever been converted to Christianity because of our doctrine of hell, it is nevertheless rationally defensible. But a rational defense demands a shifting of the plausibility structure away from emphasizing the winged demons and creative contrapasso and toward the deeply human desire for the world to be set to rights, for justice to reign, for good to be vindicated and evil punished.