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Saturday, August 2, 2003

Visions of hell

By Elaine Jarvik Deseret Morning News

The road there is paved with good intentions. But what about the place itself?

Alex Nabaum, Deseret Morning News

      Paved? Hot? Full of people gnashing their teeth?
      A metaphor for something even worse?
      Theologians have been debating the particulars of hell since there have been gods and religion, offering interpretations about what the downside of the afterlife looks like: who resides there, whether it's temporary or permanent, a physical place or a state of being, whether it's about punishment or cleansing. Even people within the same religion don't always agree.
      "You could call 10 Presbyterian ministers, and you'd probably get 10 different views of hell," says the Rev. Marvin Groote, executive director of the Presbytery of Utah.
      In most Presbyterian churches, and in mainstream Protestant churches in general, you can go a year full of Sundays without hearing the preacher mention hell at all. In fact, back when he was a student pastor nearly 20 years ago, Groote delivered a sermon about hell, and when it was over, a member of the congregation sought Groote out, perplexed.
      "I didn't think Presbyterians believed in hell anymore," the man said.
      Groote himself grew up in a fundamentalist wing of the Presbyterian Church in Iowa, so he'd heard plenty of sermons full of fire and sulfurous brimstone and found that the fear of such a place kept him good. Then, as an adult, he prepared for the ministry by attending seminary — where hell was pretty much put on the back burner.
      "When you go to seminary, there's not a great deal of emphasis on hell or the devil," says Groote. "The emphasis is on God's good grace and the saving grace of Jesus Christ." As an adult, he finds that "it's a whole lot easier to respond to God out of a desire to be part of the kingdom, rather than out of fear of not being in the kingdom." Still, he believes even now in a permanent "very unpleasant" version of hell.
      Generally, the more fundamentalist the religion, the more hell figures into sermons, and the more concrete, vivid and scary a place hell is. "It's a hot, awful place," says Raquel Guerror, whose husband is pastor of United Pentecostal Church in Midvale. "It's a place of misery."
      Our Western vision of hell is colored not just by the Bible, where the imagery is fairly mild, but by writers such as Dante (his Inferno includes people covered by boiling pitch and trapped in snake pits) and the rigorous sermons of 18th century Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards.
      But other religions also depict hell as fiery, including Islam. In the Quran, hell (or jahannam) is a fiery place over which there is a razor-thin bridge that people must cross to enter Paradise. As in many religions, in Islam there are literalists and there are those who regard the fire as metaphor, says Islamic scholar Bernard Weiss of the University of Utah.
      Not that the word metaphor should imply that hell doesn't exist, says Father Ken Gumbert, who was an assistant at Salt Lake City's Newman Center before moving to Rhode Island. "It isn't necessarily a literal place, but it's very real." The official Catholic view of hell, as stated in the Catechism, defines hell as a "state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed."
      In biblical times, burning was the worst physical pain anyone could imagine — so it was natural that fire would be the epitome of torment. Two thousand-plus years ago, people also found it easy to imagine hell as an underworld, beneath an everyday Earth that was flat. Today, we often describe hell in terms we can understand more concretely. There's that Farside cartoon, for example, that shows hell as an aerobics class with an endless workout ("one million and one, one million and two . . . ").
      But it is the idea of a separation from God that many faithful see as the ultimate torture.
      "Being separated from God's love and living in your own delusions, to me that's the punishment," says Father Ken. "Staying stuck in your own ego, in your own very individual, small reality: to me that's what hell is."
      For members of the Baha'i faith, "hell is a state of remoteness from God," says Joyce Booman. But hell can also be in this world as well as in "spiritual heavenly worlds," say the Baha'is, who also believe that hell is not eternal.
      What qualifies a person for banishment to hell varies from religion to religion, but a common theme — from the Foursquare Church to Islam — is the ultimate sin of nonbelief.
      Nonbeliever, though, doesn't refer to people who don't believe in Islam, says Salt Lake Muslim Sheikh Safiullah. Rather it means not believing in God. Still, he adds," I don't think anybody has the capacity to tell who will go to hell."
      Catholics would agree, says Dan John, director of religious education for the Salt Lake Catholic Diocese. "In Catholicism we say salvation is up to God, not up to you and me. We don't have a checklist of who gets saved and who doesn't." The main point though, he says, is that "God sends no one to hell, you choose to go. . . . There's an intimate interconnection between free will and hell. If you believe in free will, then you must believe in hell."
      Getting what you deserve but may not have been punished for during your lifetime is a major undercurrent to beliefs about hell. For many, it is this belief that makes earthly injustices less painful.
      But it is this very concept of justice that bothers David Guevara, who taught religion at the University of Utah last year. Guevara, who has now moved on to Notre Dame, has written a doctoral dissertation about the disconnect between the concept of hell and our contemporary notions of justice.
      In some religions, "lack of faith is sufficient condition for damnation," he says. "But somebody may have a rational, justified, warranted belief in the nonexistence of God," which is the kind of mitigating factor that contemporary justice would take into account. "The doctrine of hell as traditionally conceived and contemporarily construed is morally untenable," he argues.
      In some religions there are preludes to hell, or degrees of hell. For Mormons, the only eternal hell — which lasts beyond the Resurrection and Judgment, according to LDS doctrine — is reserved for those who have committed the "unpardonable sin" — denying the holy ghost. Other unrepentant sinners go to a temporary form of hell, known as a "spirit prison," where they are cleansed through suffering.
      For Catholics, too, hell is eternal, but purgatory provides a way station where those who die needing purification and some punishment for past sins go.
      Orthodox Jews believe that everyone, even the most saintly, must first dip into a river to be cleansed after their death. "It's more about cleansing than settling scores," explains Rabbi Yossi Mandel of Chabad Lubavitch of Utah. "But no one stays more than 12 months." Those who haven't been properly cleansed don't go on to hell but go instead back to earth to wander, he says.
      A Harris Poll earlier this year found that 68 percent of the American public believes in hell. Most likely to believe in hell are Republican Christians with no more than a high school education, although 53 percent of the hell believers have post-graduate degrees. Only 30 percent of non-Christians polled said they think there's a hell in the hereafter.
      Eighteen percent of Christians, according to the poll, don't believe in hell either, which puzzles Guevara. "Once you reject the notion of hell, it has a strong ripple effect on the rest of one's theology," he says. "What is central to Christian theology is that the work of Jesus has a point, that humanity is in need of something. If you say there is no hell, now you have to explain your revised view of why he came."
      Hell continues to baffle, intimidate and reassure. But one thing is certain. As the Harris Poll revealed: Only 1 percent of the American public thinks they themselves will ever be going there.


©Copyright 2003, Deseret News (UT, USA)

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