January 20, 2011
All four of the world’s major religions--Hinduism and Buddhism, Christianity and Islam--teach that there is a judgment at the end of life. Immediately following death, each person receives the just recompense for his or her life. Catholics call this “the particular judgment.” At the moment of death, a person’s life is seen in reference to Christ. Then, the immortal soul is rewarded with “either entrance into the blessedness of heaven - through a purification or immediately, - or immediate and everlasting damnation…” (
Catechism of the Catholic Church 1022).
Muslims and Christians further hold for a final judgment at the end of time. The Last Judgment will establish the universal justice not found in this life. According to the Scriptures, the dead will rise from their tombs, those “who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation” (Jn 5:28-29). Christ will “separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left.... and these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Mt 25:32.46).
However, despite the clear words of Jesus, recent surveys by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life report that only 74% of adults in America believe in the existence of heaven and just 59% believe in hell. Why this loss of belief in hell?
Marx once accused religion of being the opium of the people. He condemned Christians for being too interested in the afterlife while ignoring this present life. As a result, Christians have gone out of their way to make this world a better place to live. No need to worry about heaven or hell. This world matters. We need to create a world where people can have access to the goods of this earth here and now. Not a bad idea, but certainly an incomplete vision of reality.
Speaking to the diocesan priests of Rome, Pope Benedict XVI said, “… it is right to show that Christians work for the earth - and we are all called to work to make this earth really a city for God and of God. [But] we must not forget the other dimension [of heaven or hell]. Unless we take it into account, we cannot work well for the earth…” (
Address of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, Hall of Blessings, February 7, 2008). Because of our belief in heaven and hell, we work strenuously for justice and peace in this world. We recognize that our good and bad actions have consequences for which we are ultimately responsible.
But it is precisely here that we begin to unravel the answer why many no longer believe in hell. To say that we are responsible for our actions that are good or bad presupposes that there is some standard by which good and bad are measured. In our day, it is very popular to hold that what is right for one person may not be right for another. What is wrong one day may not be wrong the next. Everything is relative. The norms of morality change from one group to another, one individual to the next, from one year to the following.
For many, there are no moral absolutes. Social customs dictated by the majority replace biblical morality. In this mentality, sin is simply a mistake, an error, or the inevitable result of our human weakness. Why would God punish anyone for that?
When sin is no longer taken seriously, then any punishment for sin becomes meaningless. Why would God send anyone to eternal punishment? After all, God is all-loving. His mercy knows no limits. In the end, he always forgives our human failings. And so the doctrine of hell is replaced with the doctrine of the infinite love of a God who never stops loving us. For some believers, hell has become a morally offensive teaching.
Can they be right?