Hell Is Getting A Makeover From Catholics; Jesuits Call It a Painful State But Not a Sulfurous Place

By GUSTAV NIEBUHR
New York Times
September 18, 1999, Saturday
In ''The Inferno,'' Dante tells of his imagined journey into Hell, his entry into a ''kingdom of eternal night'' where he hears the voices of the damned rise ''in a bestial moan'' and sees sinners stung by wasps, burnt by falling fire and frozen in a sheet of ice.

For 700 years the poem has provided vivid inspiration to painters and preachers, who have kept alive a popular vision of perdition as a physical place of fire and brimstone, extraordinary torments and monsters. Many artists added their own ideas, such as Hieronymus Bosch, who in the 15th century painted a highly original vision of Hell, a tableau of violence and excruciating tortures.

But now the Catholic authorities in Rome have presented a strikingly different (and seemingly modern) picture of eternal damnation.

By their account, Hell is best understood as the condition of total alienation from all that is good, hopeful and loving in the world. What's more, this condition is chosen by the damned themselves, the ultimate exercise of free will, not a punishment engineered by God.

Hell ''is not a 'place' but a 'state,' a person's 'state of being,' in which a person suffers from the deprivation of God,'' declared La Civilta Cattolica, an influential Jesuit magazine based in Rome and closely tied to the Vatican, in a long editorial in July.

The magazine also stated that it is not God who inflicts pain ''through angels or demons as is illustrated in many paintings or is read in the 'Divine Comedy,' '' but the sinner who triggers his own punishment by deliberately rejecting God's grace, thereby entering a great state of pain.

Within days of the editorial's publication, Pope John Paul II struck a similar note, telling visiting pilgrims that ''more than a physical place, Hell is the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy.'' In other words, the Pope said, it is not a loving God who sends people to Hell, but individuals who consign themselves to Hell through unrepentant sin.

These ideas are not entirely new for the church. But they stand out for having been prominently raised at a time when little has officially been said about Hell.

That the subject has been out of view reflects the cultural change within the church since the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960's and new biblical research by Catholic scholars.

After the council, fire and brimstone preaching declined as a new emphasis was placed on God's love rather than God's wrath, said Sister Elizabeth Johnson, a professor of theology at Fordham.

The council affected church liturgy, too, for example, in the abandonment of the Dies Irae (Day of Wrath), a hymn used in funeral rites. ''It's a terrifying hymn,'' Sister Johnson said. ''It describes the tortures of the damned in great detail and ends with a plea for God's mercy.''

Both the Jesuit editorial and the Pope made a point of saying that Hell is real.

Yet in discussing what the church teaches about damnation, they showed that contemporary Catholic theology has outstripped popular beliefs about a fiery, subterranean Hell.

''Where the tension comes,'' said Lawrence S. Cunningham, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, is between popular imagination about Hell and what church doctrine actually says.

The Rev. Joseph Koterski, an associate professor of philosophy at Fordhman, who lives in a residential college among freshmen there, said awareness of contemporary church teaching on Hell is largely confined to students majoring in theology. Among many students, he said, more traditional ideas of Hell exist as unexamined background images that they carry with them along with a general fear of the unknown.

If those traditional ideas remain real for many people, it may be because the art and literature expressing them remain so abundant. Religious art depicting heaven or Hell remains widely accessible on church buildings, in art books and in museums. During the Middle Ages, said Prof. Peter Casarella, a theologian at the Catholic University of America in Washington, ''because beliefs about purgatory and Hell were not known through literary documents, they were known through visual depictions, frescoes and reliefs and the fronts of cathedrals, and they were known through popular preaching.''

A common illustration showed naked sinners engulfed in Satan's mouth. But such an image finds little support in Catholic theological writing these days.

For example, The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, a large 1995 publication edited by several theologians under the direction of the Rev. Richard P. McBrien of Notre Dame, defines Hell as ''the eternal loss of God'' and bluntly warns that biblical images of infernal torments are not to be taken literally but instead symbolize suffering ''inherent in the state of sin.''

In 1994 the church released the new Catholic Catechism, which contains more than 700 pages explaining Catholic beliefs but devotes only five paragraphs to Hell.

While the catechism says that Jesus spoke of Hell as an ''unquenchable fire,'' it says Hell's primary punishment is ''eternal separation from God,'' which results from an individual's conscious decision.

''To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God's merciful love means remaining separated from him forever by our own free choice,'' the catechism says.

Who has died in that state? The catechism says nothing of Hell's population. That is because, as La Civilta Cattolica stated in its editorial, the church ''has never truly declared that a person -- not even Judas -- has damned himself.'' (By contrast, the church has declared thousands of people to be saints and therefore in heaven.)

The statements about Hell this summer brought dissent from evangelical Protestants, who have a long tradition of biblical literalism.

In August the Rev. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., wrote a response distributed by Religion News Service. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus said sinners are cast into a fiery Hell, Mr. Mohler noted. ''Evidently, Hell is a punishment imposed by God, and the dire warnings in Scripture to respond to Christ in faith -- while there is time -- make sense only if Hell is a very real place of very real torment,'' he wrote.

The idea of Hell as a physical place is not unique to Christianity. In the Middle Ages Jewish descriptions of Hell included all sorts of terrible torments like boiling rivers, said Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky, an associate professor of the Midrash and interreligious studies at Jewish Theological Seminary. Rabbi Visotzky said that in Judaism and Christianity alike, such vivid images may have played a role similar to modern horror stories, as ''part morality tale but part entertainment.'' The likely audience, he said, would be the religious, who would hear about Hell's horrors from the pulpit. ''At the same time that it scares you, it reassures you that you're on the straight and narrow,'' he said.

Among most Jews, he said, such talk declined after the Enlightenment, while the Holocaust has made it impossible ''to talk about the fires of Hell without conjuring up Auschwitz.''

Among mainline Protestants, talk of Hell is as rare these days as it is among Catholics.

Richard Wood, dean of Yale Divinity School, said he could not recall having heard anything from the pulpit recently that put him in mind of Dante. But he has encountered sermons that describe Hell in the way the Vatican has spoken about it, ''where the line is exactly that -- a chosen and intensive alienation from God, a state rather than a place,'' he said.

The Jesuit magazine's editorial said it was actually the lack of church-led discussion about damnation that was cause for concern. Yes, there have been earlier times when fear of Hell was played up too much, the magazine said. But it added, ''Today there is a move to the extreme opposite, because the preachings and the sacraments hardly ever mention Hell, with considerable damage to the Christian population.'' Those who hear nothing of Hell, the magazine argued, run the risk of failing to embrace God.

Yet there is still curiosity about the subject.

Professor Cunningham said that when he lectures in parishes and someone in his audience raises the subject of Hell, he replies that the church believes that it means estrangement from God, just as heaven is the ultimate union with God, rather than a geographical location. ''That reflection is taken with great equanimity,'' he said. ''It's not like it shocks people terribly.''

Similarly, Sister Johnson said that when she talks about the teaching on Hell, she finds her students at Fordham generally respond favorably to it.

''It makes the whole thing make more sense to them,'' she said, ''that it isn't literal, but that it's a powerful metaphor -- and I would say a needed one -- to indicate the seriousness of moral choices, that what we do has consequences and eternal ones.''


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