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 Welcome to "Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth 2000"

Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth 2000

Whether or not it proves effective, this more figurative view of hell fits neatly with a recent shift in public opinion. A new U.S. News poll shows that more Americans believe in hell today than did in the 1950s or even 10 years ago. But like the pope, most now think of hell as "an anguished state of existence" rather than as a real place.

It should come as little surprise, say some scholars, that modern educated Americans would reject notions of a blazing underworld where anguished souls writhe in endless torment. A literal hell is "part of an understanding of the cosmos that just doesn't exist anymore," says Prof. Stephen J. Patterson of the Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis. Were the pope to invoke images of hell with "flames and a red-suited devil with a pitchfork," says church historian Martin Marty, a professor emeritus of the University of Chicago Divinity School, "he knows people wouldn't take it seriously. It's cartoonish."

Many modern Christians are simply ashamed of hell, explains Groothuis of the Denver Seminary. Even some evangelicals, who generally take a more literal approach to biblical teachings, he says, view hell as "a blemish to be covered up by the cosmetic of divine love." In increasingly secular American culture, adds Mohler, "hell has become about as politically incorrect a concept as one can find."

Yet few religious ideas have proved to be as riveting or resilient. Hell's roots run deep in Judeo-Christian teachings, although its lineage is sometimes difficult to discern. In the earliest biblical times, views of the afterlife were murky, to say the least. The ancient Hebrew texts of Genesis, 1 Kings, Psalms, and Job, for example, suggest that all the dead–both righteous and wicked–were dispatched to a gloomy underworld realm called sheol, a morally neutral place akin to the hades of ancient Greek mythology.

In the book of Genesis, for example, the Hebrew patriarch Jacob, believing his son Joseph to be dead, moans: "I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning" (37:35).

By the second century B.C., when the Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek, hades replaced sheol in the Greek Bible, and the two concepts became firmly melded in popular thinking. Later, when belief in a final resurrection of the dead emerged in some parts of Judaism and in Christianity, hades became a temporary abode of the souls of the wicked only–the righteous went to heavenly blessedness to await the bodily resurrection.

In early Christian teaching, after the final judgment, the wicked will be condemned to a hell of fire called gehenna, a Greek word derived from the Hebrew Gehinnom and referring to the desolate Valley of Hinnom, south of Jerusalem, where trash fires burned incessantly and where ancient human sacrifices had been offered to Canaanite gods. The fiery imagery grew even hotter in the book of Revelation, written late in the first century A.D., which declares that any who are judged unworthy will be "thrown into the lake of fire" (20:15) along with Satan and his minions.

Words and deeds. But the nuanced differences and gradual shifts in the biblical concepts of post-mortem punishment often are obscured in English Bibles, which frequently translate all three terms–sheol, hades, and gehenna–simply as "hell." Greek texts of the gospel of Matthew, for example, use gehenna when quoting Jesus as warning: "Anyone who says, 'You fool,' will be in danger of the fire of hell" (5:22).

But they use hades where Jesus vows that "the gates of hell shall not prevail" against his church (16:18). Rather than talking about a place of eternal punishment in this instance, some modern Bible scholars interpret Jesus's words as a dramatic affirmation of his power over death demonstrated by his own Resurrection.

Other New Testament passages offer frightening glimpses of hell as a place of "outer darkness" and of "weeping and gnashing of teeth" where the "worm never dies and the fire is never quenched."

But the portraiture is far from complete. Many of the early church fathers, including the fourth-century Latin theologian Jerome, assumed that hell was a place of sensory torment. "We should indeed mourn for the dead," Jerome wrote, "but only for him whom Gehenna receives . . . and for whose punishment the eternal fire burns."

The view was far from unanimous. Both the third-century father Origen of Alexandria and Gregory of Nyssa, a theologian of the fourth century, thought hell was more a place of spiritual suffering–of remorse and separation from God. In the fifth century, the great Christian theologian Augustine of Hippo staked out a middle ground by suggesting that suffering in hell was both spiritual and sensory–a view that continues to hold considerable sway.

Uses and abuses. While most of the early church fathers taught that hell's purpose was to punish impenitent sinners, however, Origen suggested it was remedial–that in hell, even the worst of sinners could be rehabilitated and ultimately find their way to paradise.

But his "universalist" view was rejected by church leaders at the Council of Constantinople in 543. And while a few theologians of the day believed that sinners ultimately would be annihilated, most held the belief that the torments of hell were unending.

In the early 14th century, the graphic imagery of a multileveled subterranean chamber of horrors became fixed in the popular imagination with Dante's fictional descriptions of the Inferno in The Divine Comedy. Two hundred years later, leaders of the Protestant Reformation rejected the terrifying depictions of hell in art and literature. While Martin Luther and John Calvin regarded hell as a real place, they believed its fiery torments were figurative. Hell's worst agonies, they said, were the terror and utter despair of spending eternity cut off from God.

Nonetheless, old notions of hell as a place of both physical and spiritual suffering experienced a resurgence in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Westminster Larger Catechism declared hell's agonies to include "grievous torments in soul and body," in addition to "everlasting separation from the comfortable presence of God." But Origen's premise that all would be saved also began to draw a new following. And the rise of liberal Protestantism in the 19th and early 20th centuries spawned renewed objections to the thought of eternal retribution in a material hell. Rather than becoming more uniform, the Christian doctrine of hell grew more fragmented than ever.

Indeed, the 20th century was nearly the death of hell. Lampooned by modern intellectuals and increasingly sidelined by preachers preferring to dwell on more uplifting themes, the threat of post-mortem punishment of the impenitent in an eternal lake of fire all but disappeared from the religious mainstream by the 1960s.

Theological discourse on the subject at the nation's divinity schools almost evaporated. And while polls showed that the majority of Americans professed to believe in hell's existence, almost no one thought he would go there. Observing the dearth of fire-and-brimstone rhetoric, Marty of the University of Chicago was moved to remark a few years back that "hell has disappeared and no one noticed."

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