August 22, 2011
— Martin E. Marty
It’s bad journalism to obsess about a topic and inflict it on readers; it’s bad manners for a columnist to be self-referential. So I’ll start off saying “my bad!” and “my bad!” for returning to last week’s topic, “Hell.” And some readers may fear that I am going to obsess about “hell,” after having received so many responses to last week’s column. (Sightings is not a blog but an e-column, and though my e-publisher at The University of Chicago and I at my home study and learn from all your responses, much as we’d like to, we are not in a position to carry on give-and-take responses. (Thanks for those responses.) An exception today:
Obsessively, I obsess about the “hell” topic, writing about it, as I do, every 23 years. Before last week, the last time was in the Ingersoll Lecture at Harvard in 1988, published in 1989. I called it “Hell Disappeared. No One Noticed. A Civic Argument.” Not equipped to handle the subject theologically, I kept on my historian’s hat and reported. For example, I could not, in pre-Google times, find a single scholarly article on the subject in an academic journal in the past century. Typical, however, had been advice about hell to public school teachers, who were told to threaten lying children: if you die today with unforgiven sins like lying, you will go to hell. Know that your parents and family will live on without you, able to congratulate themselves while peering over the rim of hell, seeing you roast, and knowing you got what you deserved.
Chicago colleague Arthur Mann, a reverent secular Jew and I, having shared advisorship or oral examination sessions for years, discerned that except in formal and doctrinal concepts, nothing explained late-modern Catholic change more than the disappearance of hell. Televangelists, of course, preached it, and drew crowds. Polls revealed—no surprise—that the majority of Americans told social scientists that they “believed” in hell. They still do, and may for a long time. We did not imply that they were unbelievers but we were suspicious that “bad faith” was characteristic. That is: if they profess to believe that people they could reach and convert could be spared hell, what were they doing wasting time sleeping long, arguing with us, preaching Prosperity Gospels, going to football games, and not joining Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses in ringing prospects’ doorbells. Mann and I would report and ponder and turn the subject over to serious theologians, few of whom picked up the signal to write about it.
Now “Hell reappeared,” and many noticed, especially in evangelicalism, where two books, noted here last week, stirred up discussion. We heard from some thoughtful theological thinkers from that camp. One deserves mention here: Mark Galli, author of God Wins, asked why I called his book “anthropocentric” in approach. For the third time this week I have to say, “My bad.” It was a bad choice of terms. I wanted to say that the very, very hard questions he took up dealt with intellectual questions that “we” anthropoi in the Western Christian tradition addressed—easy questions like “predestination,” but devoted only a couple of paragraphs to the big one about relating God to the “eternal” “hell” of “torment” for those who “never heard of Savior Jesus” and “never had a chance.” Galli is an informed student of theologian Karl Barth and therefore far from “anthropocentric” minded.
I told a friend that I had had enough of “Hell” and was ready again to write on “religion and current American politics.” Response: “How can you tell the difference?”
“Hell Disappeared. No One noticed” is in the Harvard Theological Review 78, 1988. Access to the whole article is complex but possible at http://www.jstor.org/pss/1509697.
Mark Galli, God Wins: Heaven, Hell, and Why the Good News Is Better than Love Wins (Tyndale, 2011).
Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (HarperOne, 2011).
The first response to Bell’s book, I am told, is from within the Calvinist tradition, commended to me (but I’ve not yet read it) by publisher and professor Quentin Schultze: Christ Alone, by Prof. Mike Wittmer, the book’s website is www.christalonebook.com.
Martin E. Marty's biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.