"Do you believe in hell?" a friend asked. "Absolutely," I fired back—images of gang shootings in D.C., Bosnian refugees, and bodies hurled from the heights of the Twin Towers rushed to illustrate the point. "Only I'm pretty convinced it's what we make here on Earth, not some end-time reality." Moral decisions have consequences in the here and now, individually and communally. Hell? I've seen it.
But what about after death? What about the "eternal" part?
Almost everything I know about hell's eschatological aspects I learned from watching UPN's now- defunct series Buffy the Vampire Slayer—sort of an interactive "Divine Comedy." Valley-girl Buffy Summers and her Virgil (embodied by tweedy professor Rupert Giles) battle soulless creatures that slither out of the "hell mouth" (conveniently located under the high school), returning the creatures to blazing torment forever.
I would feel bad about this pop theological education, except I'm not alone.
For 700 years Dante's epic poem, mainly the "Inferno," has been the source of inspiration for preachers, pastors, and not a few theologians, who promoted hell as a physical place with its own address, zip code, and smoking embers. Add to their oratorical brimstone the fiery images from artists—Gustave Doré, Hieronymous Bosch, or Buffy-producer Joss Whedon—and you've got a potent pedagogy.
A FEW YEARS ago the Catholic Church modernized its teaching on eternal damnation when John Paul II rejected the idea of hell as a physical place. Instead, preached the pope, "Hell is the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy. [It is] a condition resulting from attitudes and actions which people adopt in this life." As for eternal damnation, he said those who freely choose separation from God have their choice "confirmed with death and seal that choice forever." No more of Dante's deformed creatures braised on sulfurous coals, just interminable meaninglessness.
In the early '90s, even evangelical leader Billy Graham eased up on hell. "When it comes to a literal fire, I don't preach it because I'm not sure about it," Graham said in Time magazine. "When the scripture uses fire concerning hell, that is possibly an illustration of how terrible it's going to be—not fire but something worse, a thirst for God that cannot be quenched."
All this sparked a heated debate in the ivory towers of theology, where battle lines were drawn between traditionalists who believe the unsaved burn forever, conditionalists who say the unsaved burn for a little while, annihilationists who think unbelievers disappear after death thereby avoiding torment, and universalists who posit that a loving God will ultimately save all. (Tim Lahaye's apocalyptic fantasy series Left Behind is making millions off the fray.)
JESUS TALKS a lot about hell. Take Matthew 25 for example: "Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Welcome the stranger. Or go to hell." (That's a paraphrase.) He describes hell as an eternal fire. Whether it is a metaphor, an illustration of the present world, or a prediction about the afterlife, I don't know. But after thinking about it, I do believe that my moral choices have spiritual, non-temporal consequences, in addition to consequences in the here and now. If I denied this, I would deny God's justice.
In central Bosnia, just after the war, a priest showed me a two-sided bronze cross, high on a hill, erected by the Franciscans. One side showed the resurrected Christ in full glory. The other side was Christ as eternal judge. I was drawn to the resurrection side with its emphasis on life and joy. Father Dzolan said the people there preferred the judgment side. Fifteen hundred civilians were killed in that area during the war—neighbor against neighbor. Every family was scarred. "When people see this cross, they understand that Jesus will be the judge of the wrongs committed, not them," he explained. "This symbol of Christ as judge then becomes a liberation for them. They are free to begin the act of resurrection."
The best answers to sticky theological questions are usually from those closest to the problem. If you want to know about poverty, ask a poor person. If you want to know about hell, ask someone who's been there.
Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.