Magazine article The Christian Century

Certain Punishment

Magazine article The Christian Century

Certain Punishment

Article excerpt

EVERY FEW YEARS I revisit hell--the topic, not the place or state. Recently it came up in one of those quickie USA Today polls that I am thriving on lately. This poll asked, "Is There a Hell?" We learned that "52 percent of adults are certain there's a hell, and 27 percent think there might be." Of these, 48 percent say hell is a "real place where people suffer eternal fiery torment," and a close 46 percent think it is an "anguished state of existence rather than an actual place." Only 6 percent "don't know" which category to choose, an answer that, in the eyes of the "certains," leaves them in a hell of a place.

It appears, then, that many millions of Americans believe that to "suffer eternal fiery torment" is the fate of those who do not believe as they do. Let's think about these Certains, as I do every time the subject comes up. I realize this column will put me in a purgatorial state. I've learned this from experience, beginning with the time I gave a lecture in which I pointed out that the decline of belief in hell turned out to have no visible civic consequence. "No one noticed." That thesis was widely interpreted as a denial of clear biblical teaching or a sign that the lecturer was trying to lull himself and his audience into apathy or bind them in ignorance.

Not so. I just want to talk about the basic sensibilities of the Certains who take time to write nasty letters or debate the existence of their hell. Or, worse, who attend football games, sleep eight hours a night, loll in the bath, linger over food, make love, go to church, make and keep promises, listen to religious television, etc. …

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