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COLUMN ONE

Hold the Fire and Brimstone

Mention of hell from pulpits is at an all-time low. The downplaying of damnation shows the influence of secularism on Christian theology.

June 19, 2002|MIKE ANTON and WILLIAM LOBDELL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Bill Faris believes in hell, that frightful nether world where the thermostat is always set on high, where sinners toil for eternity in unspeakable torment.

But you'd never know it listening to him preach at his south Orange County evangelical church. He never mentions the topic; his flock shows little interest in it.

"It isn't sexy enough anymore," said Faris, pastor of Crown Valley Vineyard Christian Fellowship.

In churches across America, hell is being frozen out as clergy find themselves increasingly hesitant to sermonize on Christianity's outpost for lost souls.

The violence and torture that Dante described in the "Inferno" and that Hieronymus Bosch illustrated on canvas centuries ago have become cultural fossils in most mainstream Christian denominations, a story line that no longer resonates with churchgoers.

"There has been a shift in religion from focusing on what happens in the next life to asking, 'What is the quality of this life we're leading now?' " said Harvey Cox Jr., an eminent author, religious historian and professor at the Harvard Divinity School. "You can go to a whole lot of churches week after week, and you'd be startled even to hear a mention of hell."

Hell's fall from fashion indicates how key portions of Christian theology have been influenced by a secular society that stresses individualism over authority and the human psyche over moral absolutes. The rise of psychology, the philosophy of existentialism and the consumer culture have all dumped buckets of water on hell.

The tendency to downplay damnation has grown in recent years as nondenominational ministries, with their focus on everyday issues such as child-rearing and career success, have proliferated and loyalty to churches has deteriorated.

"It's just too negative," said Bruce Shelley, a senior professor of church history at the Denver Theological Seminary. "Churches are under enormous pressure to be consumer-oriented. Churches today feel the need to be appealing rather than demanding."

A 1998 poll by Barna Research Group, a Ventura company that studies Christian trends nationwide, found that church-shopping has become a way of life: One in seven adults changes churches each year; one in six regularly rotates among congregations.

That fickleness has helped give rise to "megachurches"--evangelical congregations of more than 2,000 people that mix Scripture with social and recreational programs in a casual atmosphere.

Megachurches routinely pay for market research on what will draw people to their ministries and keep them coming back.

"Once pop evangelism went into market analysis, hell was just dropped," said Martin Marty, professor emeritus of religion and culture at the University of Chicago Divinity School. "When churches go door to door and conduct a market analysis ... they hear, 'I want better parking spaces. I want guitars at services. I want to have my car greased while I'm in church.' "

Hell is far from dead. A May 2001 Gallup poll of adults nationwide found that 71% believe in hell.

They just don't want to hear about it.

Log onto www.pastors.com, the Web site run by Lake Forest's Saddleback Church, whose senior pastor, Rick Warren, says the Bible's teachings on hell guide his ministry. Scan the list of sermons for sale. There are sermons on abortion, addiction and ambition. Laughter, leadership and love. War, work and worry. More than 350 topics in all.

Nothing on hell.

Even among some "born-again" churches, hell is a rare topic of conversation. Born-again Christians believe in hell, but they also believe that their decision to embrace Christ has earned them a one-way ticket in the other direction.

"When you have a group of people who are born again, you're not going to hell," said Bob Anderson, 51, a lawyer who attends an evangelical church in Fullerton. "So why talk about it?"

Traditional denominations also have pushed hell to the margins. The Presbyterian Church (USA)'s first catechism, drawn up a few years ago by a committee, mentions hell only once.

George Hunsinger, a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary and the catechism's principal author, would have liked the document to address hell more directly and "talk about divine judgment in a responsible way." But the committee rejected the idea without much debate.

"It's a failure of nerve by churches that are not wanting to take on a non-popular stance," Hunsinger said.

Where once hell was viewed as a literal, geographic location, it is more often seen now as a state of the soul.

In 1999, Pope John Paul II made headlines by saying that hell should be seen not as a fiery underworld but as "the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy."

As much as that seemed like a departure from church beliefs, the pope's words weren't all that new. The Roman Catholic Church in the 1960s moved away from the view of hell as a gothic torture chamber as part of the Second Vatican Council's modernization of church teachings.

New Catechism

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