Notes on the Hereafter

  Jerome Shea       November 25, 2011      Weekend Wonk

The Sweet—or not so sweet—Bye and Bye has been in the news lately. There was of course Harold Camping’s prediction that the Rapture would happen on the 21st of May. Obviously it didn’t, but now he predicts that the Rapture, and the Destruction, will occur on the 21st of next October. Sort of a package deal. We’ll see. At my age, I don’t sign up for extended warranties or magazine subscriptions, so I’m set. Let’r rip, Harold.

But Hell and Limbo are also making the news. (Nobody has issues with Heaven—no surprise there.) Hell is making news because a prominent Michigan mega-church pastor, Rob Bell, argues in his new book, Love Wins, that Hell is an unjust and dangerous doctrine that ought to be jettisoned. He wonders, as have others, why an acknowledged saintly figure like Gandhi should be condemned to eternity in Hell because as a Hindu he did not accept the divinity of Christ. Orthodox Christians are really bent out of shape about this, saying that Christianity means nothing if one does not accept Christ’s divinity. (As far as I know, none of them have directly engaged the Gandhi example.). I have always been uncomfortable with the carrot and stick theology of Heaven and Hell, the ultimate argumentum ad baculum. But I can see the appeal (Gandhi aside). If you are an s.o.b. in this life, then you don’t deserve a cushy reward in the next. Ok, we all seek revenge. But I suspect that God in Her wisdom takes less satisfaction in this than we groundlings do. (Burn, Hitler, burn…and maybe that guy who cut you off in traffic should join him.) And it may come down to a very precise calculation of exactly how much better—or worse—some of us are than others. This leads to such thing as the Catholic Church’s distinguishing between mortal and venial sins, the sacraments of Confession and Extreme Unction, and so forth. Should you be plummeting to earth in a stricken jetliner with a mortal sin on your soul, you can say a very fervent Act of Contrition in those last horrific seconds, and good luck to you. I do think the Reverend Bell has the better argument. If Hitler and I wind up singing together in the heavenly choir—if there’s no Hell, where ARE we going to put him?—so be it. I won’t like it but—wait a minute—in Heaven, by definition, there is nothing not to like! I do hope that Adolf can carry a tune.

Theologians have a real talent for making one’s head hurt. For example, that Hell wrangle was basically among Protestants. The Catholics figured out a tentative solution centuries ago. It’s called Limbo. But now, I read recently, they are soft-pedaling it and maybe even preparing to phase it out.

Rev. Bell was forced into his radical position, one suspects, because Protestant churches don’t recognize Limbo (except for the Bosom of Abraham, to take care of the likes of Adam and Moses and Noah…and Abraham). It’s Heaven or Hell, all or nothing.* We must remember, too, a bedrock principle of Christianity, which is the sacrament of Baptism. No Baptism, no salvation. No way. Sorry. But very early on, theologians began to have doubts and questions. For example, what about those towering figures of the Old Testament? Is Moses going to Hell? Or what about Gandhi? What about the virtuous primitive in the darkest jungle who has never heard of Christ? Finally, and most wrenchingly, what about an infant who dies unbaptised? It is truly touching what efforts the Fathers made to try to get as many souls on the heavenly bus as possible. No space here to talk about Baptism of Desire and Baptism of Blood, but traditionally (Limbo is not actually official Church doctrine) Hell is divided into Gehenna, for the truly damned; Purgatory for those who are being purged of their sins before moving on to Heaven; and then the Limbo of the Fathers and the Limbo of Infants. As for Moses, Gandhi, and others who had the wherewithal to search for God, who lived by the best of their lights, they will at the final accounting be granted Heaven. (Tradition tells us that Moses and others were in fact whisked to Heaven in the wonderfully named Harrowing of Hell which Christ performed between his death and his resurrection.)

The real problem is those millions of unbaptised infants. Infants, they could commit no sins–except for the worst one, the original sin that we are all born with and which Baptism removes. Nor had they the reason which would have let them search for God. At the darkest periods of theological history, they were thought bound for Hell. But that thought was so repellent that over the centuries that view softened considerably. It may be that they will spend eternity in perfect natural bliss, just not supernatural bliss. (But that’s ok, because they will be unaware of that greater bliss.) But in a truly brilliant stroke of casuistry, the Church opined in 1992 that “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.” So there’s hope. Maybe there’s hope for all of us.

Postscript. Limbo—“the edge, the hem”—of course has nothing to do with the Caribbean dance of the same name, which probably derives from “limber.” I had a nephew, though, who thought the people in Limbo passed the time by gyrating in that way. Well, there are worse ways to spend semi-eternity.

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