Obstacles to Evangelization: No. 2
I suggested in my last post that Christianity not only offers an answer to a question, but it proposes a particular question as the right one to ask: What must I do to be saved--and being saved means participating in eternal life, life beyond death. Different religious traditions don't only propose different answers, they propose different questions. For Buddhism, the key is to free oneself of attachments, for example, in order to escape the cycle of death and rebirth.
For Christianity, the central problem is sin--actions that are in violation of God's law. We hold the idea of a personalized judgment, in which each person is assessed according to his or her deeds, and sent to heaven, a state of everlasting blessedness, or hell, a state of everlasting torment. I am well aware that there has been theological work done on the nature or meaning of hell. Nonetheless, I do think the traditional view creates a second problem for evangelization--because it creates a problem about God's nature.
I think it is very hard for people to believe that any thing they do on this earth could merit eternal damnation. This is even more the case when we take into account the fact that we don't know where the line is between actions for which people are morally responsible and those for which we are not. Some of the most heinous acts, objectively speaking, may have been committed by seriously mentaly disturbed people. In any case, the kind of torture we find, say, in Dante's Inferno seems more fitting for a petty dictator than for God. Ironically enough, I think the movement toward human rights--toward the dignity of each human being--has pressed against the notion of hell as a situation of everlasting torment. If it is wrong for human beings to treat one another in this way, isn't it wrong for God to do so as well?Can the imago dei--the dignity of the person--be so erased after death that everlasting punishment of the sort that is contemplated in some Christian texs really something that we can reconcile with the goodness and justice of God.
Another problem, of course, is grace. The very idea of predestination--some people predestined to salvation and others to damnation -- doesn't sit well with contemporary notions of the dignity of all persons. Even the Catholic tradition' s notion of grace can be problematic. Yes, Catholics believe that all morally upright persons can be with God in paradise. But we know now how much being morally upright is a function of nature (genetics) and nurture (family). So the arbitrary factor is there in the background too.
So, either the concepts of final judgment and hell need to be reconfigured to meet our deepest ideas of justice (and the mere assertion, which Calvin makes, that you can't question God's justice just wont do), or they need to be muted. And if they're muted, a major reason that people have clung to Christianity in general (to be saved from hell) won't be as powerful.
About the Author
Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.