At a recent four-day West Virginia prison ministry weekend, not a single talk by the Christian volunteers (who hailed from at least eight different denominations) evoked the reality of hellfire and eternal damnation for those who refused God's invitation to a life of faith.
The other volunteers and I were indeed bent on preaching the gospel of repentance and trusting in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord as the pathway to heaven, sharing the joys of angels and saints. However we all eschewed any discussion - or even mention - of Hades.
Apparently this is very much "in synch" these days with preaching in evangelical, mainstream Protestant, Orthodox and Catholic circles. The old "hellfire and damnation" style of preaching has gone the way of the Pontiac. "Hell" has become, in effect, a taboo subject. Almost as if to say, "It just couldn't be as bad as its press reviews."
Nonetheless, in a one-to-one conversation with a fellow volunteer, a Baptist, during a break in our teachings and discussions, the notion of hell did indeed arise. The other volunteer said he had a male friend of long standing who was living his life dismissive of God, church and faith. Asked where he thought he would go upon his death, this man told the volunteer:
"I guess I'll be going to hell."
I told my fellow volunteer that I'd discovered, via the Internet, a veritable "lake of fire" in Central Asia, a phenomenon difficult to explain: A giant crater filled with a raging fire, night and day, with no discernible explanation for what keeps it going.
Could our loving Creator God be trying to show us what hell would be like? It seemed to me this was a distinct possibility.
After the prison ministry weekend, the other volunteer and I both scurried home to track down the image of hell on the net. Easy enough to locate, it is called "the Burning Gate of Turkmenistan." Terrifying images are relatively available from a variety of angles.
My fellow volunteer said he was going to bring the images to the attention of his friend.
For my part I emailed him back: "How anyone would think it OK to spend an eternity plunged into that Burning Gate of Turkmenistan with no possible escape is beyond my comprehension."
Delving into studies of hell I learned that there are at least three different Christian interpretations of what happens to souls who are dispatched to hell. The traditionalist view is what we have been discussing: a continual sense of burning (perhaps from suffering the absence of God, union with whom the soul had been destined), torture and pain, with no end.
Two other views: the Annihilists, who hold that ultimately God will put the damned souls out of existence, and the Universalists, who believe that after subjecting souls to a long period of suffering, God, out of his great love, will nonetheless welcome them into heaven. The Great Protestant theologian Karl Barth inclined to this view.
If you consult theologians whom I would consider "the best sources," you won't find much support for the two minority positions I've just sketched.
The Fathers of the Church, both major and minor, eastern and western, Augustine, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Ignatius of Antioch, as well as more modern saints such as Teresa of Avila, support the view that a hell of pain and desolation exists, with no way out for the damned. (Origen is an exception.)
Citations on Jesus of Nazareth speaking of hell are plentiful in the New Testament. And they paint him as standing firmly among the traditionalists.
John Patrick Grace formerly covered the Vatican for The Associated Press (1968-1973), then served as religion editor for The Greensboro (N.C.) News and Record. He lives in eastern Cabell County, edits books and teaches the Life Writing Class.