A teacher friend of mine emailed the other day out of the blue, asking about life after death. Would I answer a short questionnaire for her class of 10-year-olds? They needed to know what Catholics believe about the afterlife, why, and what “you personally” believe.
The last bit was telling, I thought. For most people dogma, if not God, is dead. ‘‘Cafeteria Catholics’’ and their equivalents in other faiths like to pick-and-mix their own personal set of beliefs. It makes adhering to them that bit easier.
Undiluted dogma never did me any harm when I was young, though, so that’s what these kids were getting. They were going to hear about hell, purgatory and heaven.
To avoid getting anything wrong, I began by sticking to the Creed. Catholics believe, I said, in “life everlasting”. But eternal life won’t be the same for everyone. There really is a place called hell for evil people, such as Hitler, who aren’t sorry for the bad things they have done.
But when I used Google to fact-check myself, it turned out that hell isn’t a place at all. According to St John Paul II, it’s the “state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God”. The “symbolical language” of hellfire in the Bible is to be taken with a pinch of salt. The thought of hell should not create “anxiety or despair”, but is a “healthy reminder” of the freedom to be found in Christianity.
That’s reassuring, and makes perfect sense. But after finishing the questionnaire I couldn’t help wondering in the days that followed: has the Church gone too far in its bid to avoid causing anxiety? When was the last time you heard a priest warn his flock about the danger of damnation? Or talk seriously about the consequences of sin? It’s as if hell is out of fashion.
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