In a book I’m reading, I came across the story of an evangelical woman who one day realized she didn’t believe in hell. I found this interesting, particularly because a former student recently emailed me that he had come to the conclusion that there is no hell, and had in fact been drifting away not just from evangelical but Christian orthodoxy.
Now, clearly hell, and other nasty bits in monotheistic traditions, bother many people. Some occasionally decide they can’t believe in all that any more. I’m not sure how to interpret such events, however. I can see it as a kind of secularization, in that there’s a kind of individualism and dropping out of organized religion involved. But people who let go of hell typically don’t give up on supernatural convictions. A more common result seems to be drifting in the direction of an individualized spirituality, keeping God but rejecting hell, and maybe the Devil.
I guess in the long term, the result may be more secularization. After all, hell does have its place in the monotheistic intellectual economy. Without hell, there’s less of a motivation to believe at all costs, or, more importantly, to evangelize others. An individualized smattering of supernatural beliefs is less easy to reproduce in the next generation. Certainly it’s hard to make a coherent political force out of a diffuse, newagey supernaturalism. But I can also see this sort of pick-and-choose spirituality remaining as a kind of social default. I don’t know.
In any case, rejecting hell alone doesn’t turn anyone into any sort of nonbeliever. This is one problem I have with moral critiques of religious doctrines in general. The obvious solution is to make up a kinder and gentler religion. Which is fine with me, but it has no bearing on the truth of anything.