St Andrews researcher questions belief in hell
From The Guardian
Donald MacLeod Monday December 5, 2005
Fire and brimstone sermons are less likely to thunder from Scottish pulpits these days, but a third of the clergy still believe in the existence of hell, according to a survey published this week. A clear majority of ministers and priests of different denominations believe in judgment day and one in five say the damned will suffer eternal physical torment. Eric Stoddart, a lecturer in practical theology at St Andrews University, surveyed 750 randomly selected clergy and found that 37% believed in hell, although this was more marked in the Highlands and Western Isles, where conservative, Presbyterian congregations predominate.
"The doctrine of hell is downplayed by most of today's churches even by those who still believe in it. It isn't viewed as very politically correct even by a new generation of more theologically conservative ministers," said Dr Stoddart, who commented that there was a conspiracy of silence on the subject. The anonymous postal survey of clergy from Baptist, Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, Methodist and Scottish Episcopalian churches, as well as the Church of Scotland, other Presbyterians and the Salvation Army, posed questions directly related to the fate of "the lost". A majority believed that there would be a judgment day at which we will be separated into "the saved" and "the lost", who will be eternally separated from God. One third of the clergy surveyed believe that this separation will involve 'eternal mental anguish in hell', while a fifth believe that such a fate includes eternal physical torment.
Dr Stoddart explained: "The fire and brimstone of the past may largely have been extinguished, but the beliefs that many Scottish clergy hold concerning the potential horrors that await 'the lost' continue to be dark and foreboding. "All will not be well, if that majority of Scotland's clergy are to be believed."
Dr Stoddart is interested in how belief in hell affects everyday life and is keen to hear from ordinary Christians as well. He said: "I'm interested in how people handle their belief in hell. If you believe (or are told you should believe) your grandmother is going to hell because she is not a Christian, how do you deal with that? Do you dehumanise her or psychologically distance yourself in order to accept her fate? How is it possible to go about daily life while believing that a loved-one has entered eternal suffering? When most hell-believing Christians are likely to encounter the death of 'non-Christian' loved-ones it is striking that it is a subject rarely tackled. No one talks about this aspect. There is something of a conspiracy of silence."
The study also found that clergy did not necessarily follow their particular 'official' doctrine, with members of the same church in opposite sides of the country holding opposing beliefs. Reasons for going to hell vary from lack of Christian beliefs to drinking alcohol or engaging in 'unnatural' sexual activities. Dr Stoddart continued: "Christians in Lanarkshire may be shocked to think that a 'good Christian' minister in Aberdeen does not believe in hell's physical torments. But what the survey did find was broad support for the notion of a judgment day, in which God divides the lost from the saved. While universal salvation in which all are united with God is popular in some clerical and academic circles, it is not the belief shared by most clergy in Scotland. The God of most of Scotland's ministers is one who divides."
I always thought of Hell as a badly written horror story to frighten children, then again I always thought that Heaven was a very badly written fantasy to make children be good….