hell

Jeffrey Epstein meets Dante: Eternal questions about hell that refuse to fade away

Jeffrey Epstein meets Dante: Eternal questions about hell that refuse to fade away

So, what is Jeffrey Epstein up to these days?

When beloved public figures pass away, cartoonists picture them sitting on clouds playing harps or chatting up St. Peter at heaven's Pearly Gates. The deaths of notorious individuals like Jeffrey Dahmer, Timothy McVeigh, Osama bin Laden and Epstein tend to inspire a different kind of response.

"The world is now a safer place," one victim of the disgraced New York financier and convicted sex offender told The Daily Mirror. "Jeffrey lived his life on his terms and now he's ended it on his terms too. Justice was not served before, and it will not be served now. I hope he rots in hell."

Social-media judgments were frequent and fiery. After all, this man's personal-contacts file -- politicians, entertainers, Ivy League intellectuals and others -- was both famous and infamous. Epstein knew people who knew people.

"That Jeffrey Epstein was allowed to take the coward's way out & deny justice to his victims is a DISGRACE," tweeted Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. "Pedophiles deserve the Ninth Circle of Hell, but not before a full accounting."

The rush to consign Epstein to hell is interesting, since many Americans no longer believe in a place of eternal damnation -- a trend seen in polls in recent decades.

In 1990, a Gallup poll found that 60% of Americans believed in hell and only 4% of respondents thought there was a chance they would go to hell. In 2014, The Pew Research Center's Religious Landscape Study said 58% of American adults believed in hell, defined as a place where "people who have led bad lives and die without being sorry are eternally punished."

The bottom line: For many Americans, hell is for people who have already been damned in the court of public opinion -- since everyone agrees they are extraordinarily bad. This view of eternal life doesn't point to a reality that has anything to do with how normal people make choices and go about their lives. Hell is a vague, majority-vote concept that applies only to mass murderers and sickos involved in sex-abuse scandals.

Many modern people want eternal justice on their own terms. This desire may have little or nothing to do with God.

NASCAR America collides with NPR America at the National Prayer Breakfast

In terms of the worldviews that drive American life, the 2015 National Prayer Breakfast was a head-on collision between NASCAR and NPR.

Both President Barack Obama and NASCAR legend Darrell Waltrip were the speakers and both were sure the world would be a better place if many sinners climbed down off their high horses and ate some humble pie.

First, Waltrip bared his own soul and described how he found what he believes is the one true path to eternal salvation. Then, moments later, the president told the same flock that religious believers who embrace precisely that kind of religious certainty are threatening the peace and harmony of the modern world.

This was, in other words, a morning for red religion and blue religion.

While the president's remarks comparing the modern Islamic State with Medieval Christian crusaders made headlines, Waltrip's blunt testimony contained words that -- for many in the interfaith audience -- were just as controversial.

A (liberal) church-growth strategy to save the Episcopal Church

Once upon a time, the Anglican bishops at the global Lambeth Conference boldly declared the 1990s the "Decade of Evangelism." 

 This effort was supposed to spur church growth and it did, in the already booming Anglican churches of Africa, Asia and across the "Global South." But in the lovely, historic sanctuaries of England and North America? Not so much.

 "There was some lip service given to evangelism at that time," said Ted Mollegen, a businessman with decades of national Episcopal Church leadership experience. Membership totals continued to spiral down and the Decade of Evangelism "basically faded away without much success ... because of a lack of effort and institutional commitment."

 The Episcopal Church then created a "20/20 Vision" task force committed to doubling baptized membership by 2020. The goal was a renewed evangelism emphasis, along with programs for spiritual development, emerging leaders, church planting and improved work with children, teens and college students. Mollegen was the task force's secretary and a founding member of the Episcopal Network for Evangelism.

Episcopalians, however, promptly entered yet another period of doctrinal warfare and schism, symbolized by the departure of many large evangelical parishes following the 2003 election of a noncelibate gay priest as bishop of New Hampshire. Mollegen served on the national church's executive council from 2003-2009.

Zombies are US, 2013 edition

It seems to happen whenever Steve Beard hangs out with friends -- especially folks who don't go to church -- talking about movies, television and whatever else is on their minds. "It may take five minutes or it may take as long as 10, but sooner or later you're going to run into some kind zombie comment," said Beard, editor of Good News, a magazine for United Methodist evangelicals. He is also known for writing about faith and popular culture.

"Someone will say something like, 'When the zombie apocalypse occurs, we need to make sure we're all at so-and-so's house so we can stick together.' It's all a wink and a nod kind of deal, but the point is that this whole zombie thing has become a part of the language of our time."

Tales of the living dead began in Western Africa and Haiti and these movies have been around as long as Hollywood has been making B-grade flicks. However, the modern zombie era began with filmmaker George A. Romero's classic "Night of the Living Dead" in 1968, which led to his "Dawn of the Dead" and "Day of the Dead." Other directors followed suit, with hits such as "28 Days Later," "Zombieland," "The Evil Dead" and "Shaun of the Dead." Next up, Brad Pitt in the $170 million-dollar epic "World War Z," due June 21, which could turn into a multi-movie franchise.

In bookstores, classic literature lovers will encounter a series of postmodern volumes clustered under the title "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies." Also, videogame fans have purchased more than 50 million copies of the Resident Evil series and these games have inspired countless others.

But anyone who is interested in the worldview -- if not the theology -- of zombie life must come to grips with the cable-television parables offered in the AMC series "The Walking Dead." This phenomenon, said Beard, has become so influential that it cannot be ignored by clergy, especially those interested in the kinds of spiritual questions that haunt people who avoid church pews.

Truth is, "The Walking Dead" is not "about zombies. It's a show about people who are trying to figure out the difference between mere survival and truly living," he stressed, in a telephone interview. "How do you decide what is right and what is wrong? How do you stay sane, in a world that has gone crazy? ...

"Where is God in all of this? That's the unspoken question."

In his classic book "Gospel of the Living Dead," religious studies scholar Kim Paffenroth of Iona College argued that Romero's zombie movies borrowed from one of the key insights found in Dante's "Inferno" -- that hell's worst torments are those humanity creates on its own, such as boredom, loneliness, materialism and, ultimately, separation from God.

As a final touch of primal spirituality, Romero -- who was raised Catholic -- added cannibalism to the zombie myth.

"Zombies partially eat the living. But they actually only eat a small amount, thereby leaving the rest of the person intact to become a zombie, get up, and attack and kill more people, who then likewise become zombies," argued Paffenroth. Thus, the "whole theme of cannibalism seems added for its symbolism, showing what humans would degenerate into in their more primitive, zombie state."

The point, he added, is that "we, humans, not just zombies, prey on each other, depend on each other for our pathetic and parasitic existence, and thrive on each others' misery."

This is why, said Beard, far too many women and men seem to be staggering through life today like listless shoppers wandering in shopping malls, their eyes locked on their smartphones instead of the faces of loved ones. Far too often their lives are packed with stuff, but empty of meaning.

Romero and his artistic disciples keep asking a brutal question: This is living?

"One of the big questions in zombie stories is the whole 'Do zombies have souls?' thing," said Beard. "But that kind of question only leads to more and more questions, which is what we keep seeing in 'The Walking Dead' and other zombie stories. ...

"If zombies no longer have souls, what does it mean for a human being to be soul-less? If you have a soul, how do you hang on to it? Why does it seem that so many people today seem to have lost their souls?"

Columbine, Newtown and our culture of death

Blame it on the guns. No, blame the judges who banned Godtalk in schools, along with most lessons about right and wrong.

No, our lousy national mental health care system caused this hellish bloodbath.

No, the problem is the decay of American families, with workaholic parents chained to their desks while their children grow up in suburban cocoons with too much time on their hands.

No, it's Hollywood's fault. How can children tell the difference between fantasy and reality when they've been baptized in violent movies, television and single-shooter videogames?

Why not blame God?

These were the questions in 1999 when two teen-aged gunmen at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., killed 13 people and themselves in the massacre that set the standard for soul-searching media frenzies in postmodern America.

All the questions asked about Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold are now being asked about Adam Lanza after he gunned down 20 first graders and six employees at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., before taking his life. He began his rampage by killing his mother in the suburban home they shared after the 2008 divorce that split their family.

After Columbine, Denver's archbishop wrote an agonizing reflection that looked toward a future after all the headlines and endless cable-news coverage. Last week the staff of Archbishop Charles Chaput, now leader of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, circulated those words once again. What has changed?

"The media are already filled with 'sound bites' of shock and disbelief; psychologists, sociologists, grief counselors and law enforcement officers -- all with their theories and plans," he wrote. "God bless them for it. We certainly need help. Violence is now pervasive in American society -- in our homes, our schools, on our streets, in our cars as we drive home from work, in the news media, in the rhythms and lyrics of our music, in our novels, films and video games. It is so prevalent that we have become largely unconscious of it. ...

"The causes of this violence are many and complicated: racism, fear, selfishness. But in another, deeper sense, the cause is very simple: We're losing God, and in losing Him, we're losing ourselves. The complete contempt for human life shown by the young killers ... is not an accident, or an anomaly or a freak flaw in our social fabric. It's what we create when we live a contradiction. We can't systematically kill the unborn, the infirm and the condemned prisoners among us; we can't glorify brutality in our entertainment; we can't market avarice and greed ... and then hope that somehow our children will help build a culture of life."

Columbine unfolded in the Easter season, noted Chaput, a time in which believers are reminded that even the Son of God was not spared the reality of death.

"The Son of God descended into hell and so have we all, over the past few days," noted the archbishop. "But that isn't the end of the story."

Now, the Newtown massacre has shattered the season of Advent, in the days preceding the 12-day season of Christmas -- another biblical event that included violence and the deaths of innocents, as well as the singing of angels and signs of ultimate hope.

Little has changed.

Death is real and life is precious. Innocence is fragile and sin is terrifyingly real. The violence that haunts our culture is real and at times impossible to prevent. America is blessed and cursed with charge cards, computers, cellphones and many other gifts of modern life.

Chaput and other clergy faced familiar questions this week. The only option, he said, is to look in the mirror.

"God is good, but we human beings are free, and being free, we help fashion the nature of our world with the choices we make," he said, in a new letter. "Every life lost in Connecticut was unique, precious and irreplaceable. But the evil was routine; every human generation is rich with it. Why does God allow war? Why does God allow hunger? ...

"We are not the inevitable products of history or economics or any other determinist equation. We're free, and therefore responsible for both the beauty and the suffering we help make. Why does God allow wickedness? He allows it because we -- or others just like us -- choose it. The only effective antidote to the wickedness around us is to live differently from this moment forward."

Hail Marys for Hitch

One of the last things Thomas Peters does each day is face the Cross of St. Benedict that hangs over his bed and say his evening prayers. The sobering final phrases of the Hail Mary prayer have recently taken on a unique relevancy: "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen."

A month ago, the conservative Catholic writer challenged readers of the American Papist website to join him in praying one Hail Mary a day on behalf of the iconoclastic atheist Christopher Hitchens, who has been stricken with esophageal cancer, a disease which leaves few survivors.

"I am going to begin praying ... for the salvation of his eternal soul," wrote Peters, "that God will be with him 'at the hour of his death,' that God will help his unbelief in this life, and that those he has led away from God will come back to His infinite love and mercy. I am in no way praying for him to die, I am praying for him to live eternally."

Peters is not alone and Hitchens knows it. While some believers hope that he suffers and dies, post haste, the author of "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything" told CNN that he has been surprised that others -- who are "much more numerous, I must say, and nicer" -- are praying for his healing, both body and soul.

This has been one of the strangest side effects of Hitchens' journey across the "stark frontier that marks off the land of malady." This is a zone in which almost everyone is politely encouraging, the jokes are feeble, sex talk is nonexistent and the "cuisine is the worst of any destination I have ever visited," wrote Hitchens, in a blunt Vanity Fair essay. The native tongue in "Tumorville" is built around terms such as "metastasized," phases such as "tissue is the issue" and quotes from the writings of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.

Most of the inhabitants also do quite a bit of praying -- for themselves, for their loved ones and even for suffering people they have never met.

Hitchens told evangelical broadcaster Hugh Hewitt that he remains convinced these prayers "don't do any good, but they don't necessarily do any harm. It's touching to be thought of in that way."

The bottom line, explained Peters, is that his faith asks him to "pray for everyone, even those who hate us. ... Hitch just happens to be a famous public enemy of the faith, so more people know what is happening in this life, so more people are talking about why it's good to pray for him."

While it is "absolutely horrible" that anyone would pray for Hitchens to suffer and die, he added, many believers may find it hard to do more than pray for "God's will to be done." That is the "safe prayer" that is always appropriate.

Meanwhile, a quick Internet scan reveals that some believers are, predictably enough, praying for Hitchens to be converted to Christianity for the sake of his own soul. Others are specifically praying that the scribe who -- with Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins -- is called one of the "four horsemen" of the New Atheism will not only convert, but also become an apologist for faith. That happened decades ago with an atheist named C.S. Lewis, after all.

"Ultimately, I simply will pray that Hitch has a good and holy death," said Peters. "I really do not care if he has a public conversion. I care that he, somehow, has a private conversion and that he will be reconciled to God."

As much as believers love these kinds of "foxhole conversion" stories, Hitchens is convinced he will not surrender. However, should rumors spread that he has "hedged his bets," the writer has made several public statements warning his admirers that if such cry to the Almighty were to take place, they should ignore it.

"If that comes it will be when I'm very ill, when I am half demented, either by drugs or by pain and I won't have control over what I say," he told CNN. "I can't say that the entity that by then would be me wouldn't do such a pathetic thing. But I can tell you that -- not while I am lucid. No, I could be quite sure of that."

Heaven, hell and funerals

Anyone who has lived in a minister's house knows that middle-of-the-night telephone calls often bring bad news. But for many pastors there is one kind of call that is uniquely painful. There are times when the shock of death is easier to handle than questions about eternal life.

"It happens like this," noted the Rev. J. Gerald Harris, who became editor of the Southern Baptist newspaper of Georgia after 40 years in ministry. "A grieving widow would call and say with a broken heart and with tears in her voice, 'Pastor, my husband had a heart attack last night and we took him to the hospital, but he was dead on arrival. I can't believe it has happened, but we need your help. I know he was not a church member, but we would like for you to preach his funeral.' "

The pastor says "yes," of course. Then, while talking with the family, it often becomes apparent that the deceased was not a believer or may even have been someone who -- by word or deed --flaunted his status as an unbeliever. Others may join the church, then walk away for decades.

This is awkward, noted Harris, for clergy who believe salvation is found through faith in Jesus Christ, alone. It's one thing to step into the pulpit and preach on the mercy of God and to speak words of comfort to a grieving family. It's something else for a pastor to go a step further and do what loved ones may want him to do -- openly proclaim they will be reunited with the deceased in heaven.

Harris said he started receiving calls and emails soon after he wrote about this subject in the Christian Index, in part because this dilemma pivots where the minister draws a theological line, a line that many liberal Christians no longer believe needs to be drawn at all.

There is no question, Harris stressed, that pastors should provide comfort and care for families in these circumstances. Obviously, there is no need for preachers to speak words that would cause grieving relatives pain. However, he also is convinced that it's wrong for pastors to deliver messages they sincerely believe are not true -- to embrace the doctrine of "universalism," which proclaims that all people find eternal salvation, no matter what they believe or how they live their lives.

This is tricky doctrinal territory, as Sen. Barack Obama learned during a June 10 meeting with clergy behind closed doors in Chicago.

While other conservative leaders asked Obama about controversial social issues, the Rev. Franklin Graham -- son of evangelist Billy Graham -- asked an openly theological question: Did the candidate believe that "Jesus was the way to God, or merely a way."

Later, Obama told Newsweek that -- in a candid, personal answer -- he replied: "It is a precept of my Christian faith that my redemption comes through Christ, but I am also a big believer in the Golden Rule, which I think is an essential pillar not only of my faith but of my values and my ideals and my experience here on Earth. I've said this before, and I know this raises questions in the minds of some evangelicals. I do not believe that my mother, who never formally embraced Christianity as far as I know ... I do not believe she went to hell."

In the end, Harris said, it's all but impossible to ignore this kind of doctrinal division. However, pastors do have options when handling these situations, other than delivering sermons that violate their own consciences.

In many Christian traditions, funeral rites consist of hymns and prayers that place more attention on the words of scriptures than on a minister's message. But if the family insists on a sermon that focuses on the deceased, he said, pastors can suggest that a friend deliver this message. In some congregations, loved ones offer eulogies during gatherings -- fellowship meals, perhaps -- following funerals.

"These questions aren't going away," said Harris. "For many people today it's not enough to be tolerant of other people's decisions and religious beliefs. Now they want a kind of positive tolerance, they want you to accept and praise other people's beliefs. You have to be willing to say what they want you to say. ... "That just isn't possible, for a lot of us."

Zombies meet Dante at the mall

Kim Paffenroth was 13 years old when filmmaker George A. Romero released "Dawn of the Dead," so he knew he would need parental guidance to see the gory classic about flesh-eating, undead zombies and the shopping mall from hell.

"I wasn't really a horror movie fan," he said, flashing back to 1979. "But for some reason I bugged my dad until he bought two tickets. He said, 'OK, but I'm not sitting through that thing. Meet me outside when it's over.' "

The movie was sickening, disturbing, funny and haunting -- all at the same time. Paffenroth was hooked, especially by Romero's bleak, biting view of humanity's future. This wasn't just another commercial horror movie, the kind that cable-television channels play around the clock at Halloween.

Then a strange thing happened in college, when Paffenroth's work in the classics led him to St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas and, especially, the medieval poet Dante Alighieri. To his shock, he found that his doctoral work at Notre Dame University was starting to overlap with his fascination with zombie movies.

Suddenly, the word "Inferno" had new meaning. He decided that Romero's zombies -- the living dead who had lost all self-control and reason -- were a modernized, bumbling, cannibalistic vision of what Dante called the "suffering race of souls who lost the good of intellect."

It was also clear that, as in Dante, there were higher and lower levels in this hell.

"The zombies live in the first five circles of hell and they stand for gluttony, rage, laziness and the most basic, crude sins," said Paffenroth, a religious studies professor at Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y. "A zombie is a human being who cannot control his appetites, who simply cannot stop eating and it really doesn't matter what kind of eating or consuming we're talking about."

But what makes Romero's movies truly disturbing -- at least for viewers willing to do more than revel in gory special effects -- is that the zombies are not the worst sinners on the screen. While the undead cannot control their passions, it is the living who sink to the lower circles of damnation, choosing to wallow in hate, pride, deceit, viciousness, greed, cruelty and other complex, twisted forms of sin.

In these bloody morality tales, it is the living who pervert reason to attack others, argues Paffenroth, in his book, "Gospel of the Living Dead." This may be a painful message for modern Americans to hear, including those who sit in church sanctuaries more often than movie theaters.

"Anyone who says that racism, sexism, materialism, consumerism and a misguided kind of individualism do not afflict our current American society to a large extent is not being totally honest and accurate," writes Paffenroth. Moreover, Romero's movies offer a "critique that could be characterized as broadly Christian, but which many modern American Christians may now find uncomfortable or unfamiliar."

Romero was raised Roman Catholic, but his scandalous movies never move past their images of damnation to provide a real sense of hope and salvation.

Still, Paffenroth finds it significant that his films attack secular institutions as much, or even more, than they attack religious institutions. It's obvious, for example, that scientists and politicians have done a poor job creating an earthly paradise. Also, the fact that zombies are human beings who have lost their souls implies that human beings have souls that can be lost, that they are more than materialistic animals made of flesh, blood and bones.

Human beings are free to make moral choices and, like the bored zombies and selfish survivors who fight for control of a shopping mall in "Dawn of the Dead," they ultimately become what they consume and have to live with their vices for eternity.

These zombie movies contain lots of bad news, including the rather un-Hollywood message that the wages of sin is death, death and more death, said Paffenroth. And the good news?

"I guess the good news in these movies is that sin is real," he said. "That's a hard message, but it can be good news if that helps us realize that our sins are real and that we can -- believers would say through God's grace -- turn away from sin. ... These movies certainly show that there will be hell to pay if we don't change our ways."

Hellish grudges can kill

The helicopters kept making circles in the air so that the cameramen could keep showing the dairy farms and country roads, the bonnets and wide-brimmed straw hats, the horse-drawn buggies and the one-room schoolhouse framed in yellow police tape.

Soon the facts started going in circles as police recited a litany about 600 rounds of ammunition, a shotgun, a semiautomatic pistol, a stun gun, explosives and, later, the killer's sick collection of chains, clamps, hardware and sexual aids. Witnesses said Charles Carl Roberts IV was angry with God, angry with himself, haunted by guilt, fed up with life and driven by a hellish grudge.

Then journalists began asking questions that went in circles, the questions that nag clergy as well as state troopers. Why? Why the Amish? How could God let this happen? How can justice be done now that the killer is dead?

"Like everyone else, I could not believe what I was seeing on my television," said Johann Christoph Arnold, senior elder of the Bruderhof communes. While sharing many beliefs with the Amish and Mennonites, the Bruderhof ("place of the brothers") embrace some modern technology. Still, these movements share European roots in pacifism, simple living and an emphasis on the sanctity of human life.

"The Amish are our cousins so I know some of what they must be feeling," said Arnold, in his thick German accent. "I know these parents are hurting, I know they are asking questions, but I know that they know the answer is forgiveness. ... Tragedy and pain can soften our hearts until they break. But if we trust God this will help us to feel compassion."

The gunman's stunned wife released a media statement that showed her understanding of her Amish neighbors and their beliefs. She knew she could appeal for prayers and forgiveness, even though outsiders might find her words hard to fathom.

"Our hearts are broken, our lives are shattered, and we grieve for the innocence and lives that were lost today," said Marie Roberts. "Above all, please, pray for the families who lost children and, please, pray, too, for our family and children."

Some of the Amish went even further. One woman told the Los Angeles Times: "I am very thankful that I was raised to believe you don't fight back. You should forgive."

To grasp the Amish point of view, it's crucial to understand that they truly believe God desires justice, but also shows mercy and "they believe that these are not contradictory things," said Arnold. "They know that God said, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay.' The Amish certainly believe that this killer will not go without punishment, but they also believe that his punishment is in God's hands."

These are hard words in an age when many Americans hold one of two competing beliefs about eternity and God's judgment.

Millions of believers -- lukewarm and fervent alike -- assume that the really bad sinners are the people who commit the really bad sins, those spectacular sins tied to violence, drugs and sex. These really bad people are easy to condemn to hell.

Meanwhile, many other people believe that all people are automatically going to heaven, no matter what they believe or what they do. According to this point of view, the massacre inside the West Nickel Mines Amish School will have no impact on the eternal destiny of Charles Carl Roberts IV.

Once again, the Amish believe that God knows all and that God, and only God, can judge. What the Amish emphasize, stressed Arnold, is that forgiveness is the only way that humans can break a cycle of violence and sin.

In this case, the gunman left suicide notes that showed that he was driven by guilt and a grudge that he would not surrender. It appears that Roberts could not forgive God and could not forgive himself.

In the end, this killed him and through him this grudge killed others.

"If you hold a grudge, it will live on in your heart until it leads to violence of some kind," said Arnold. "If you do not forgive, then you cannot be healed. Forgiveness can heal the forgiver as well as the one who is forgiven. This is what the Amish believe. It will be hard and it will take time, but this is what they now must strive to live out for all the world to see."