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.

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."

Define 'religion,' please

Ask Southern Baptists to name their "religion" and most of them will simply say, "I'm a Baptist."

Ask Roman Catholics the same question and most will say, "I'm Catholic." Odds are good that most Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians and occupants of other name-brand pews will take the same approach.

However, some of these believers may choose to define "religion" more broadly and say, "I'm a Christian." A researcher would certainly hear that response in scores of independent evangelical and charismatic churches across America.

This may sound like nitpicking, but it's not.

Confusion over defining the word "religion" almost certainly helped shape the most controversial results from the new U.S. Religious Landscape Survey produced by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

In one of several questions probing the role of "dogmatism" in American life, interviewers asked adults which of two statements best fit their beliefs: "My religion is the one, true faith leading to eternal life" or "many religions can lead to eternal life."

The results leapt into national headlines, with 70 percent of those affiliated with a religion or denomination saying that "many religions" can bring eternal salvation.

In fact, 83 percent of those in liberal Protestant denominations affirmed that belief, along with 79 percent of Catholics, 59 percent of those from historically black churches and a stunning 57 percent of believers in evangelical pews. In other world religions, 89 percent of Hindus polled said "many religions" can bring eternal life, along with 86 percent of Buddhists, 82 percent of Jews and 56 percent of Muslims.

But there's the rub. It's impossible, based on a straightforward reading of this research, to know how individual participants defined the word "religion" when they answered.

"We didn't have a set of interview guidelines or talking points that we used when asking that question," said Greg Smith, a Pew Forum research fellow. "The interviewers didn't say, 'Well, that means someone who is a member of a different denomination than yours' or 'that means someone in a completely different religion than your religion.'

"So people may have answered that in different ways. There may have been Baptists that interpreted that question as simply referring to members of other churches. Others may have answered with a more universal concept of 'religion' in mind. That's possible. In fact, it's highly likely."

There is no way -- based on this round of research -- to know precisely how many believers have decided to reject what their faiths teach, if those faiths make exclusive truth claims about salvation and eternal life. Thus, said Smith, the Pew Forum is planning follow-up work.

For example, it's one thing for evangelicals to say they believe salvation can be found through "religions" such as Catholicism, Lutheranism, Pentecostalism or other forms of Christianity. It's something else altogether to say a majority of American evangelicals now believe that salvation can be found through Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Wicca and various non-Christian "religions."

Meanwhile, many traditional Christians may believe that all people will -- somehow, in this life or the next -- face some kind of spiritual decision to accept or reject Jesus. However, when asked if that means that only Christians will "be saved," these believers may say that only God can know that. The Rev. Billy Graham has given this kind of answer on many occasions.

The bottom line: It's hard to write a question that will reveal how many Christians now believe that Jesus was mistaken when he said, as quoted in the Gospel of John, "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me."

In fact, a new survey by the Southern Baptist Convention's LifeWay Research team specifically asked Protestants if they believed people can find eternal life through "religions other than Christianity" and only 31 percent agreed "strongly" or "somewhat."

"The problem is that all religions make mutually exclusive truth claims," noted evangelical activist Charles Colson, in a radio commentary criticizing the Pew Forum survey. "What Christians, Muslims, Jews and Hindus say about the person and work of Jesus Christ cannot be reconciled. They may all be false, but they cannot all be true.

"It's called the law of non-contradiction. It goes back to Aristotle. If proposition A is true -- that is, if it conforms to reality -- then proposition B, making a contrary claim, cannot be true as well."

The prayers of Hebrew Catholics

NEW YORK -- It's hard for Roy Schoeman to share his faith without mentioning Abraham, his son Isaac and a sacrificial altar on Mount Moriah.

This story from Genesis is a cornerstone of the Jewish faith in which he was raised and educated, the son of Jews who escaped the Holocaust and came to America. But this familiar passage -- with its covenant between God and Abraham's children -- also is crucial to his testimony as a convert to Roman Catholicism.

For Schoeman, these faiths cannot be pried apart.

"If Christianity was meant for anyone it was meant for the Jews," he said at a gathering of the Association of Hebrew Catholics. Thus, the Catholic faith "is Judaism as it was defined by God Incarnate, Jesus Christ. ... He did not come to bring Christianity to the gentiles and leave the Jews alone."

The Palm Sunday-weekend conference was held at Sts. Cyril and Methodius Church, not far from Times Square. It drew more than 100 Catholics from across the nation and overseas, including a core group of converted Jews.

Some in the audience shed tears as Schoeman emotionally offered a prayer for the conversion of his own mother. They murmured "amen," as he read the biblical account of Abraham preparing to sacrifice "his only son," until being stopped by an angel who said God would provide a lamb. Because Abraham was willing to surrender his son, God said: "I will indeed bless you and I will multiply your descendents as the stars of heaven. ... And by your descendents shall all the nations bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice."

Surely this prophecy foreshadows the life and sacrifice of Jesus, said Schoeman, a former Harvard Business School professor who now focuses his studies on theology. This is why Hebrew Christians insist that conversion does not destroy Jewish identity, but "fulfills it," "completes it" and even "crowns it."

It would be hard to craft a statement that would be more offensive to millions of religious and secular Jews.

However, leaders of the Association of Hebrew Catholics spend as much, or more, time addressing the beliefs of Catholics who say the Second Vatican Council teaches that Jews can "be saved" without embracing Jesus. This division in Catholic ranks has affected many public debates, from clashes about the goals of Jewish-Christian dialogues to the content of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ."

The conflict intensified in 2002 when a study committee linked to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, working with National Council of Synagogues, released a set of theological reflections that inspired blunt headlines. The Washington Post went with "Catholics Reject Evangelization of Jews," while Christianity Today offered " Jews Are Already Saved, Say U.S. Catholic Bishops."

The document argued that while the "Catholic Church regards the saving act of Christ as central to the process of human salvation for all, it also acknowledges that Jews already dwell in a saving covenant with God." Thus, the unique Jewish witness to God's kingdom "must not be curtailed by seeking the conversion of the Jewish people to Christianity."

Cardinal Avery Dulles of Fordham University was one of many rejecting this text as a statement of Catholic teaching.

"Peter on Pentecost Sunday declared that the whole house of Israel should know for certain that Jesus is Lord and Messiah and that every one of his hearers should be baptized in Jesus' name," wrote Dulles, in America magazine. "Paul spent much of his ministry proclaiming the Gospel to Jews throughout the Diaspora. Distressed by their incredulity, he was prepared to wish himself accursed for the sake of their conversion."

The problem is that progressive elements inside Judaism and Catholicism are striving to "redefine both of these faiths," said David Moss, president of the Hebrew Catholic association. Thus, most mainstream Jewish leaders are convinced that the Vatican has officially changed its doctrine.

"The truth is that Catholicism teaches that there is only one path to salvation and that is through Jesus Christ," said Moss. "Now how does that salvation happen for individual people? That's up to God. He's in charge, not us. ...

"But there is nothing in Vatican II that says Catholics are not supposed to take the Gospel of Jesus Christ to his own people."