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Alex Beam

No fire or brimstone?

Traditional beliefs on sin may be evolving

istockphoto/globe staff illustration

A few nights ago, late night TV host David Letterman read a list of “Top 10 Things Overheard at Jesus’ Wedding,” a back-handed homage to the controversial assertion that Jesus may have married. (Number one overheard comment: “It’ll never last.”)

“We are all going to hell,” Letterman chuckled, after reading the list.

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Not so fast, Dave. Maybe not.

In a time of doctrinal ferment, the Vatican under Pope Francis is openly questioning traditional beliefs in access to the sacraments, the treatment of gay parishioners, and so on. Another traditional teaching — one that has particular relevance for me — may be evolving, too. At Eastertime, Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the Pontifical Household, reopened the possibility of an “empty hell.”

Talk about good news! If hell is empty, it means we’re not going there.

Cantalamessa (the Globe’s John L. Allen Jr. notes that his name means “Sing the Mass”) addressed hell in the course of a meditation on Judas, the darkest villain of the New Testament, who betrayed Jesus after the Last Supper. Echoing a strain of Catholic theology that reaches back thousands of years, Cantalamessa entertained the possibility that even Judas’s sins were forgiven, and he was not condemned to eternal damnation. “The Church . . . does not herself know for certain that any particular person is in hell,” he said.

I know what you are thinking: What about those people who vie to be profiled in the Wall Street Journal’s weekly “Mansions” supplement? (“Francis Mayes talks about her charming Southern estate she calls Chatwood, where she hopes to find a buried treasure.”) Or the odious denizens of The New York Times’s oleaginous “T” magazine? What about Johnny Damon and Jacoby Ellsbury? What about Bucky. . .

Enough. I don’t wish hell on the above-mentioned, or on anyone.

There has been quite a back-and-forth over the years over the half-emptiness or half-fullness of the land of fire and brimstone. The influential third-century theologian Origen opined that hellfire could not be everlasting, because that would mean that sin was more powerful than the love of God.

Saint Augustine, writing in the fourth century, took a decidedly dimmer view of humankind. He viewed us as “one condemned mass [massa damnata] of sin that owes a debt of punishment to the divine.”

Thomas Aquinas more or less concurred, arguing not only that sinners were heading for a damnable conflagration, but that the saints in heaven would enjoy watching them suffer. “In order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it,” he wrote in the Summa Theologica, “they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned . . . ”

That was then, and now is now. Many 20th century theologians have embraced so-called universalism, which argues that Christian grace can extend even to the unbaptized and the unbelieving, meaning that everyone has a chance of being saved.

One prominent dissenting voice was the late Cardinal Avery Dulles, son of the eminent Cold Warrior John Foster Dulles. In a stemwinding 2002 lecture at Fordham University, Dulles condemned the “saccharine” piety of his day. “Unable to grasp the rationale for eternal punishment,” he said, “many Christians take it almost for granted that everyone, or practically everyone, must be saved.”

Wait! He’s not finished: “More education is needed to convince people that they ought to fear God who, as Jesus taught, can punish soul and body together in hell.”

That sounds so 2002. I prefer the universalist noises emanating from the new Vatican. I’d hate to be Citizen Number One of a freshly repopulated hell.

Globe contributor Alex Beam is the author of “American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church.”
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