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Is it hot in here, or is it just me?

Yes, it has been a hellish summer. Heat waves across this nation converted many a global warming skeptic. So has Al Gore's most effective sermon, his must-see documentary, An Inconvenient Truth (Paramount Classics). As the autumnal weather begins to cool the nation, stories of failed power grids that brought air conditioners to an abrupt, uncomfortable, and for some, dangerous halt remind us all that global warming can be hell on earth.

Heat and hell have long been seared into the popular imagination of Christian tradition. Satan himself is often pictured among flames. Many prayers implore God to "save us from the fires of hell." Not even the work of one of the world's greatest poets, Dante Alighieri, could reverse the connection between hell and fire. His magnum opus, The Divine Comedy, divides hell into nine circles, and the lowest, reserved for the worst of the worst, is made of ice, rather than heat or fire. Odd that the contemporary fascination with human cryogenics--freezing people so that they may be brought back to life sometime in the future--also flies in the face of Dante's powerful imagery.

But back to hell. Jesus often used the Hebrew word Gehenna to describe hell. In the time of Christ, Gehenna denoted a garbage dump to the south and west of Jerusalem that smelled and smoldered. This word also reverberated with Jewish extrabiblical writings and rabbinical literature that used Gehenna as a place of punishment after death. Some rabbis mercifully interpreted Gehenna as a temporary place of punishment for sinners, not an eternal abode for the wicked. So banishment to Gehenna then, like global warming now, could be reversed.

Some theologians today, while recognizing the reality of hell, don't believe anyone is there. In their view, God is simply too merciful to eternally damn even the most wicked of people. Salvation and redemption are at hand in the afterlife as well as in this life, according to their theology.

Is this an inconvenient truth Jesus would recognize? Good question, but not one many evangelical and fundamentalist priests and preachers might like to explore. The threat of hell, fire, and, their famed partner, brimstone, keeps people in line and their churches in business. Or so they think.

Yet the consequences of global warming, unlike some individual choices people make either for virtue or for sin, affect everyone. It's ultimately damning to all, whether saint or sinner. No one gets out of global warming.

It's a hell of a thought.

PETER GILMOUR (Pgilmou@wpo.it.luc.edu) teaches at the Institute of Pastoral Studies of Loyola University Chicago.
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Title Annotation:odds & ends
Author:Gilmour, Peter
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2006
Words:430
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