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The hell, you say.

When I was very young, those who wanted to scare us into goodness used the gimmick of the robin's wing to bring eternity home to us. Imagine, we were told, that the Earth is a ball of glass. Every million years, a robin comes and brushes its wing against the ball of glass.

This intrepid robin keeps coming back until it has worn the Earth away by brushing it with that little wing (the robins I then knew best were Irish and tiny compared with their American cousins). When it comes to time, it would be hard to find anything to boggle the mind more. If the robin were to skip a turn, I used to think, its brush against that glass orb would never be missed.

And then would come the punch line: By the time the robin had rubbed out this glass earth, eternity would be only beginning.

Now that I'm older, I'm still impressed. If there is an eternity, it's not something to mess with. Which brings us to hell. So much depends on whether there is a hell.

It might not be the most noble motive for doing good and avoiding evil and thus making the world better, but hell, if it existed, could certainly help to keep cowardly bad guys in their places. And, failing that, it should console the virtuous to know that the bad guys would get their comeuppance at a later date.

And at a more personal level there is the awful thought of one's leg, for example, burning up to the hip in cauldrons of really hot fire, while that tardy old robin procrastinates before coming back with its little wing to mark time.

Most people, if they are honest, will admit that the fire factor was a more compelling motive to stave off sin than the alleged loss of seeing God's face forever.

It is amazing that such a distasteful prospect should prove so popular for so long. Yet, since the dawn of history, hell has pervaded not only the Judeo-Christian tradition but most others -- an ultimate bottom line to brandish in the face of the iniquitous everywhere.

Then, in the last century or so, as reason gave belief a run for its money, the hot grip of hell has loosened.

"Hell is neither so certain nor as hot as it used to be," said philosopher Bertrand Russell in 1927, and since then it has progressively become one of the least trendy theological postures on the books.

If it was not denied outright, it was at least watered-down. It was rendered trivial and innocuous, for example, in Jean-Paul Sartre's play "No Exit," in which damnation is a few of your more rotten neighbors getting on your nerves for eternity.

On the other hand -- and in theology there is always another hand -- there are the words of Jesus, repeated and categorical and hammered home, not only to the effect that there is a hell but that it is a fiery and totally miserable place, and eternal, too.

Thus, reason and faith thrust and parry over the abyss, the two horns of life's biggest dilemma. The true believer needs, no proof; for the true unbeliever, there's not enough evidence.

Michael Farrell is NCR's senior editor.
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Title Annotation:theological belief in damnation
Author:Farrell, Michael J.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Apr 2, 1993
Previous Article:Bishop-maker Baggio is dead.
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