While it may not be politically correct for modern churches to preach hell and damnation, new research into the personal beliefs of the Scottish clergy has revealed that as many as one third believe in the existence of hell.
The surprising result emerged after a survey conducted by a divinity scholar at the University of St Andrews sought to establish what Scottish ministers views were on the fate of ‘the lost’. The survey of 750 randomly selected clergy found that 37% believed that a dark and forbidding fate could lie ahead for people when they die.
The researcher behind the study is Dr Eric Stoddart, a lecturer in Practical Theology at the University’s School of Divinity. While official positions of the individual denominations are known, Dr Stoddart was interested in how they were interpreted ‘on the ground’. The anonymous postal survey of clergy of Baptist, Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, Methodist and Scottish Episcopalian churches, as well as the Church of Scotland, other Presbyterians and the Salvation Army, posed questions directly related to the fate of ‘the lost’.
Results showed that a clear majority of Scotland’s clergy believed that there will be a Judgement Day at which we will be separated into one of two categories – ‘the saved’ and ‘the lost’, resulting in the lost being eternally separated from God. One third of the clergy surveyed believe that this separation will involve ‘eternal mental anguish in hell’, whilst a fifth believe that such a fate includes eternal physical torment.
Dr Stoddart explained: “The fire and brimstone of the past may largely have been extinguished, but the beliefs that many Scottish clergy hold concerning the potential horrors that await ‘the lost’ continue to be dark and foreboding. All will not be well, if that majority of Scotland’s clergy are to be believed.”
Some communities’ ministers were notably – and expectedly – different in their views. The majority of clergy in the Highlands and Western Isles (where conservative, Presbyterian congregations predominate) believed in the darker end of the spectrum. Much smaller proportions of clergy in the East of Scotland (where a wider range of outlooks persist) held beliefs in hell’s torments.
The study also found that clergy did not necessarily follow their particular ‘official’ doctrine, with members of the same church in opposite sides of the country holding opposing beliefs.
Dr Stoddart continued: “Christians in Lanarkshire may be shocked to think that a ‘good Christian’ minister in Aberdeen does not believe in hell’s physical torments. But what the survey did find was broad support for the notion of a Judgement Day, in which God divides the lost from the saved. While universal salvation in which all are united with God is popular in some clerical and academic circles, it is not the belief shared by most clergy in Scotland. The God of most of Scotland’s ministers is one who divides.”
Dr Stoddart is interested in how belief in hell affects everyday life. Noticing the reluctance of the clergy to address this issue, and the dearth of published material on the subject, he is particularly interested in how people deal with the doctrine of hell when faced with the death of a loved-one whom they have been taught to believe is now likely to be beyond salvation and thus suffering in hell.
Having surveyed ministers, Dr Stoddart is keen to hear stories from ordinary people too, in order to find out more about how believers and former-believers cope in everyday life.
Dr Stoddart said: “I’m interested in how people handle their belief in hell. If you believe (or are told you should believe) your grandmother is going to hell because she is not a Christian, how do you deal with that? Do you dehumanise her or psychologically distance yourself in order to accept her fate? How is it possible to go about daily life while believing that a loved-one has entered eternal suffering? When most hell-believing Christians are likely to encounter the death of ‘non-Christian’ loved- ones it is striking that it is a subject rarely tackled. No-one talks about this aspect. There is something of a conspiracy of silence.”
During his research, Dr Stoddart has found that what warrants being given the label ‘lost’ varies greatly. It could be assigned because someone lacks specific Christian beliefs. It might be used in preaching to warn people off particular lifestyle choices that ‘lead to hell’. At one time that might have included offering sacrifices to idols, more recently it could be attached to taking alcohol or engaging in ‘unnatural’ sexual activities. An older generation may have memories of sitting under explicit hell-fire preaching. Younger people today within theologically conservative congregations are faced with teaching that is more implicit. Hell is something they are supposed to believe in but rarely will a minister make explicit connections with actual people they know. “That,” says Dr Stoddart, “may be harder to handle because Christians are left trying to find their own opt-out clauses for their loved-ones where hell has gone underground, so to speak.”
While the findings of his survey demonstrate that a considerable number of the Scottish clergy believe in hell, Dr Stoddart concludes that the clergy have increasingly played down the idea and are finding ways of re- interpreting it.
“The doctrine of hell is downplayed by most of today’s Churches even by those who still believe in it. It isn’t viewed as very politically correct even by a new generation of more theologically conservative ministers,” Dr Stoddart explained.
Dr Stoddart is keen to find out how ordinary people who believe in hell or (who have been told they should believe in it) cope with the death of a loved-one deemed to be ‘lost’. Anyone interested in talking to Dr Stoddart can do so by telephone at the University of St Andrews, 01334 46 2841, by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or by visiting his website at:
http://www.st- andrews.ac.uk/divinity/stoddart_hel l.html
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