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On Religion: To Hell with Hell — Damnation is for Really, Really Bad People like Epstein

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.

“You can feel this tension with someone like Epstein, right now, because people really want justice and even if they were able to get human justice that wouldn’t be enough, because of the horrors of what this man appears to have done,” said the Rev. Kendall Harmon, canon theologian for the Anglican Diocese of South Carolina. His Oxford University doctoral studies focused on 20 centuries of doctrines about hell and, last year, he addressed the Global Anglican Future Conference in Jerusalem on modern beliefs about eternal damnation.

When faced with hellish acts by individuals and groups, modern believers and even unbelievers can’t help but cry out for some form of justice that transcends human courts, he noted. That creates a problem, since many people no longer “believe in a transcendent source of justice that determines what is right or wrong in this life. Their beliefs about eternal judgment are all personal and based on their own feelings. …

“You end up with a sense of injustice about the lack of ultimate justice, because the only justice that would provide what many people yearn for is some kind of transcendent, divine justice — which they would never accept.”

So is there a hell? The dominant belief among religious progressives, said Harmon, is that there may be a hell — theoretically.

For example, a newly elected bishop in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — the Rev. Paul T. Egensteiner of Brooklyn — recently published an online commentary in which he said he believes “there is a hell but it is empty, by the grace of the Father and the love of Jesus.”

Leaders in more conservative pulpits may believe in hell, but many are now afraid to talk about this subject because they fear being accused of being sinfully judgmental, said Harmon.

“You end up with a doctrine that has no impact on how people live their lives day after day and year after year. … People have decided that hell is not relevant to them. It’s like they have said, ‘To hell with hell.’ ”

Terry Mattingly (tmatt.net) leads GetReligion.org and is Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

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