Hitchens and hell

The overall message of the New Testament is clear enough — Jesus of Nazareth died to save sinners — but when it comes to the details of how that salvation is worked out, there are scriptural passages that can be cited in support of a variety of different perspectives: Faith versus works, God’s irresistible grace versus some form of free will, a sparsely-populated heaven versus a sparsely populated hell, etc. This explains why “soteriology” (the field of salvation theory, that is) has always been a lively and contentious area of Christian theology, and why impeccably orthodox writers and theologians have felt comfortable entertaining alternatives to a strict heaven-or-hell binary. (In the last century, for instance, the evangelical thinker John Stott argued for “annihilationism,” the Catholic theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar entertained the possibility of universal salvation, and C.S. Lewis’s classic “The Great Divorce” envisioned an afterlife in which hell serves as a form of purgatory for those souls that ultimately escape its clutches.) It also explains why debates over the mechanics of salvation have been the most significant and persistent source of division in post-Reformation Christendom. Indeed, you can see these divisions reproduced in the response to Hitchens’ passing: Christians in the Reformed tradition have been more likely to stress the possibility of a deathbed turn to God, while Hitchens’ Catholic admirers (familiar with concepts like “invincible ignorance” and accustomed to offering prayers for the dead) have been more likely to stress the mysteries of God’s providence, and the hope of what Bill Bennett (in the clip that caught Allahpundit’s attention) called a “big surprise.”