Forgetting the flames

Do you believe in hell?

Fifty nine percent of Americans do, according to a poll by the Pew Forum. But 74 percent believe in heaven.

In 2001, 71 percent believed in hell, according to a Gallup poll back then.

What explains the drop in hell belief? I have no idea.

A recent article on the phenomenon by my friend Charles Honey for Religion News Service included this:

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It was easier to believe in hell 20 years ago when missionaries tried to convert people in far-flung places, (Mike) Wittmer (professor of systematic theology at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary) says. In today’s global village, many live next to good, non-Christian neighbors and wonder why an all-powerful, loving God wouldn’t eventually empty out hell, Wittmer says.

“I’ve noticed in the last five years how that view is making inroads even in conservative churches, whereas five years ago it wasn’t even uttered or discussed,” he adds.

Americans’ optimism and tolerance for diversity complements a growing view of God as benevolent, not judgmental, other experts say.

“They believe everyone has an equal chance, at this life and the next,” said Alan Segal, a professor of religion at Barnard College and the author of “Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion.”

“So hell is disappearing, absolutely.”

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Another RNS article asked pastors how they teach about hell these days.

Here’s a snippet:

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“I think it’s such a difficult and important biblical topic,” said Kurt Selles, director of the Global Center at Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School. “There’s a big change that’s taken place as far as evangelicals not wanting to be as exclusive.”

At the recent annual Beeson Pastors School, Selles led two workshops to discuss “Whatever happened to hell?” He asked how many of the pastors had ever preached a sermon on hell. Nobody had, he said.

“I think it’s something people want to avoid,” he said. “I understand why. It’s a difficult topic.”

‘Strike him down, Lord…’

Can it ever be right to pray for harm to come to someone?

Sure, says Wiley Drake, a Southern Baptist pastor from Buena Park, Calif., who has been praying for the death of President Obama.

He explained to Religion News Service: “That doesn’t mean I spend every waking hour praying for the death of the president. Of our prayers, 98 percent should be good prayers and 2 percent should be imprecatory.”

RNS explains a bit about imprecatory prayer — prayer for bad things to happen to bad people.

Drake, by the way, is not partisan when it comes to his prayers. As RNS tells it: “For his part, Drake is an equal-opportunity prayer warrior. His intercessory hit list has included Lynn, California megachurch pastor and best-selling authorRick Warren, and former Presidents Bill Clinton and even George W. Bush, whom Drake once maligned for not pardoning two border guards.”

So there you go.

Obama’s forgotten Harvard seminar

Much has been said and written about President Obama’s influences.

In fact, he’s written on the subject quite a lot himself.

But Religion News Service has a revealing feature about one, somewhat overlooked influence on the Obama Mind, a Harvard seminar that he took back in 1997 with an interesting mix of pastors, politicians and others.

According to Daniel Burke’s story, Obama was there as a community organizer and was one of the only African Americans in the room for the Saguaro Seminar.

“When people went around the room and said who they were, you could probably figure out why they were there,” the Rev. Jim Wallis, a progressive minister and activist, told Burke.

When they got to Obama, Wallis recalled, people thought, “Yeah, OK, why are you here?”

Check it out.

(AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)

Churches have to make mortgages, too

Are churches facing foreclosures?

What does it mean when they do?

Religion News Service’s Daniel Burke looks at what’s happening out there. His article includes this:

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“There is definitely a trend,” said Dan Mikes, a banker who has specialized in church loans for 18 years at Bank of the West in Walnut Creek, Calif. “Historically, there were no (church) foreclosures.”

Bankers considered churches a pretty safe bet, said Mikes. Passing the plate provides a steady source of income, church budgets are flexible and religious folks pay banks back.

“I compare it to a racehorse and a plough horse,” said Kelly Archer, president of the Church Loans & Investment Trust in Amarillo, Texas. “Church loans have always been the plough horse. They never got the headlines, never were the big kid on the block.”

That all changed in the late 1990s, bankers say, around the same time subprime mortgages and McMansions became hot. Churches competed to keep up with Pastor Jones across the street.