Can We Be Good Without Hell?
1 Crime is rising because the fear of hell is declining— or so said Britain's Secretary of State for Education and Science John Patten in 1992. The British newspapers deemed the argument so preposterous that they gave it a lot of ink. Patten argued that Britain needed a renewed fear of damnation and hope of redemption in order to return to civility.
The secretary's essay not only drew sharp reaction in the press, it also sparked a considerable debate over the moral foundations of modern society. One critical editorial gives the flavor of the prevailing opinion. Entitled "Hell: who needs it?" it concluded with this parting shot: "We may well need to renew our sense of the bad and the good, but the renewal will not be prompted by thoughts of a dreadful eternity elsewhere, even if we imagine Mr. Patten to be there with us, sharing it!"
On our side of the Atlantic, the popular press has likewise regularly fed us stories about the need to "renew our sense of the bad and the good" and about how we need to rediscover America's moral foundations. Time and Newsweek have splashed former drug czar William Bennett and his "Virtuecrats" on their covers and sympathetically described their "crusade against America's moral decline." These now regular articles seem to take for granted that there is a moral void at the heart of our society.
While Christians should applaud this reopening of the debate about morality, we do not have to be satisfied with how it is being conducted. There is a tension, an ambivalence, that pervades this discussion. Oxford philosopher Basil Mitchell calls this tension the "dilemma of the traditional conscience." It is the quandary faced by those who affirm traditional moral convictions but who deny the theological ...