ACCORDING to recent surveys reported in newspapers, not very many people believe in hell anymore. My interest in this subject is not because I think any great effort should be made on behalf of hell. If hell can't hack it on its own, who am I to build a fire under it? And I don't think it is worthwhile to try to restore hell to its former place as the main environmental hazard in the eternal landscape. I just want to know what happened to it.
Many church leaders are concerned with hell's obvious decline as a second choice. Presumably, in the old days a lot of people went to church just as much to steer themselves away from the horrible possibility of hell as they did to get a ticket to heaven. But sermons, according to several sources, have stopped mentioning hell.
I remember, as a child, that the kids in my neighborhood were very much aware of the grisly images of hell as a possible future prospect. They didn't plan going there themselves, but they had a confident suspicion that half their playmates would wind up getting their britches burned.
There was a Gallup poll taken in 1980 which revealed even then that 71 percent believed in an ``afterlife'' where they would live in an attractive, though thinly populated, place called heaven. But the poll also showed that only 1 percent felt that hell was any threat to anybody.
Probably what has happened is that there has been a transposition of meanings. In our modern world sin, which was what pushed one hellward, has become more or less legal. Well, not only legal but, if one is educated by television, necessary, if one hopes to lead a normal life of heavenly satisfaction.
So what have you got left on heaven's side? By reverse inference heaven begins to look like a house of hellish confinement, with nasty bars of moral restriction at every window, while hell is being presented as the place with harp music.
Certainly we should not try to restore hell. But we should be careful not to mistake it for heaven.