Project Augustine

Chapter 25: Culture Wars (1960 – Present) – Part II: Doctrine of Hell in 20th century and the Orthodox Church after the Soviet Union





Discuss how the traditional doctrine of Hell has steadily been jettisoned by Protestant and Catholic Churches.  Do you agree with MacCulloch’s assessment that this is the case?  Why or why not?


File:Hell - Unknown Master - Portugal - 1st third of 16th century - oil on oak.JPG

“Inferno”, Unknown Master, Portugal, 16th century


There does seem to be less emphasis of Hell in Protestant and Catholic churches.


Rob Bell came out with the book Love Wins which caused a stir by saying that no one goes to hell which is not necessarily a new idea.  In 1853, theologian F.D. Maurice suggested that eternal damnation was a misunderstanding of the Christian message, but afterwards lost his professorial chair because of this belief.  It is interesting that the prominence of Hell began fairly recently in 19th century English Protestantism.


Perhaps there has been enough hell on earth with two World Wars or seeing the results of dogmatic beliefs with militaristic Islam. Interestingly, with the decline of Hell there has been an increase in cremation.  Burial was important to Christians with the idea that their physical bodies would be needed for resurrection when Jesus returns.  There seems to be less of a concern with the afterlife.  Could it be that life on earth has gotten better? We are living longer and have a better standard of living than our ancestors did.


With the decline of fear of the next life, the Church needed to emphasis the love of God.


Fear can only get you so far while love can be a better motivator.  Or the Church has shifted to a more holistic approach; for instance, realizing that emphasizing certain sins as worse, such as why are sexual sins harped on more than sin of withholding need to the needy? Similarly, there is such an emphasis on Hell over the joy of helping to bring God’s kingdom to Earth.


That is not to say that fear of the Lord is a bad thing.  It does help to motivate us to do the right thing such as a strict Grandma who would bake us cookies, but also not hesitate to smack us for being out of line.  As Machiavelli said “It is better to be feared than loved, if you can not be both.”






Discuss how the Russian Orthodox Church changed after the collapse of Communism in Soviet Russia in 1991.  How was Mikhail Gorbachev involved in the revival of religion throughout the Soviet Union?  How did Orthodoxy handle the radical changes of the 20th century?  What was the overall impact?


Easter Sunday service at an Orthodox Church in Russia.

Easter Sunday service at an Orthodox Church in Russia.


When the Bolsheviks became the ruling party of Russia in 1918, sweeping religious and societal changes occurred. Many Russian intellectuals fled to the West, mostly to Paris and New York. The Soviet state’s attempts to control and subjugate the Church led to a schism between the Church of Russia and a significant portion of the Church abroad, known thereafter as the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR). Most forms of religion under Soviet rule were openly opposed and oppressed. Many churches were closed, and many religious leaders were exiled or executed by the state. Many churches and monasteries were destroyed or converted to non-religious uses. Religious organizations lacked access to schools, media, book publishing, and workplaces. Some churches were permitted to remain open, but attendance could impede career advancement.[1] However, things would begin to change during the late 1980s and early 1990s in the Soviet Union for the Russian Orthodox Church.


Mikhail Gorbachev (1931 - )

Mikhail Gorbachev (1931 – ), Former General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1985 – 1991)

In 1988 Mikhail Gorbachev, the General Secretary of the Communist Party, allowed the celebration of the millennial anniversary of Prince Vladimir of Kiev’s conversion to Christianity. Gorbachev, who interestingly had been in charge of the harassment of Christianity as head of the KGB, saw this as a chance to open up, remold and diversify Russian Communism. (loc. 19535) He allowed, and even in some respects encouraged, people to celebrate the anniversary by re-opening church buildings and permitting religious education and religious publishing to commence once again. This religious openness not only extended toward the Russian Orthodox Church but also to all other surviving religious groups in Russia that included Catholics and Baptists as well. (loc. 19538) Two years later, the former Metropolitan of Leningrad (St. Petersburg) was elected as Patriarch Aleksii II. He was to bring a new vitality into the patriarchate. Furthermore, in 1989 the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church re-emerged from its enforced union with Moscow. There was also a sudden outpouring of money and capital on rebuilding and restoring churches throughout Russia. Most notable was the rebuilding of the landmark Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow that was demolished under Stalin. (loc. 19568) Little did Gorbachev realize how his religious reforms would have such a huge impact upon the entire future of the Soviet Union.


After the USSR collapsed in 1991, in most cases the people of the former Soviet republics returned to their original religions. The regions of Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, Belarus, Ukraine and parts of Russia returned to their Orthodox roots. Although, recent statistics show that 50% of the population of Russia remain atheist while it is about 20% in Ukraine. Albania, which was the only member of the USSR to declare itself an atheist state, is still 70% atheist. Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan all experienced Islamic revivals. Lithuania regained its Roman Catholic traditions, while the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELC) returned to prominence in Estonia and Latvia; however, in Estonia around 72% consider themselves religiously unaffiliated and the ELC, though the largest religious organization, claims only 14% of the population. In an effort to reinvigorate national identities that were suppressed under the Soviet Union, many countries extended special privileges to the faith(s) most central to their cultural identities. This benefitted traditional, established churches, and hindered newly arrived denominations and sects. Though the constitutions of the fifteen former Soviet republics state that they guarantee religious freedom and equality of religions before the law, Islam has not received special government privileges in the Central Asian republics despite these countries’ Muslim heritage. One primary reason for this was to avoid attempts to create Islamic states or radical Islamic groups that might destabilize local culture and society, and also to help create a more open and plural religious environment that would also benefit Orthodox Christians and other minorities living there. Restrictions have also been placed in some regions to prevent the rise of psychologically damaging religious groups (i.e. cults) that also extended toward missionaries, certain forms of religious literature, outlawing religious political parties, and granting governments the right to make clerical appointments.[2]


As the numbers have shown, the events of the 20th century have drastically changed the religious landscape of the Orthodox Church, and Eastern Christianity suffered a much diminished numerical share in the greater sphere of global Christianity as a whole. In 1900, the Orthodox were estimated as 21% of the world’s Christianity; that had declined to 11% at the beginning of the 21st century, while Catholicism grew globally from 48% to 52%. (loc. 19616-19621) Despite this, the atheistic or anti-Christian/anti-religious campaigns and goals of the Soviet Union did not entirely eradicate religion altogether. Unlike Western Europe which became highly secularized after World War II, a good majority of the former Soviet countries decided to establish connections with their religious past rather than sever their ties from them; this shows how deeply Christianity was embedded into their national identities over the centuries. I believe this is largely due to the fact that Orthodoxy had never experienced something as drastic as the Protestant Reformation that produced many bloody conflicts between Catholic and Protestant factions throughout the European continent for centuries. Orthodoxy remained relatively stable and stayed away from large bloody internal and external conflicts for the most part. It will be interesting to see how Orthodoxy will evolve in the coming generations, particularly in Russia, as the political landscape changes and still tries to adjust politically, economically, and religiously after the collapse of the Soviet Union.



[1] Ann Marie B. Bahr, Chief consultant, Christianity: The Illustrated Guide to 2,000 Years o f the Christian Faith, (North Narrabeen, Australia: Millennium House Pty Ltd., 2011), 440.

[2] Ibid.




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