Well, the Southern Baptists have confirmed that they still believe in Hell. And it's still the horrible place where a sadistic God sends most of us to be cruelly tortured forever, merely because we don't fall for that whole strange story about Jesus.
Their declaration was a rebuttal to the immensely popular Pastor Ron Bell's new book, Love Wins, in which Bell questions the traditional view of Hell. Bell, like most thoughtful Christians, rejects the outdated eternal-torture idea of Hell. He sees Hell as grossly immoral and a misinterpretation of gospel.
I love this sort of infighting. It's like watching evolution in real time, something we don't get to do very often in the biological world. When we view religions (and all of human culture) as a vast set of interacting and competing memes, we become detached from the details of the you're-right-I'm-wrong battles. Instead of caring about the fine points of the competing theologies, we can be objective observers who record the outcome of an evolutionary struggle. We actually get to see the survival-of-the-fittest battle of religion memes in their ecology, the collective brains of humanity.
In this case, we get to see the Baptist memeplex losing territory because one of its memes makes it less fit for survival. The Hell Meme is so repulsive to most modern Americans that it's dragging down the entire Southern Baptist memeplex.
The Hell Meme is in trouble because today's young adults face a virtual smorgasbord of morality. Instead of getting everything from one church, they have access to TV, the internet, movies, books, social networking and much more. They learn about other cultures and religions. They learn that punishment should fit the crime. They know that there are billions of people in the world who never even have the opportunity to learn about Christianity. In other words, they learn that the Baptist Hell Meme is immoral.
This change in young people's upbringing is like an Ice Age for the Hell Meme. Its environment is becoming hostile, and it's not adapted to the new conditions. It's going extinct quickly.
So why don't the Southern Baptists change their theology? Why not discard this dead-end meme that's hurting their cause? Because they must also cater to their own members, who already subscribe to the Hell Meme. They can't come out and say, "Gosh, we were wrong! Hell is just an old myth." People who still belong to a Southern Baptist congregation have already accepted the Hell Meme. If the Church suddenly changed its mind about Hell, its members might decide to go to an even more conservative church. They're damned if they do and damned if they don't.
The Hell Meme is just one of many bad beliefs that are causing the Southern Baptists to slide slowly into obscurity and eventual extinction. Their beliefs are frozen in place by the needs of their current membership, but those same beliefs drive young people directly to more liberal Christians like Ron Bell.
A few hundred years from now, if there are still vestiges of Christianity alive, their theology will be a lot closer to Bell's than to the Southern Baptists.