Both sects of Christianity I was part of believed in a literal hell. I did too, for a while. But I always had a hard time imagining actual people in the fiery pits. Hitler, yes, and maybe the villains from Disney movies. Yes, that sounds about right. Hitler and Cruella De Vil*. But friends or family who were outside the church? Strangers? People who never heard about Christianity at all? I tried not to think about it very hard.
Catholics believe that hell is one of several possible eternal destinations. You’d be shocked at how they treat it with an astonishing casualness. People who call into Catholic radio shows looking for advice for children, siblings, or friends who have lapsed in their Catholicism are told bluntly that their loved ones have taken the road to hell and that all they can do is pray for them. There is no sense of mercy or compassion, no search for understanding of their life circumstance. There is only the dictum, return to Mother Church or face the consequences. It is harsh and off-putting. It is the one thing that makes it hard for me to continue listening. It is genuinely disturbing to hear people advised to write off their loved ones to their eternal brimstoney demise that is imposed by the very God they are worshipping.
And it is done so perfunctorily.
Not that it is better in the Evangelical camp. The particular stream of Evangelical christianity I was involved with was in what I would consider the center/center left of the spectrum; a mainstream denomination that was sufficiently blue-collar to move the congregation a notch more conservative than the national church. We did not hear turn-or-burn sermons. No one really talked about hell, only heaven. Except in the youth group. Apparently it is only appropriate the scare children with hell, not adults.
We were told the story of a minister who sat all the teens in the confirmation class in the sanctuary and told them to pretend that they had all died and Jesus was going to ask them some questions. If they passed then they went to sit in the balcony which represented heaven. If they failed, it was down to the rec room of hell. He asked each one in turn, “Why should I let you into heaven?” Each one listed their own reasons for being let in the pearly gates. One was a straight-A student. Hell. Another was helping his little brother learn to play baseball. Hell. Another claimed to have never lied, cheated, or stole. Hell. Finally a student answered (smug as can be, I imagine), “Because you died for me.” Bingo. Heaven. You know what this taught me about the afterlife? Be prepared, there will probably be a pop quiz.
No, let me be serious. It taught me that heaven and hell weren’t meted out based on how hard you worked, how much you loved, or how good you tried to be, but based on how well you played the game of being Christian. Did you know the “right” way to be saved? Did you say the right prayer? Feel the right feelings? Answer impossibly complicated questions with the right buzzwords**?
Another hell-based tactic was the End of Retreat Scared Straight Video. Often the last night of a retreat was an emotional presentation of the gospel accompanied by the aforementioned video. The video I remember most vividly was a terrifying montage of everything scary and wrong with the world. People threw molotov cocktails at advancing riot police, women wept over executed sons and husbands in some jungle, children languising with bloated bellies or toothy harelips. There was the rubble of the Oklahoma City bombing, the firestorm at Waco, the fleeing students at Columbine. This, this is the wages of sin, it proclaimed. And it is only the beginning.
That makes for terrible theology. It says that God has no concern for the rampant, undeserved suffering in this world, and, in fact, plans on doing far worse things. Ew. No. I could never quite consent that the God portrayed in these videos was the same God I loved.
But the longer I was in the church, the more questions I asked, it got harder to gloss over the places where I couldn’t toe the party line. My interactions with church leaders seemed to become more and more about my dissenting views. I had always thought that folks in the church had paid a certain amount of lip-service to difficult theological suppositions like hell or the virgin birth, but that people saw these beliefs as important for reasons other than truth. I thought that I was in agreement with most of my co-congrgants that hell was more of a symbol of justice than an actual pit of fire. But I was wrong; most people did think it was an actual pit of fire.
I mean, I should have known. I just finished telling you two of the many times leaders in my church talked about hell as a real place. But it just seemed so crazy. How could people who were otherwise kind, generous, and reasonable believe that God is so vindictive to require eternal punishment for the lone sin of having been born? To this day I wonder how seriously hell is really taken. Can people really be imagining their non-Christian loved ones suffering eternally? Or do they only believe some faceless “other” can suffer that kind of torment?
Hell is problematic. Why does it remain so important?
*I, and two close friends (Christians themselves too, at the time) also decided that a particularly hated teacher also deserved pandemonium’s terrors. He was mean, creepy, and happily showed off his Christmas card from President Bush and a headshot of himself dressed as a zombie.
**For example – eternal security, the economy of heaven, election, perseverance of the saints, or substitutionary atonement.