Sometimes you have to wonder why the idea of hell caught on the way it did. Sure, it’s an interesting metaphor in art and fiction (Bosch… Milton… Dante… Gaiman…), but why do people believe in it with the sincerity and fervor with which they apparently do? It’s a pretty weird prospect when you think about it. Imagine trying to explain it to a Martian:
Evangelist: Believe in what I tell you or you’ll go to hell, a place of eternal torment!
Martian: Really? And how does that happen?
Evangelist: God sends you there after you die!
Martian: God. A supernatural being you have never met?
Evangelist: That’s right!
Martian: Sends people to hell, a mystical place nobody has ever seen?
Evangelist: That’s right!
Martian: After death, the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns?
Martian: Shakespeare. I mean, the only people who can prove your thesis one way or the other, are dead.
Evangelist: That’s right!
Martian: That’s quite an extraordinary claim. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. What evidence do you offer?
Evangelist: My interpretation of scattered bits of text found in this book of sacred stories! Well, okay, not my own personal interpretation. I mean, the interpretation that I’ve heard about from people I trust! But I trust them, so you should too!
Martian: Really. Well. That’s all very interesting. Uh… see ya! (Scuttles away rapidly. Because Martians scuttle, you know.)
So, where does that interpretation come from? Well, check out this bit from John Edwards’ influential "Sinners in the hands of an angry God" sermon from 1741:
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God's hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.
And… he keeps going on like that… at some length.
(Apparently John Edwards did not believe in the ground, or perhaps considered the ground to be the literal hand of God, because really? God’s hand is the only reason you don’t drop into hell this very second? Does that mean you can travel to pagan lands and find people falling into brimstone-scented sinkholes right and left?)
I find it interesting that this sermon is from the mid 18th century, because that means this kind of hellfire-n-brimstone orgy of self-loathing was on the rise along with secularism, the scientific method, and other aspects of the industrial age. Perhaps the bright light of reason creates especially dark shadows — gothic fiction was also on the rise at that time.
The John Edwards view endures today, as found in this Salon article about Westboro Baptist (and Mars Hill) and their "Jesus hates you" theology.
I wouldn’t say “Jesus hates you” is actually at the mainstream of evangelical thought. As a child I learned to sing “Jesus loves me.” But evangelicals do take a literal belief in hell for granted, a fact which caused me considerable emotional distress as a young child. Look at the Salon article — they have three members of the Phelps clan talking about how they came to believe, and each one of them cites being emotionally shattered by an overwhelming fear of hell, a gut-level certainty of their own damnation. A sick feeling of doom. A sickness unto death, if you will. And I know that feeling well, because that's exactly what I felt as a child.
I'm not an evangelical now, but I am an existentialist. It occurs to me that perhaps hell seemed so real because it was a potent symbol of existential terror. If religion exists because of the human impulse to find meaning and purpose in a universe that (probably) doesn’t have any, then hell exists as a carrier for strong existential angst. When you stare into the abyss and feel the abyss looking back, that’s hell. Maybe the idea of hell can even be perversely soothing, compared to the nothingness that we have to face without it. Sure, you live under the threat of eternal torment at the hands of a God who despises you, but at least it means somebody cares.
The problem with this kind of literal belief in hell, is that it turns God-the-father into a nasty abusive parent. Don’t make me have to punish you eternally! There, now I’m hurting you eternally. Look what you made me do, you bad child. This is your fault. If you hadn’t made me so full of wrothfulness, I wouldn’t have had to throw you down the infinite stairs.
Any God who really worked the way the Fred Phelps/John Edwards/Jack Chicks of the world tell us he does, would be a monster unworthy of our worship. (Except in a diabolical Cthulhu Cult sort of way.)
How does a typical evangelical deal with this? The paradox of believing in a God of love who is also supposed to be a sadistic torturing jerk? Based on my experiences in the church, I think most of them simply avoid thinking about it. They put "God of love" and "God who would invent hell" in two separate boxes, and try not to open both boxes at the same time. This is easier than you might think. Hell is taken for granted in the culture, but rarely engaged directly (which, I think, makes it a classic example of psychological framing). Evangelical rhetoric invokes the concept of "salvation," but often remains vague about what exactly it is we're being saved from. It might be literal eternal damnation, or it might be a more esoteric spiritual darkness felt in the here and now.
So, what happens when evangelicals do get both the God of Hell and God of Love boxes open at once? (Hellraiser movies! Okay, maybe not…) One common solution is to turn to a perceived expert and receive apologetics sufficient to get the boxes closed again. Maybe something about God’s infinite perspective and beyond-human understanding. A little spackle, there ya go! Good as new.
Otherwise, you have to redefine one of the boxes. The Fred Phelps method is to redefine the "love" box, into something that no longer resembles any ordinary human definition of love, nor does it resemble the way love is described in most of the New Testament.
In my experience, most people redefine the hell box. They redefine "tortured" — it's not active medieval-dungeon-style torture, it's “separation from God.” Hell is not a place, it's nothing. People who aren't saved go nowhere at all. They redefine "eternity" — everything is purgatory. There's always a way out. Nobody really gets sent to hell until the reckoning at the end of time. They redefine who gets saved, coming up with some variation on Christian universalism. Or, they completely reject the idea of a literal hell — it's a rhetorical device, a metaphor, a parable.
Yes, even literal-minded evangelicals sometimes reject the idea of a literal hell. It’s that toxic.
As a child, I did this sort of thing mostly in the privacy of my own head, fearful of subjecting my fanwanking to the critique of other evangelicals. I was afraid of being told point blank by an authority figure that I was wrong. For years, I fretted quietly over the Biblical textual support for hell, which was scant, but troubling. I researched. And at times I felt a deep eternal dread, very much, yes, as if a pit were ready to open up at my feet and swallow me whole.
As a teenager, I began to doubt the very foundation of my religion, but I also doubted my doubts. If I didn’t believe in hell, was that just my way of letting myself off the hook? What if hell were real? How would you know? And what difference would it make? Eventually I realized this: even if some strange chance were to prove to me that there is, in fact, a literal hell, and there is, in fact, a vastly powerful supernatural being who desires to send me there if I fail to worship him in the correct manner, and if this correct manner just happens to correspond to all the dreadful, wicked things that people like Fred Phelps seem to think I ought to do — these things would STILL be wrong.
(Note: for this reason I found the ending of Cabin in the Woods curiously uplifting.)
It occurs to me now that I have been incorrect all these years about why I feared hell as a child. At the time, I saw it as simple: human life is fleeting, therefore eternity matters more than what happens right now, therefore the certainty of hell after death is a grim prospect that robs earthly existence of all hope or comfort. But I was only a kid, and now I think I was missing something important. The deeply horrifying aspect of my belief in hell was not the fear that I personally was going to be sent there. I think now that was a simplified symbol for the real cause of my terror, which was this: that the universe, that God, could possibly work like that.
Now I get it. This was why I could never be fully reassured by the idea that Christian ritual offered salvation from hell. The kind of God who would invent hell at all was obviously also the kind of God who would send anybody there, for any weird reason, and you could never trust that you were getting it right. Never. This is a God who would trick you, lie to you, set traps for you. And, in fact, when you look at the sub-species of evangelical most likely to push a strong literal belief in hell, they do believe in a capricious malevolent trickster God, the sort of being who would create the illusion of million-year-old dinosaur fossils just to muck with us. They believe you can sin without knowing it. They believe that if you want to know the right thing to do, you can't trust your own conscience, or the evidence of the natural world, or your own interpretation of the sacred book — the only way to appease this arbitrarily wrathful being is to obey his self-designated high priests, people like Fred Phelps.
Hell is a feedback loop of existential despair. In the face of death and the void, we turn to religion for meaning, and this is the meaning we are given: God is a sadistic monster just waiting for you to screw up so he’ll have an excuse to punish you eternally. And whenever you feel, as you will, the sick dread instilled by such a notion, remember — that very feeling is your “proof” this notion is true.
Suddenly, I realize why I found existential philosophy so comforting — it was my way out of the feedback loop. I no longer felt compelled to use hell as a carrier for existential dread, and was finally free to engage both concepts on their own terms.
I was finally free to realize what a ridiculous prospect hell really is.