Ah, hell. Like a good American Christian, I’ve been thinking about hell most of my life. I’ve never worried about it, however, because I tend to put far more trust into the mystery of God’s grace, forgiveness, and understanding than I do in God’s capacity to turn away from people forever. But hell can be a comforting theological concept for me.
I can be a little rage-y. Sometimes I joke that the only time I believe in hell is when I want other people to go there.
Who I Think Should Go There
Enter this section under the list of “Things That Make Me Sort of a Terrible Person” (total depravity, y’all).
The Hawaii legislator who took a sledgehammer to the shopping carts of homeless people. Being homeless is hard, ok? You have no safe place to sleep, nowhere to keep your belongings, things we take for granted like identification or extra clothes. In fact, many homeless people have neither identification nor extra clothes. Many don’t know where they will get their next meal, or have to plan really far in advance to ensure the next meal is a reality. That legislator could totally end up in hell and I wouldn’t lose a bit of sleep.
Another great candidate for hell comes from the fun fact that we have a detainee quota in the U.S. Yes, this administration has detained and deported record numbers of undocumented immigrants, most of whom have no criminal record, but that isn’t enough. There is legislation on the books mandating a minimum number of beds in detention center be filled every day. Since most of those detention centers are actually private for-profit prisons, I love the idea of those profiting off of these to go to hell. Check your 401(k) or 403(b), by the way. Many plans include investments in the private prison industry.
I flirted briefly with the hell thing after hearing more about how our patent laws are preventing people with lower incomes, or people in less prosperous countries, from gaining access to affordable treatment for HIV/AIDS. Yes, the need to protect profits by suing companies in other countries that can produce the same drugs for less, making these drugs more accessible, and potentially wiping out a disease, is more important than saving people’s lives.
Oh, how about the people who voted to cut SNAP benefits? Because I know how to solve this poverty problem. Increase hunger. Then we’ll have more hungry kids acting out in school and getting criminalized for it. Oh, great, maybe people will have to go without more meals and will lack the energy to find another job or perform well in the one they have. That’s a great idea! You know what helps makes people obese? Poverty. You know what contributes to rates of incarceration? Poverty. So this is a great idea! Obviously these folks should go to hell.
I mentioned I was working on this blog post, and several folks immediately offered to give me a few names of people who should go there. To hell, that is.
My Revenge Fantasy
Here’s the thing about hell.
Hell is my revenge fantasy. I’m not a particularly peaceful person. I get really, really mad about a lot of things, because I think those things go against why we are here as Christians. I thought we were here to be witnesses to the love and grace of God. Be aiding and abetting in life, not death.
One reason why I love Quentin Tarantino movies is because many of them are elaborate and funny revenge fantasies. Yes, his movies are historically inaccurate. Yes, his movies are violent and gratuitous. That is what makes them so very good. The violence is ridiculous. Comical. He never promised us history. The revenge fantasies of Kill Bill, Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds (sic) are so deeply satisfying, because I want a good escape where the bad guys get what’s coming to them. How we live and who we are as American Christians seems to result in some awful things (i.e. gun violence, totally preventable hunger, environmental destruction, homophobic legislation, rampant sexual violence against women and children), and when I start feeling rage-y about these things, I just want to go watch Quentin Tarantino, and fantasize about some karmic retribution. You know, like hell.
Here’s the thing about fantasies. However sweet and delicious and satisfying they are, they are not real.
You may have picked up my capacity to dwell on sin and judgment. Yup. But I also know that hell in the popular imagination is more shaped by literature, legend, and politics, than by Scripture.
What Does Worry Me
I know that whatever I think about people going to hell doesn’t make it true. But at some level, hell gets used as a weapon against those who disagree with us. That can be damaging to individuals and to relationships alike.
There are parts of Christianity that hold themselves as the one true church; members of other churches are, by extension, not part of the true church, and are therefore not guaranteed salvation. This may not be the technical theological position of those churches, but it is a popular sentiment. Plenty of Christians suspect non-Christians are going to hell.
Too many worry those who die by suicide will go to hell. I saw a number of Facebook posts by colleagues about the misunderstanding around mental illness and death by suicide. So many Christians still do not understand the nature of mental illness, and many condemn those who die by suicide as weak, or sinful. I did a quick crowd-sourcing exercise, asking people why we in American popular culture think suicide victims go to hell. I got some great discussion on that thread, including the Roman Catholic theological position refuting the ticket to hell automatically generated by suicide. Others said: “because it’s a sin for which you cannot ask forgiveness,” or because “the author of life is God,” or because the focus on heaven in the Middle Ages resulted in many dying by suicide to get there faster, or as a deterrent to suicide. The conclusion: according to scripture or most theology dying by suicide doesn’t send you to hell, even though that theological message is present in pop theology and in many churches.
Here’s the thing. There is a lot of research out there on what the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament actually say about hell, and very little of what we think of as hell is actually biblical. Much of it comes from Dante’s Inferno, which is a rockin’ piece of literature, but not exactly theological fact. In college, one of my friends in the honors program with me, wrote a whole paper on hell. She got into the Greek and everything. We used to walk around shouting “Gehenna!” at each other.
In general though, I’m not so hung up on hell. I tend to think God gets upset but forgives easily, so with all that love and forgiveness, hell isn’t likely to be where people end up. Nothing separates us from the love of God. That’s in the Bible somewhere (Romans 8).
I’ve said this before, but like a good Reformed Christian, I believe God is sovereign. Nothing any one of us does or doesn’t do can supersede what God does. It’s a good thing I don’t decide anyone’s fate, what with my rage and such. But that means that you don’t get to decide anyone’s fate either. So those of us who find it mighty tempting to condemn anyone should give up that practice (side-eye at Pat Robertson). Consider the love of God, and what is likely to be the vast difference between our own values and the mind of God.
A couple resources on hell:
A book with a study guide at the back
A downloadable study