On Hate and Hell

Andrew Hackman calls Hell a hateful idea:

[T]he vast majority of Christian churches believe that anyone who does not subscribe to some form of Christianity (and often, their version of Christianity) is going to be tortured in flames without mercy and without end. They may not put that in the church bulletin, but it is there.

I submit that believing that is REALLY bad for the psyche.

Subconsciously, realizing the unreasonableness, and because many Christians are truly people of good will, most churches put Hell on the back burner (yes, good pun there). But in doing so, Christianity becomes a contradictory, bait and switch, sales job.

The notion of Hell, a place of eternal torment managed by devils and demons, doesn’t sit well in the postmodern secular imagination, and I won’t deny that it can be traced, at least in part, to hateful tribalistic wishful thinking, but it would be wrong to outright dismiss the idea of Hell as unreasonable and hateful.

First, as a religious myth, it illustrates very important lessons: 1) actions have consequences 2) sin breeds misery, for others if not always visibly for oneself, and 3) getting what you want is sometimes a really bad idea.  Take Dante’s Inferno, perhaps the most famous literary depiction of Hell.  It’s not meant to be read as a literal rendering of the eternal abode of sinners, but as a figurative analysis of the affects of sin now on the human soul and on human relationships.  Little doubt Dante had his fun putting people he disliked into everlastingly horrors, but this shouldn’t distract us from the central spiritual truths of the poem.

Second, a reality of Hell makes some sense given particular economies of salvation that imagine Heaven and Hell as ultimate destinations freely chosen by how well one lives in cooperation with grace and in accordance with love.  If the path of love towards God and others can be freely taken, then it can also be freely refused.  In this line of thought, Hell would be what it means to refuse God, i.e., to reject the way of love, knowingly and willfully.

Here, I gather, is where many people find the notion of Hell especially ludicrous.  Given the elusiveness of God and the, um, difficulties verifying the grand dude’s existence, can anyone really reject God with full knowledge and full consent?  That beggars belief in our day and age.  If, however, the rejection of God is a name we give to the rejection of love, and if we can knowingly and willingly walk the path of love, and, finally, if our actions have eternal consequences (because we are both temporal and eternal beings), then there may be a reasonableness to the belief in Hell.  On the other hand–the sinister one–if what we do in the here and now matters only so long as we and those affected live, or only so long as the universe has being, then, I agree, the “punishments” of Hell are disproportionate to our sins and crimes.

In sum, I take the view that the idea of Hell can be unreasonable, centered on and fueled by hate, and bad for the psyche, but that it can also be an illuminating myth, figurative image, or posited reality, one that reminds us that wrongdoing separates us from ourselves and from one another, and, to paraphrase a line from Gladiator, that what we do in life may echo in eternity.

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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35 Responses

  1. Jaybird says:

    Keep in mind that Christianity was, like most of us, born screaming and covered in blood. The Romans did do stuff like “throw Christians to the lions” and otherwise have them be killed for the entertainment of heathens.

    Let’s go back to Saint Ignatius: “I am God’s wheat, ground fine by the lion’s teeth to be made purest bread for Christ.”

    The lion in that statement is *NOT* a metaphor.

    These are folks who watched their loved ones killed for sport. Their loved ones died to the cheers of the crowd. If you can imagine being put in this situation, I’m sure you can imagine taking comfort from revenge fantasies that involved watching the people who did these things begging for mercy for alllllll eternity.

    I sure as hell can imagine imagining that.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      I can imagine these, sure, and I’d be lying if I said I’ve never entertained a revenge fantasy, but then these martyrs were known to imitate the agonizing prayers attributed to their God, imploring the Father to forgive, and hoping for the salvation of their murderers. They died in part to witness a belief in God’s love to the very people who killed them.

    • MikeSchilling says:

      Yes, it’s the same reason Jews believe all the rest of you are going to hell. And Muslims, you know how out of control they are.

      Except that nether one does. Only Christians.

    • North says:

      The real irony is that, having endured the Romans and all the rest and emerged victorious the Christians then promptly put on their Roman hats and commenced doing the same thing to everyone else (and sometimes to each other) and have been merrily doing so in one form or another to this day.

      • Jaybird says:

        Much of that, I suspect, is due to the ease of becoming a Christian.

        Want to become a Jewish person? Well, there are two schools of thought and the first one says “nope, sorry”. The second school of thought ain’t much more optimistic.

        Want to become a Muslim? It’s somewhat easier but there are requirements. Out of the five big ones, a non-zero amount are measurable.

        Wanna be a Christian? All you have to do is close your eyes and when you open them again, you’re a Christian.

      • MikeSchilling says:

        I’m sure I’ve quoted Mark Twain on the before.

        Later ancestors of mine were the Quakers William Robinson, Marmaduke Stevenson, et al. Your tribe chased them out of the country for their religion’s sake; promised them death if they came back; for your ancestors had forsaken the homes they loved, and braved the perils of the sea, the implacable climate, and the savage wilderness, to acquire that highest and most precious of boons, freedom for every man on this broad continent to worship according to the dictates of his own conscience–and
        they were not going to allow a lot of pestiferous Quakers to interfere with it. Your ancestors broke forever the chains of political slavery, and gave the vote to every man in this wide land, excluding none!–none except those who did not belong to the orthodox church. Your ancestors –yes, they were a hard lot; but, nevertheless, they gave us religious liberty to worship as they required us to worship, and political liberty to vote as the church required; and so I the bereft one, I the forlorn one, am here to do my best to help you celebrate them right.

  2. Andrew says:

    I agree with your take on Hell overall. I think what little divergence we have is due to empahsis of our respective circles and audiences. From the Catholic authors I have read (Richard Rohr being my favorite), it seems the Catholic tradition is much more comfortable with drawing lessons from poetry and metaphor.

    Evangelicals are a bit of a different breed, and those are the waters I swim in. Literalism rules the day. It often seems that Hell is not an object lesson on consequences and outcomes… but rather, a final payback to people who denied the evangelical take on existence. Holding a metaphorical view on Hell makes you worthy of Hell. 🙂

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      Holding a metaphorical view on Hell makes you worthy of Hell.

      Funny how such a belief severely limits the power of Christ’s sacrificial love.

  3. Kelly says:

    I find the Orthodox Christian view of Heaven and Hell to be enlightening…but then again, I am an Orthodox Christian. Every day of our lives we are being transformed into something. Upon meeting God, after this life, how will our transformed selves experience Him? The Bible says that God is a consuming fire after all. Will we have become like fire in our lives and experience the wonders of His fiery love for eternity? Or will we be transformed in such a way that the consuming fire of God’s loves scorches/burns us; His loving presence being totally unbearable to the unprepared person?

  4. Glyph says:

    I was raised in a pretty traditionally fire-and-brimstone church, but occasionally other conceptions of the concept of Hell would poke through.

    The one that I found most (not entirely, but most) compelling was simply this: the idea that since humans are created in God’s image, with the reason and free will to choose to commune with Him, Hell is simply the eternal separation of a human from God, by choice – and that completely severing a thing from its purpose, renders it meaningless – in this conception, there is no worse fate than that. It’s not a ‘punishment’, so much as a complete nullification, a total loss/waste, to be avoided at all costs.

    For those of you that remember your OG Star Trek, those in this condition could be considered ‘dunsels’.

    To geek out further, Gaiman’s conception of Hell, and what it is for, in his ‘Sandman’ series was really something else.

  5. I like Kelly’s answer above. It gives me something to ponder.

    I was raised in a church that preached a literal place of material torment, in which unbelievers would be confined for all eternity. When I began to question the dogma of my youth, one of the first things to go was a belief in such a place. Believing in eternal, punitive torment for those who got faith wrong conflicted with even the most rudimentary notions of justice, to say nothing of mercy. As I read somewhere once, not only can I not love a God that would do such a thing, if such a God existed I would be morally required to despise him. (It did not help matters that half of my family comprises members of another religion.)

    The most theologically acceptable idea of hell I’ve ever seen comes at the end of the Chronicles of Narnia. (Sorry, Kyle. I know you’re not a fan.) In it, a group of dwarves sit around in what they believe to be a dark and filthy shack, when in reality they are surrounded by paradise. Their own thinking prevents them from seeing where they really are, and even the Christ character cannot make them see otherwise. I can countenance a notion like that, which comports with what Kelly has written as well.

    • Glyph says:

      Russell, I’d forgotten that Narnia one. It is a powerful image.

      • Glyph says:

        Actually, on reflection the ‘Sandman’ Hell is sort of similar. It is implied that most denizens my be able to leave any time they want.

        They just think they can’t, because they *want* to be punished.

        • Trumwill says:

          In one of my novels, it sort of works that way (it’s background, though, never appearing in the story itself.) Damned souls are free to leave hell, but just don’t realize it. Except when they are allowed to go to the purgatory in order to recruit/seduce more souls to damnation*. Which they do, gladly, because they think it’s their only escape. The circular pattern of this leads to more and more self-loathing and a greater psychological entrenchment in damnation.

          * – Purgatory, within the universe of the story, has become excessively overpopulated. As such, it’s a prime picking ground for Heaven and Hell (or their agents). This is why the agents of Heaven and Hell have becomes significantly less likely to manifest themselves here on Earth than they were in the past. They’re both focused on the purgatory (where, once you’ve won them, you’ve won them – on Earth, they can backslide or redeem themselves more easily).

          • Tom Van Dyke says:

            Very cool, WillT. In the Greek mind, only the heroes—the non-mediocre—went to heaven. Hell had its Torment Dept., but mostly, the afterlife was a gray existence. Your Purgatory is sort of the same, the mediocre people not choosing this or that, just kind of…there.

          • Glyph says:

            Will, the TV series ‘Supernatural’ played with something similar – humans sent to hell are conscripted/trained as torturers, to increase their guilt & complicity.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      Believing in eternal, punitive torment for those who got faith wrong conflicted with even the most rudimentary notions of justice, to say nothing of mercy.

      I’m with you here, Russell. I abhor the idea of Hell for people who worshiped the wrong God or who didn’t have all their doctrinal ducts in order. If there is a Hell, I hope it’s empty, and the only people I could envision there would be those who forsook all bonds of love and worshiped only themselves to the detriment of others. Love is the measure; faith is a but a means to love.

  6. Tom Van Dyke says:

    If you don’t believe in Hell, do you go to Hell?

    FTR, Roman Catholicism is open to, even hopeful for “universal reconciliation,” —there’s even a name for it, apokatastasis.

    “Eternal damnation remains a real possibility, but we are not granted, without special divine revelation, the knowledge of whether or which human beings are effectively involved in it.”
    —John Paul II

    More here:


    Since the Roman church represents 2/3 of Christianity, the below [from the OP’s OP] is not strictly accurate:

    “[T]he vast majority of Christian churches believe that anyone who does not subscribe to some form of Christianity (and often, their version of Christianity) is going to be tortured in flames without mercy and without end. They may not put that in the church bulletin, but it is there.”

    It’s a bit of a humbug.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      You’ll notice that the Catholic Church has a communion of saints, and it names names of those in its body. It has no corresponding list of the damned. Hell could be empty.

  7. Serena says:

    Those who subscribe to the Calvinistic notion of “totally depraved” are in a bit of a conundrum; if Christ forgives all sins yet those who do not believe in him go to hell, he does not forgive all sins, since not believing in him is a sin.

    I know Rob Bell was in a lot of hot water for his belief in universalism, although it is not Catholic teaching I don’t think it is an anathema since Rob Bell points out he has the backing of some Church fathers, ( and some Doctors of the Church including the Little Flower).

    I lean more towards annihilationism, if rejecting the love God sends you to “hell”, then saying no to God’s love is saying no to existence, therefore the end of your life is the end of your life, no everlasting torment just annihilation. Not official Church teaching but a tradition from some Church Fathers as well.

    The theological knot I get in my head in regarding hell is 1) Christ is very descriptive of hell in the gospels; was he talking purely figuratively, or using metaphor to describe an actual place? 2) Was immortality possible before the resurrection? If the answer is no and you believe in an actual hell, they you have to believe that the resurrection open up hell for mortal sinners, something I think even fundamentalists would have a problem declaring. If you say yes immortality was possible but only in hell, then you have to believe that every dead human, even babies, were in eternal torment and God needed the blood of his son in order to feel justified in offering heaven. Doesn’t quite gel the belief of God is Love, though.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      I found Dante’s image of the souls entering Hell quite fascinating: they wanted to get away from God! And once in Hell, they clung to their defining sin. They got what they wanted for all eternity, and, in a way, wanted what they got.

  8. Rodak says:

    This world is all the hell we need.

    • Tom Van Dyke says:

      Mr. Rodak, not bad atall atall.

      Auugh! I roll over out of a dream of scratching in the hard, dry earth with a blunt, brittle stick to choke off the insistent yelping of my alarm clock, Judas. Yes, my alarm clock has a name. I have named everything here. I’ve been naming ever since I was appointed to the role of Adam on this plantation. Naming is an Adamic task — one of many, I’m coming to learn. I give all things biblical tags, as is most fit and right. Nobody wants to be jerked out of a sound sleep by a clock named Brad. Just as no one wants to wipe his ass with tissue ripped from a roll named Kristen or Kayla. So I am currently flushing bemerded Leah into septic tank Laban. Sending old cow-eyes home to daddy. Only problem is, there ain’t no Eve. My helpmeet has decamped for New York City — or Jezebel Junction, as I’m calling it — leaving me here to struggle with the damned serpents all on my lonely. Sometimes I pray to the local deity, Yalkumbaknah, to spit in the dirt, stir up a hunk of mud, and sculpt me another. Sometimes I fuckin’ count my blessings. Yo, Lord! Wanna build me a woman? I gotcha bone rye cheer! It ain’t no rib, though–it’s King David, proudly erect on his pelted throne, with his chubby little sons, Absalom and Solly, rolling around at his feet. [Now enter slinky Lilith of the Five Fingers, stage left, to get a grip on the situation.] Oh, yeah. Just call me Onan and pass me a wad of Rachel. End of chapter, end of verse. Word.

  9. Rodak says:

    That’s gratifying, Tom. Thanks for visiting the blog.

  10. Kelly says:

    Thanks Kyle! The possibility of Hell being empty is a common idea in Orthodoxy. Many hold that when Christ descended into Hell after his death, he plundered Hell completely, leaving only the devil and his angels. This belief is partly why the Church Fathers are accused of Universalists. It is my understanding that Universalism is not the position of the Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church is more likely to say that it doesn’t place any limitations on God. For example, the thief on the cross with Christ was saved although he wasn’t baptized. Even though God is not limited by sacraments, or anything, there is no Orthodox Christian that would tell you NOT to do those things; living the life of the Church is essential to salvation.

  11. dhex says:

    so for those that believe in hell as some kind of reality, rather than a metaphor, does it affect your actions? or would you do as you do without its looming shadow?

  12. Jon Rowe says:

    The only idea of Hell that ever made any sense to me is Groundhog Day. You choose hedonistic sin over virtue and are never really happy there. Christopher Hitchens chooses to smoke, drink, gamble, have adultery/fornication, whatever, for all eternity. It makes sense that folks would choose that as a destination.

    • Jaybird says:

      There’s a brilliant scene in The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen where he finds a couple of his old teammates stuck in the belly of a whale, playing gin rummy for all eternity. Two of them get into an argument over whether they’re in Hell or in Heaven.

      As nice a twist as Twilight Zone’s “A Nice Place To Visit” had going on, there *ARE* people who would, in fact, want to live there.

  13. Kelly says:

    I was thinking that my two comments may sound contradictory, so allow me to clarify. According to Orthodox Christians Hell, Hades, Sheol, the Grave,was all the same place. It is where everyone went when they died. Christ plundered Hell after His death and before His resurrection. Now, the only reality that exists is the Kingdom of Heaven. The state of ones soul will determine how it is he/she experiences the Kingdom of Heaven.

    • Serena says:

      Great explanation! I attend Byzantine services when I can; I like to consider myself a bi-pulmonary Catholic :).