The Disadvantages of Hell

However you think of Hell, it is mostly not a good place to be. Whether it is a fiery final abode, as in some cases, or a shadowy realm of the once-living, as in others, or as in C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, a huge gray city, entirely illusory, but connected to heaven by a daily bus ride, it is not a good place to be. It’s not a good place to imagine that one will go.

But…on the other hand, it might not be a good place to threaten people with, either. It hell 4might not be good for the threatener, for one thing, and, speaking on behalf of the English language, it is not a good practice for people who proclaim themselves purveyors of “good news.”

We don’t see the word “good” is our word evangelism because the e- doesn’t suggest it, but in Greek, the word is euaggelion (ευαγγελιον) and the eu- prefix, which is the prefix of many English words, is plain to see. [1] I want to consider today that the availability of “Hell” as a weapon in the arsenal used by “evangelists” distorts the message and also that it distorts the bringers of the message.  As, I think, in the picture below.  Remember that one?

hell 3To set the stage for thinking about this, I’d like to pass along a story or two. [2] In 1983, Arlie Russell Hochschild wrote a book called The Managed Heart. It was originally going to be a book about people who had to seem nice no matter how they were feeling and people who had to seem menacing no matter how they were feeling. Of that second emphasis, only one chapter actually made it into the book (Chapter 7 on the emotional systems of bill collectors) but the presupposition that puts “seeming” here and “feeling” there is the same for each one.

Many years ago, I had an acquaintance who considered it to be his job to stand on the street and hand out tracts. The message of the tracts was, not to put too fine a point on it, “Accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior or spend eternity in the flames of Hell.” He would hold out the pamphlet to passersby and say, “Are you interested in a little fire insurance?” [3]

How else could it be?

Well, Jesus’ disciples met him within a context of Judaism where nearly all the pieces of their first association were taken for granted and they were attracted to some unusual spins on their common heritage. Matthew puts the contrast very bleakly in his series in the Sermon on the Mount, where he has Jesus saying, “You have heard it said…but I say unto you.” Disciples are not represented as saying to their fellow Israelites—with a few minor exceptions in John—“Hey, you’ve got to come and see this guy!”[4]

But when the church gained power, it was necessary to pair the invitation with a threat. Heaven? Or would you prefer Hell? The church in this way adopts the carrot and stick approach and it may have begun as a report of the options available to sinners, but it developed into outcomes the church, itself, could provide. That being the case, the more sinners lusted after heaven or feared hell, the more power the church has over them.

I think that is the dilemma my tract-distributing acquaintance was enacting many centuries later.

But I’ve been thinking. What if all Christians agreed that there was no such thing as Hell?hell 7 How would we present our faith? I think that Heaven and Hell are a pair in the same sense that the carrot and the stick are a pair. Would we say, “Accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior” [5] and when they said, “What if we don’t?” would we say, “Oh….nothing. It’s just Heaven.”?

That awkwardness is what I am pointing to when I say that the carrot and the stick are a pair. [6] So does taking the stick away imply taking the carrot away? I don’t think so. It does imply taking that particular carrot away. We can’t go around preaching Eternal Bliss or “something else.”

But if that is the only carrot Christians have to offer, then the faith as a community of believers died a long time ago.

I’d like to finish up with the two questions I have had in my mind from the beginning. The first is about how the doctrine of Hell distorts our faith. I’ve been playing around the edges of that one. The second is how the doctrine of Hell distorts the proclaimer of the faith.

The Disadvantages of Hell, Part I

When we offer Hell and Heaven as inducements to conversion, we instrumentalize the question. We take for granted a person’s private calculation of his or her own self-interest and we try to argue that they will be “better off” if they make the choice for Heaven and worse off if they choose Hell. Does that sound like a religious choice to you?

Me either.

hell 2That sounds like the way you would buy a car or a pair of shoes. If it is true about faith that “from the outside looking in, you can’t understand it. And from the inside looking out, you can’t explain it” [7] then instrumental logic isn’t going to get you there. Anyone who thinks he is choosing Heaven because it will be advantageous to him is not making a religious decision at all. Preaching that adopting our faith and the obligations that go naturally with it will somehow “make things better” cheapens the faith. Taking Hell away, which, as I argue above, would mean taking Heaven away, would deal with that instrumentalization.

The Disadvantages of Hell, Part II

When we offer Hell and Heaven as inducements to conversion, we instrumentalize ourselves as well. We become the people who offer “rewards” and “punishments” based on our own certain knowledge. We may have our own doubts about “the product,” but we put those aside in representing the choice to outsiders. The demands of preaching a message like that one distort the preachers of the message.

  • They distort what we think because the things we think have to be brought into line with the sales pitch and we do, in fact, hold ideas that are incompatible with the pitch.
  • They distort how we feel because we know we are supposed to feel certain ways and the ways we feel have to be in synch with the emotional benefits we say we are offering.
  • They distort what we do because the complicated and natural outworking of our own development needs to be constrained by the demands being made by the marketing department.

I know that sounds harsh. On the other hand, I know what I’m talking about.

Remember the chapter in Hochschild’s book on flight attendants (mostly) and bill collectors (one chapter)? They suffer the effects of setting aside what they think and how they feel, so that they can do what their job demands of them. They pay the price. But for them, a particular employment is instrumental anyway. They are doing what they are doing because they get paid for doing it. That is a reason they can tell to themselves and others that actually, in our society, seems to make sense.

That isn’t true of people committed to a journey of faith. The distortions they suffer by offering the carrot and the stick to their friends and neighbors cannot be explained away as the onerous demands of a job that pays well. You just have to face what it does to you. Or, alternatively, you can just not do it.

No Heaven, no Hell, no message?

Really? Is that the best we’ve got? It might be worth giving up Heaven and Hell just to find out.

[1] The rest of that word looks like “angel,” which is what it is because angelos (ἄγγελος) means “messenger.
[2] I am constantly amazed at how often placing these stories in their proper context in an essay reveals to me for the first time how important they have been to me. It is hard to continue taking them for granted when you are writing about them.
[3] He seemed to me a man utterly lacking in empathy. He would leave by his plate in a restaurant not a monetary tip, but a tract about eternal life in Jesus Christ. I asked him once whether he didn’t think that the waitress wouldn’t have preferred cash and he said that the tip he had left was infinitely more valuable. Lacking, as I say, in empathy.
[4] Jesus unquestionably believed in a Hell of the fiery sort. To the best of my recollection, that was common in the Judaism of his day. I think they brought the raw materials for it back with them from the Exile in Babylon.
[5] There are religious cultures where that whole compound title is pronounced as if it were one long word and Tom Howard recalls, in his book Christ the Tiger, the occasion when he tried to shorten it a little and was reproved by an elderly Christian, “Give him his full title, son.”
[6] Doing without one of them would be like George Carlin’s “partial scores,” one of which was Stanford 21.
[7] I know the context of that phrasing is a college bonfire, but I think it captures the dilemma of faith perfectly.


About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
This entry was posted in A life of faith, Theology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.