The idea of Hell shapes the way we think — even if people don’t believe it even exists. Vinson Cunningham of the New Yorker took a look at the history of Hell in a recent article.
The further from childhood I get, the fewer people I meet who worry about — or even believe in — what Scott G. Bruce, the editor of a new and quite terrifying compilation, “The Penguin Book of Hell,” calls the “punitive afterlife.” But the Hell here on earth — the one that the preachers promised would lose in the end — hasn’t gone anywhere. You might even notice a slight uptick, these days, in its invocation. As a metaphor for global warming, hellfire is almost too on the nose. There are also the grim jokes about how, during our most recent and most wretched Presidential election, we all surely died and boarded the first elevator downstairs, where we are now in permanent residence. (Search Twitter for the phrase “We are literally in Hell” and let the scenarios wash over you.)
It’s not only the liberals and the environmentally concerned who are prone to invoking Hell to convey the current state of things. When Donald Trump, during his downbeat Inaugural Address, conjured an “American carnage” that left “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation,” and “crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential,” what was he describing but a national apocalypse, a Hades in Chicago and at the border? Our ancestors developed their ideas of Hell by drawing on the pains and the deprivations that they knew on earth. Those imaginings shaped our understanding of life before death, too. They still do.
Whether you believe Hell is a literal place or part of an ancient myth, it remains a powerful metaphor and descriptor in our modern language. While some religious people let go of Hell early on in their path to atheism, others hold onto that belief as long as possible.
Belief in an old-fashioned, everlasting Hell hasn’t gone away. Just ask the pastor at most local churches, or the subway preacher with his brimstone-heavy pamphlets. But Hell has long been assailed as one of Christianity’s cruder means of maintaining control. And some spiritual leaders, intent on presenting a less vengeful God, have attempted to soften or, in some cases, to abolish Hell — mostly to the anger and the anxiety of their co-religionists. Earlier this year, Pope Francis had one of his periodic chats with Eugenio Scalfari, the ninety-four-year-old atheist Italian journalist. Scalfari, who takes no notes during his dialogues with the Holy Father, came away from the session with a blockbuster quote: “A Hell doesn’t exist,” Francis supposedly said, and wayward souls are “annihilated” — poof! — instead of languishing forever. The Vatican denied that the Pope had said any such thing, but it didn’t seem entirely out of character. The great theme of Francis’s pontificate is his emphasis on mercy over judgment. More to the point, he has already made it his business to clarify that Hell, properly understood, is less a place than a state — namely, the state of remoteness from the love of God, an inevitable downside of the gift of free will. Here he echoes C. S. Lewis, who considered Hell a choice. “The doors of hell,” Lewis wrote, “are locked on the inside.”
Though Christians say that the Bible remains unchanging, their theology on Hell has shifted over the years. In American history alone, Hell has evolved from the literal fire and brimstone of the Puritan era (as evidenced in Jonathan Edwards‘ infamous sermon) to what blogger Neil Carter calls “Hell 2.0”: the interpretation of C.S. Lewis that Hell is basically like being in time-out, only forever.
We don’t live in a Christian nation. We don’t have an officially recognized national religion. We do, however, live in a Christian-influenced nation with ideas of Hell permeating the language of believers and non-believers alike.
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