Encourage any group of youth to talk about religion, and a question about hell (along with the issue of suffering and so many different religions), will probably come up. In many of the “sophisticated” countries of the northern hemisphere, people just don’t talk about heaven or hell. In the United States, surveys show about 90% believing in heaven, but belief in hell (according to Gallup, Harris, and Barna) falls to something under 50%. It’s easier to believe in heaven than in hell.
A William R. Mattox, Jr. begins an op ed article, “Hell deserves as much respect as heaven” (1999, October 29. USA TODAY, 15A) this way:
I am planning to spend this Halloween raising hell with some college students.
No we aren’t going to be holding seances or hanging out in cemeteries or listening to Marilyn Manson’s newest release. We are, instead, going to be raising this question for public discussion: Why is our society so schizophrenic about hell? For example, how is it that ‘hell’ is one of the most commonly used words in the English language, yet one of the least-talked about?…Why do people who tell others to ‘go to hell’ turn around and tell pollsters they don’t really believe hell exists?…
And why is it that many people who deny hell exists also profess belief in heaven? Do they really think we will be all together on the other side? Do they really expect to see Adolf Hitler playing harp duets with Mother Theresa?
This writer goes on to say, more seriously, that he expects it is because heaven is a nicer place to talk about, and believe in, than hell. Perhaps part of the reason is the way hell is depicted by hell-fire preachers and in literature. Sensationalized pictures of hell emphasize a kind of eternal suffering hardly imaginable or palatable to modern sensitivities.
Many courses of American Literature or Studies include excerpts from Jonathan Edward’s sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” So striking were its images, it is difficult to distinguish the way in which people were affected physically and emotionally from genuine spiritual conviction. Dante’s inferno describes horrific suffering for those who pass through the gates on which is enscribed: “All hope a bandon, ye who enter here.” Mattox also refers to the movie, “What Dreams May Come,” in which Robin Williams traverses a hellish terrain of ghoulish, agonizing souls sunk in mud up to their mouths. “Hell” is a 1997 jazz hit by the Squirrlel Nut Zippers with the following lyrics:
Teeth are extruded and bones are ground
And baked into cakes which are passed around.
What practical difference does a belief in hell make anyway? Studies by Richard Freeman of Harvard (1983) and Byron Johnson of Vanderbilt (1995) show that crime rates (among inner city youth) are affected by spiritual beliefs.
A book by Jerry Walls (Hell: The Logic of Damnation, [Library of Religious Philosophy, Vol. 9] University of Notre Dame Press, 1992) argues that a belief in hell does make a difference and is a necessary part of genunie belief in God:
If there is no God, no Heaven, no Hell, there simply is no persuasive reason to be moral.
But Walls reacts sharply to using the idea of hell “as a club” to control people or make them good. Nor does he believe simplistically that good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell. Rather “he argues that heaven is for sinners who want to be eternally with God and hell is for sinners who want to spend eternity apart from God.”
In this, as Mattox notes, Walls reflects the idea of C. S. Lewis “who said no one ever goes to heaven deservingly-and no one ever goes to hell unwillingly.”
No matter how we understand the important doctrine of predestination, the biblical teaching of free will, seems to make hell a matter of choice: those who want to accept God’s gift of eternal perfection and enjoyment of God’s love can, through the merit and work of Christ enjoy heaven. Those who cannot endure the idea of spending eternity in God’s love, worship, and service will find themselves in the only alternative whatever that reality may be. One biblical scholar and preacher describes the choice as a person stepping around the out-stretched arms of a dying Savior to go his own way.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
What most impressed or disturbed you in this article? How would you write this article, and how do you think it would be read by most?
Do you believe in hell? Why or why not?
If you do, how do you define and describe hell? Why is it necessary?
If you do not believe in hell, what do you see as the fate of those who live an especially evil or malicious life and get away with it? If there is no hell, how will heaven be different than earth is now?
Morally, it is hard to make sense out of this world, if there is no afterlife. And if there is only one destination for all in the afterlife, that doesn’t make moral sense either.
Jesus Christ, who is recognized by all as a good and moral teacher, used vivid metaphors in describing the afterlife: everlasting fire (Matthew 25:41) weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 8:12; Matthew 13:42; Matthew 24:41; Matthew 25:30) , whose worms (or maggots) never die (Mark 9:47b-48), and a rich man begging for a drop of water (Luke 16:19-31).
Those who accept the Bible as their authority, differ about its reality: what it will be like and how long it lasts. In the final analysis, we cannot know what hell is really like any more than we know what heaven is really like. What it will be actually be like to live in a new dimension is just as much a mystery to us presently as this life must be to a fetus.