Why We Need Hell, Too

The most famous sermon in American history was a graphic evocation of the horrors of the damned in hell. As Jonathan Edwards expanded on his subject, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," so many moans and cries rose from his proper New England congregation that the learned theologian had to pause while his listeners recoiled in fear of their fate in the life to come. That was on July 16, 1741. Such a sermon could not be preached today--not even by Billy Graham, who has eschewed the fire-and-brimstone sermons of his youth. If the modern pulpit is any index, hell has disappeared from the modern religious imagination, and so has Edwards's angry God.

Historians tell us that hell began to fade, at least among liberal Protestants, during the 19th century. By the end of the millennium, it was a doctrine that most Christians cheerfully ignored. Today, few Roman Catholics line up on Saturday nights to confess their sins, even the "mortal" kind. For born-again Christians, hell functions mainly as a goad for the unconverted. Once saved, the twice born have only to worry--as Graham himself once put it--about how high a place they'll reach in heaven. On television, celebrity preachers discourage negativity. Robert Schuller says he hasn't preached on hell in 40 years. Asked which kind of God they believe in, most Christians prefer to think of him as a friend in high places. (Apparently no one reads the Book of Job anymore.) And hell, for those who think about it at all, is a place for other people.

The irony of all this is that hell has always been more exciting than heaven. Compared with our imagined hells, our imagined heavens--whether they be garden-variety Edens or celestial cities paved with streets of gold--seem cramped and unenticing. Serious students still thrill to Milton's "Paradise Lost," where Satan is the chief dramatis persona, but only specialists read his "Paradise Regained." There are far more English translations of Dante's Inferno than there are of his Purgatorio or Paradiso. Had Edwards preached a sermon entitled "Saints in the Bosom of a Loving God," who would have remembered? As sinners ourselves, we understand evil intuitively; genuine holiness challenges our finite comprehension.

Can we have a heaven without a hell? Not if, according to the three prophetic religions, we all live under divine justice. At the end of time, Judaism, Christianity and Islam each envisions a Last Judgment on all the living and the resurrected dead. But in popular religion, at least, it is what happens to me when I die that has most strenuously excited the imagination. Some Jewish sages have concluded that the wicked perish in the grave; only the righteous will be resurrected to eternal life when the Messiah comes. Christianity has traditionally affirmed much more. At death, each individual is judged and consigned to heaven, hell or--especially in Roman Catholic tradition--to purgatory for further spiritual winnowing prior to entering heaven. As in all matters not specifically covered by the Qur'an, the Muslim imagination is the most vivid in filling in the gaps. According to various folk traditions, the wicked suffer a painful wrenching of soul from body. Even in the grave, the hot flames of hell sear the bodies of suicides and other terrible sinners, while their errant souls writhe in a foul pit of snakes.

For most educated believers, such grim imaginings long ago lost their power to coerce. Images just as grotesque are available at the local multiplex. According to most contemporary theologians, hell is not an eternal torture chamber. Rather--and here the pope and Graham agree--hell means eternal separation from God.

My own hunch is that the prospect of hell never deterred anyone who had not first experienced genuine fear of the Lord. But that traditional religious experience is hard to come by when God is imagined as our Best Buddy. It may well be, as some contemporary theologians argue, that even the worst sinners will eventually be restored to the kingdom of heaven. But this attenuated view of hell tends to rob the evil that we do of its lethal gravitas. "If what we do now is to make no difference in the end," argued the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, "then all the seriousness of life is done away with."

Ultimately, we become what we love. Hell is not a not place, but a community of those who remain outside the circle of Divine Embrace. All are called to enter heaven, but it is hubris to suppose that any one of us is worthy of a free ticket.