The Hell You Say

It must be an ecclesial form of the Stockholm Syndrome that crowds will flock to prophets of the wrath to come.

One of modern literature’s most vivid preachers of doom is Amos Starkadder, patriarch of a seedy Sussex farm in Stella Gibbons’ book Cold Comfort Farm

Sigmund Freud was still alive when Gibbons wrote the novel in 1932, but Freudian analysis is not required to know Amos is angry because he is trapped in a dead-end existence on a depressing piece of sod. He is held captive by his invalid mother who took to her bed decades earlier because “I saw something nasty in the woodshed” and holds family members hostage to her angst.

Amos sublimates his anger by serving as pastor of a surprisingly large congregation called the Quivering Brethren. Asked how the congregation got its name, Amos explains the people quiver when they think about where they will spend eternity.

Amos’ sermons are virtually identical each week:

You’re all damned! Damned! Do you ever stop to think what that word means? No, you don’t. It means endless, horrifying torment! It means your poor, sinful bodies stretched out on red-hot gridirons, in the nethermost, fiery pit of Hell and those demons mocking ye while they waves cooling jellies in front of ye. You know what it’s like when you burn your hand, taking a cake out of the oven, or lighting one of them godless cigarettes? And it stings with a fearful pain, aye? And you run to clap a bit of butter on it to take the pain away, aye? Well, I’ll tell ye, there’ll be no butter in Hell! 

Amos’ congregation, which fills the church, quivers but remains glued to their pews, in abject submission to the bad news. Later in the book (as in the 1995 film starring Kate Beckinsale and Ian McKellen), Amos does escape the farm and takes his quivering message to the United States, where it continues to attract large crowds. Hell is obviously a popular concept.

Modern theologians debate whether Hell, a place of eternal punishment for bad souls, actually exists. Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton of the Evangelical Lutheran Church raised eyebrows recently when she was asked if there is a hell. “There may be,” she said “but I think it is empty.”

But according to pollsters, including Pew and Gallup, most Americans believe in Hell. Gallup notes an interesting political angle in that 83 percent of Republicans say they believe in Hell as opposed to 69 percent of Democrats. Clearly most Americans think there is a Hell, and most would like to avoid it.

If you grew up in the evangelical or Pentecostal traditions, you may be familiar with this hermeneutic. I once attended a World Council of Churches conference on Pentecostals and Orthodox in Costa Rica and met a Church of God professor named Tom. Tom dressed in jeans and a T-shirt and was shaggy haired and bearded like Jerry Garcia, but it was clear he was a highly intelligent academician. Even so, his fellow Pentecostals spun tales about Tom’s rebellious youth.

“When Tom was a teenager he’d sit in the back of the church,” said one woman, now a Pentecostal pastor. “When the preacher started talking about Hell, Tom would hide his hands behind the pew and light matches. After church, people would grab the pastor’s hand and say, ‘My goodness, Preacher, your description of Hell was so vivid I thought I could smell the phosphorous!’”

Many traditions, indeed, depict Hell as a lake of fire with no butter to take away the pain. John the Baptist, in his own efforts to attract the attention of quivering brethren, refers to “unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:17).

Sometimes Hell’s punishments are assumed to correspond with sins committed during life. The actual punishments would depend on the imagination of the demon in charge, but one can envision slave masters condemned to an eternity of slavery and whipping posts, tabloid editors forced to endure an eternity of pillory and humiliation, the ill-begotten rich damned to shiver forever in squalor and hunger, or proof-texting preachers fated to listen to endless sermons – perhaps their own – devoid of points, poems, and exegesis.

Other traditions depict Hell as cold. Tibetan Buddhists, whom I suspect endure cold weather for longer periods that many of us, believe in a cold Hell. Dante’s Inferno describes the innermost ninth circle of Hell as a frozen lake of blood and guilt. It is in that frigid ring to which persons who never take a moral stand are sent, belying President Kennedy’s assumption that “the hottest places in Hell are for persons who maintain their neutrality.”

Each of us has an image of Hell in our minds, just as we try to imagine what Heaven is like.
NBC’s The Good Place, an entertaining and often thoughtful comedy series, imagines an afterlife so skewed that every human being is consigned to the Bad Place because no one is good enough to win entry into the Good Place. One character, Chidi (played by William Jackson Harper) is a professor of philosophy who examines the views of every known ethicist to learn how to lead a good life. He falls short of the Good Place because he can’t decide which value system is the best.

It’s too bad Chidi didn’t read Saint Paul who said everyone falls short, or Martin Luther, who said every one is simultaneously a saint or sinner.

These are useful mental exercises because they keep us focused on important things, particularly gospel message of repentance and salvation. No one knows if John the Baptist had any special insight into what Hell looks like or whether he was depending on a common tradition, but his promise of deliverance comes with a terrifying threat of scalding punishment: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Luke 3:17)

Luke adds: “So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.” (Luke 3:18)

If you read that too fast, it sounds like John is demanding a choice between salvation and unquenchable fire.

Put that way, it seems more like extortion than good news.

But the message of John is more like the mission of first responders in any disaster: a rescue operation to deliver us from the fire, and open our hearts and minds to the coming of the Messiah.

Each Christmas my soul is lifted by the music of artists no longer living: Bing Crosby, Nat Cole, Rosemary Clooney, Gene Autry, Ella Fitzgerald, Perry Como, Eartha Kitt, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley. Each of these great talents sang wonderful old chestnuts, and I sing along with them when I am alone. I rejoice for all these wonderful talents who were such a powerful presence in my youth but are now gone. What dynamic lives they led, what vibrancy, what joy they gave to so many listeners (and what fortunes they made selling their albums).

But in darker moments I wonder: what happened to them when they died? Were they simply extinguished? Did their sentience, their personalities, their talents disappear as if they had never been? And what about the rest of us who don’t leave behind electronic recordings of our faces and voices? Do we pass into oblivion as if we had never lived?

These pensive moments brought me face to face with my own concept of Hell: not unquenchable fire, not frozen lakes of blood, not eternal pillories. Hell is that moment when all that we love, all that we know, all that we are, disappears. Hell is when our consciousness ceases to be, just as was the case in those years before we are born. Hell is when all that we are in life is erased as if it had never been.

Some people say there is no need to be afraid of non-existence. I disagree. Non-existence is Hell to me. Hell is the end of awareness of those we love, a total separation from the God of love who made us and loves us beyond our ability to comprehend it.
That must be the Hell John is talking about.

But John is not pointing to Hell as a threat. John is offering us a way out of Hell.

Of course John tells us to be good and to act justly; he tells tax collectors to take no more money than required of them, and he tells soldiers to be just to others and be content with their wages.

But John is also pointing to a way that goes beyond good behavior, where no lists are made of those who are naughty or nice, where the way out of Hell is wide open and available to every person created and loved by God.

That way out is offered by the Jesus the Messiah whose coming John foretells, and it comes with no conditions, no entrance exams, and no inquisitions. And no quivering.
It is a wide-open door that never closes.

And all that is required of us to escape Hell is to walk through the door of grace.

About Philip E Jenks

Philip, a synodical deacon in the ELCA Metropolitan New York synod, is a retired communicator for American Baptist Churches USA, the U.S. Conference for the World Council of Churches, the U.S. National Council of Churches, and two Philadelphia area daily newspapers. He and his spouse, the Rev. Dr. Martha M. Cruz, are the parents of six adults and are members of St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Rye Brook, N.Y. They live in Port Chester, N.Y.
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1 Response to The Hell You Say

  1. Margaret Foote says:

    Fascinating, Phil. Thank you.

    (Your hell reminds me of the dementers from Harry Potter…)

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