Hell hath no furyWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | firstname.lastname@example.org
“The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”
— Kevin Spacey as “Verbal” Kint, “The Usual Suspects”
There is a 1986 “Life in Hell” comic strip by Matt Groening that tackles the topic “Kids’ Questions About Death.” After a string of ruminations about the afterlife (“When you go to Heaven, do you look like how you did when you died?” “If cats are bad, do they go to Cat Hell?” “If your leg is amputated during your life, is it waiting for you in Heaven?”), the young questioner is shown hiding under the bedcovers late at night, wondering, “Will I go to Hell just for asking these questions?”
The threat of Hell was once a strong motivator for those in a Christian home. For most of my childhood, I was more fearful of Hell and Satan than I was joyful about Heaven and God. Lake of fire? Winged demons tearing flesh off bones with hook-covered whips? Horned devils spearing their pitchforks through bodies that never numb to tearing pain? No, thanks. I’ll brush up on the Ten Commandments, memorize the names of the apostles and try really, really hard to walk the line.
As I have grown and learned from life, I have become more confident in the love and eternal promise offered in Christian teachings, but I still have a child’s primal fear of burning forever in the pits of Hell.
Unquestionably and successfully timed to create conversation during the Easter season, with its emphasis on the Resurrection, the April 25 Time magazine cover, “What if there’s no Hell?” focuses on the work of Michigan pastor Rob Bell. The story “Is Hell dead?” walks through the controversy regarding Bell’s book, “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.” Written by Jon Meacham, the article does a thorough job of discussing Bell’s view (Jesus‚ redemptive work is universal; “every person who ever lived” could go to Heaven whether or not they acknowledge Christ, an idea frowned upon by some clergy because it disregards nearly all of the prescribed church-sanctioned steps to salvation).
Meacham covers an admirable amount of ground (a high point is his comparing religious debate to a “wilderness of mirrors,” a CIA term describing bewilderment) but he never really tries to answer his title thesis. Is Hell dead?
People who have recently driven through certain areas of Toledo may beg to differ, but it’s not a stretch to posit that Hell isn’t what it used to be. Hell certainly seems to have lost much of its stature as a punishment meant to deter bad behavior.
John Skelton doesn’t seem to have been concerned about Hell’s fires when he did whatever he did to his sons Andrew, 9, Alexander, 7, and Tanner, 5. Images of Satan cackling with anticipation do not seem to have impacted Oak Harbor’s Alan Atwater, who on April 16 shot and killed his wife Dawn and their three children, Isaac, Ashley and Brady, before taking his own life. Just his suicide could guarantee eternal damnation according to many religions; murdering his family should expedite matters.
The threat of Hell did not stop LaShanda Armstrong, who last week drove her minivan into the Hudson River, killing herself and drowning three of her four children. Nor did it stop Jared Lee Loughner from taking point-blank shots at U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others, six of whom died, including 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green. Fear of unimaginable fire did not prevent the crimes of Seung-Hui Cho, the 23-year-old who killed 32 students (and then himself) at Virginia Tech University. Or Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who killed 13 people and then themselves. Or Timothy McVeigh, who killed 168 people in Oklahoma City. Or the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorists, who killed nearly 3,000. Or whomever is in the news this morning for whatever senseless and brutal murder they committed.
It does not take an Ivy League sociologist to make the elementary connection: We exist in a society in which life means little to nothing for some people. If the miracle of living can be extinguished without any more thought than it takes to squeeze a plastic trigger in a video game, what possible threat can an afterlife wield? If you can’t find the glory in living, you’re not likely to hope for the glory of salvation, or fear the retribution of Hell.
I remember an afternoon in 1976 at my friend John Bleau’s house in Walbridge. We used to spin records for hours — Cheap Trick, Queen, Eagles, Billy Joel, Fleetwood Mac, all that good ’70s stuff. During one session, John played an Alice Cooper song, “Go to Hell.” Cooper sings a litany of acts that supposedly condemn mortals to Hell (“Refusing to act your age/For gambling and drinking alcohol constantly/For making us doubt our parents’ authority/You’d even force-feed a diabetic a candy cane”). Every time Cooper would swing to the chorus and bellow “You could go to Hell,” John would turn the volume down on the record player so the H-word could not be heard by nearby adults. That’s how much power the word and concept used to hold. Today, hell, like so many other once-taboo words, has lost its capital letter status; it’s almost quaint to think of a time when Satan was an upfront boogeyman, instead of the “Simpsons” and “South Park” cartoon caricature who does his real-life work in more subtle, quiet ways.
It scares me that such evil lurks in our world, but that’s where faith comes into play, isn’t it? That is where we look deep inside, then up toward the stars, and decide what will motivate our life — fear of Hell, desire for Heaven, or the nothingness that mocks them both.
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press and Toledo Free Press Star. Email him at email@example.com.