Hell 101: A Back-to-School Reflection on the Persistence of Belief in Eternal Punishment

Although I don’t consider myself a theologian proper, part of my normal teaching load includes courses in Christian theology. My students come from a religious background that is almost invariably Christian, usually of a type that is politically and theologically conservative. That doesn’t mean that they constitute a monolithic bloc. Labeling them as “evangelical” or as part of the “religious right” may in certain instances be helpful, but it doesn’t capture the complexity of their beliefs.

Still, predictable patterns do often emerge, and one of the mainstays is belief in hell. It seems safe to say that for many of my students, hell is real.

All of which explains why one of the most popular fall attractions in the pocket of eastern North Carolina where I teach is Judgement House, sponsored by the First Pentecostal Holiness Church of Goldsboro, NC. Through mid-October to mid-November, visitors can experience a visually-impressive “walk-through drama that presents the truth of people’s choices versus the consequences of those decisions both in this life and the next.”

The various scenes of decision, tragedy, and punishment are all-important, because “[n]o other tool is more effective at presenting the gospel and giving individuals the opportunity to choose a personal and saving relationship with Jesus Christ.” Judgement House isn’t unique to Goldsboro, NC. It’s basically a franchise, so it and similar “opportunities” for salvation can be found all over the United States. If you don’t happen to be so lucky as to have one in your area, George Ratliff’s documentary Hell House (2001) may serve as a nice stand-in.

What I find interesting is not so much that many of my students believe in hell. Polls have consistently shown that roughly 60% of Americans believe in hell—my students are, then, among a solid majority. What’s interesting is how important belief in hell is to them. Not just as an ever-present reality that threatens eternal damnation for the “lost,’ but for their own religious identities.

This became especially clear to me last year, when I taught Origen of Alexandria and Gregory of Nyssa in an introductory theology class. Both of these early Christian theologians taught a version of apocatastasis, the restoration of creation to its primordial condition at the end of history. Although the issue is exegetically and theologically complicated, apocatastasis seems to have meant, for both of these patristic thinkers, a belief in universal salvation: all things will eventually be redeemed, reunited with God who, in the end, will be all in all.

What punishment there is, is not so much punitive as purgative and restorative—a temporary means of purification that most will experience before achieving eternal bliss.

Having been taught all their lives that eternal torment is an essential element of Christian belief, my students were, to say the least, surprised at the presence of a universalist strand of thought in the theological tradition—especially coming from such theological heavyweights. What was most surprising to me, though, was their reaction to the teaching: any hint of universal salvation for them negated the whole point of Christianity.

In other words, without the threat of punishment and the promise of reward, Christianity seemed to them utterly pointless.

To paraphrase one of my students: why put one’s time and effort into something if it turns out okay for everyone in the end? Jesus may have said that the last will be first, but Paul liked to remind us that life is a fight or a race, and fights and races always involve winners and losers. “Run so as to win,” Paul tells the Corinthians, which also means that some will lose.

The constant threat of punishment, then, remains an essential, though often disavowed, supplement to grace: even though salvation is free one must still work hard to run the race well. It’s easy to be dismissive of such beliefs, to chalk them up to superstition. But such simplistic dismissals aren’t very helpful or interesting in the long run. I’m sure there are many reasons why hell lingers in the religious imaginary, and belief in hell is certainly overdetermined. But what I find interesting is the way in which belief in hell coincides with a key set of cultural assumptions.

Ludwig Feuerbach famously argued that religion is, essentially, anthropology: our religious ideas and ideals are projections of our human nature, writ large. “Thus God is nothing else than man: he is, so to speak, the outward projection of man’s inward nature,” he writes in The Essence of Christianity.

The same basic idea applies to all other religious ideas and ideals. Feuerbach’s understanding of religion is, of course, not without its problems, especially when it comes to his idealization of human nature. but it helps to explain why hell continues to exercise such a grip on religious identity. Although Feuerbach himself tended to stress the more positive elements of human nature and, by extension, religion, the same basic idea of projection applies equally as well to the more negative aspects of human nature or, better, culture.

To generalize a bit, our culture tends to give value to human life in terms of competition. Our economics, our politics, our educational system, even our entertainment found themselves upon—and, in turn, teach—the seemingly commonsense assumption that life is race or a game, the goal of which is to come out on top. 

We all, of course, hope to be among the winners, but let’s be honest: winning involves beating others. In order to win, individually or collectively, someone needs to lose. More importantly, it’s the prospect of winning, of beating others, that makes it all worthwhile in the first place. Without competition and its winners and losers, we imagine our labor would be in vain, which might be why talk of redistribution of wealth or equality of outcome is not a popular political position. There are no free rides, and that entails that some—perhaps most—are going to lose.

It’s really the same logic that my students advocated for against the tendency towards universalism in Origen of Alexandria and Gregory of Nyssa. I would suggest the reason they had so much trouble with the prospect of universal salvation had more to do with cultural assumptions rather than religious ones, as is often assumed. Or, said more accurately, hell is for them, like for many Americans, a projection of culture, what Feuerbach called “our inward nature.” This projection, in turn, gives a metaphysical stamp of approval to our cultural practices: there must be winners and losers here because there are winners and losers in the next life and vice versa. Otherwise, what’s the point.

Hell, then, is necessary, and to the extent that we value competition above all else, we perhaps show how much we still believe in hell, even the atheists among us.

In preaching a message of punishment, the hellfire and brimstone preachers of Judgement House like to think they are going against the grain of dominant cultural values. As it turns out, nothing could be further from the truth. 

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Hollis Phelps is Assistant Professor of Religion at Mount Olive College, Mount Olive, NC (USA). He is the author of Alain Badiou: Between Theology and Anti-theology (Acumen, 2013).