What Good is Hell, Then?

Ron Reagan had a good interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air. I enjoyed hearing his perspective. One thing rankled me, though. When describing why he became an atheist, he said, “I didn’t need the threat of hell to make me a good person.”

Oh, please.

I know that if I were in his situation, giving an interview for a long period of time, I would say more than one or two boneheaded things. I’d say them even though I knew better. I am sure that, in his head, that statement made perfect sense. Perhaps it was shorthand for the argument that theists who derive their moral principles from an external source (like God) are less ethically advanced than atheists who have to rely on some kind of intrinsic morality. But even the most uneducated Biblical literalist would tear his statement apart at two points. First, hell isn’t a place reserved for bad people, and second, you aren’t necessarily a good person.

To be fair, Ron did go back and talk about hell as perhaps being a metaphor for hellish situations in this life. But the cartoonish way he drew hell is like dismissing hell because you don’t believe in a fiery place peopled with guys in red suits and pitchforks.

Hell is not about scaring people into being good. It is certainly used to create fear in some rhetorical situations, and I am sure there are those who believe in it and use it that way. But hell is a complex idea that comes from practical observations of real life. For example: a cabal of politicians in our state raided a fund that had been designated for prenatal care for poor women living the Black Belt. Hell is the word we use to describe their demonic abuse of power. When we actually encounter evil that seems to deserve the Old Testament wrath of God upon those who exploit widows, orphans, and aliens, we taste a little bit of hell. But as bad as the ex-Governor’s cronies are, Hell is also a concept that recognizes that we who elected them share in their sin. Hell is the recognition that we are all traveling in a hand basket together. And it does not seem that reason, well-intentioned people, or naive faith in the intrinsic goodness of human beings is enough to change our course. Hell is the recognition that all our efforts at creating utopia wind up creating dystopia. Hell is the recognition that Enlightenment-era faith in the power of humans to save themselves involves a willing blindness to things as basic as the slave trade, colonialism, and the destruction of native cultures. Incidentally, hell is very easy to dismiss when you live a comfortable upper-class American existence. For some reason, people who live in dire circumstances find it much easier to believe in hell.

In the Great Divorce, by C.S. Lewis, the theologians in hell argue that they are not, in fact, in hell. After all, they wouldn’t be in hell. This is a clever way of describing what evangelicals would point out to Ron – that you don’t go to hell for being bad. You go to hell for presuming to be good.

Doctrinally, I do not really know where I stand in terms of believing in hell. I love the imagery used in Zora Neal Hurston’s example of black preaching, of the damnation train  on a one-way track to hell, and all of us on board with no brakes and no way to slow down (like Jethro Tull’s Locomotive Breath?) until Jesus takes the hit from the cow-catcher and derails the engine. And we, like stunned passengers, limping from the passenger cars staring at the steaming wreckage, hear another bell summoning us to the salvation train. And at that point, by the grace of God, we have a choice of whether to trudge down the hell-bound track or get on board the salvation train, together with Curtis Mayfield and Bob Marley and all the other saints, making music all the way home.

Of course it is a metaphor. But I do not see any metaphor more descriptive of the ways we, communally or individually, gladly and cheerfully travel toward our own destruction. We joyfully go to war, oppress the poor, inebriate ourselves, exploit others sexually, indulge our petty hatreds, all the while convinced – convinced! –that our own little internal moral compass is true, that our reason can save us, and that our allegiances to economic ideologies, celebrity gods, and political parties are not idolatry. Our sin has consequences, for us and for others.

I think if you are to take evil seriously, then it will be difficult not to use the language of hell. Where you put it, who you put in it, and whether it is hot or cold is all up to you. One thing is certain, though: many who live there believe they are good.