According to the pop culture, there are two main ideas about hell. The first is that there is no such thing. The second is if there is such a place, then it must be fun and wild since the way to get there is fun and wild. That’s not to say that some segments of our current culture do not acknowledge hell as a place of human suffering. They do. But if art is the voice and reflection of culture, then the predominant schools of thought are the nonexistence of hell or the eternal wild party of fire.
Let’s dwell on the second thought on hell first. How can we see this thought reflected in culture? When I think of hell, several songs pop into mind: “Highway to Hell” by AC-DC, “The Gates of Hell” by Darby O’Gill & the Little People, “Running with the Devil” by Van Halen, and “Master of Puppets” by Metallica. “Highway to Hell” is the classic example of a fun life that comes with getting to hell.
Living easy, living free
Season ticket on a one-way ride
Asking nothing, leave me be
Taking everything in my stride
Don’t need reason, don’t need rhyme
Ain’t nothing I would rather do
Going down, party time
My friends are gonna be there too
I’m on the highway to hell
Hell doesn’t sound like something to be scared of does it? Why live by the rules and try to play fair if there is no real consequence in hell. Live it up, right? In fact, it reminds me of the Irish drinking toast: “Here’s to hell. Maybe the stay there be as fun as the way there.”
In “The Gates of Hell”, the same idea is presented though there does seem to be more regret in this song.
As I look back on the life I’ve had
I wonder was it all that bad
To land me in front of the gates of hell…
So come on boys, it’s not too late
To raise your glass and celebrate
I finally made it to the gates of hell
I was a bastard but I did it well
And now it’s time to ring those bells
And tell momma I’m at the gates of hell
“Running with the Devil” isn’t much different. Its core premise is glorifying his running with the devil.
I live my life like there’s no tomorrow
and all I’ve got, I had to steal
least I don’t need to beg or borrow
yes I’m livin’ at a pace that kills
(ahh!) runnin’ with the devil (ahh-hah! yeah!)
(woo-hoo-oo!) runnin’ with the devil
I’m gonna tell ya all about it
“Master of Puppets” flat out says hell is worth all the pain.
Hell is worth all that, natural habitat
Music isn’t the only culprit in our culture minimizing hell’s domain. There are a few TV shows and movies that make hell look cool or just plain ridiculous. South Park did a hell parody where Satan sings a melancholy song about longing to be “Up There”. While completely ridiculous and satirical, it made Satan this sort of fictitious, sympathetic character.
In the movie Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny (as well as in their live show), hell is this rock n roll mecca and Satan a rock god. Satan seems evil but easily defeated. Hell at first is cool and slick but not eternal.
Bedazzled makes hell look very slick. Elizabeth Hurley plays the devil and convinces Brendan Fraser to sign over his soul. They meet in her “office”. There’s no fire. No brimstone. It’s as sleek and sexy as her. Not frightening at all.
What’s interesting is that there isn’t much in our pop culture that speaks directly about hell or Satan. There are many movies, TV shows and music on heaven and death, but not much on the opposite. The bible talks about hell 53 times. The culture… not so much. And when it does, it trivializes it. Why is that? Here’s my theory.
I think the culture is afraid of what lies in the afterlife especially if it isn’t positive. We don’t want to think that we are bad people who are going to spend eternity in a bad place. If there is no hell, then there is no eternal consequence for our actions. There may be temporary ones, but those are far more manageable than everlasting punishment. And if there is a hell, then it’s easier to deal with today and be self focused when hell looks like an all-nighter party. There’s no fear in that or shame. Not many of us ever feel afraid about going to a party and most of us only feel shame the morning after.
If you have been to those types of parties, you know that after a while they start to suck. Someone throws up or starts a fight and inevitably there is drama. To top it off, a killer hangover usually accompanies you the next day. I write all that to say… hell can’t be that great or like that at all. There isn’t a morning after.
I think hell is too unsettling and scary for most, because it means we have to deal with our own souls in a seriously reflective manner. Hell makes choose what we believe with certainty. If there is a place of eternal damnation, then how do we escape it? There is no room for pluralism. No room for indecisive. So in a culture when nothing seems real or certain or dependable, it’s easier to believe that there is no hell or that hell is minimal. It’s easier than wrestle within and trying to find the answers from a higher power.