Hell or Something Like It

Hell—

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

oooh, yeah
(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.

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10 Comments

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  1. I think you’re right. Culture doesn’t want to talk about hell in reality. It’s far too depressing. If we’re depressed, we won’t buy, we won’t spend, we won’t party, we may become hermits or even worse…Go to church! That would be horrible for the enemy. I mean if Satan came up to us and told us to go to that party or reject God or whatever, and then he told us what hell was like…he’d lose his audience…he’d lose his sale. All salesmen talk up their product and make it seem like the best thing out there. He wants us to think heaven is full of pews of angels singing and that’s it Because we would think that’s boring. But how more exciting to live for instant gratification when hell isn’t really that big of a deal.

  2. I certainly agree with you. I think that so many people are not just scared of ultimate consequence for their actions, but are also uncomfortable with the idea of there being something bigger than themselves, becuase that means they are not in control like they want to think.

  3. The concept of Hell when you explore it is comical in the way that our culture looks at it. Christianity is rooted in Judaism who’s concept of Hell (Gehenna) is vastly different from what popular culture looks at it. (Ever hear of a Rabbi preaching “fire and brimstone”?) Many of the notions that Christianity gets about Hell and it’s likeness is branched in the Helenism. From the Greeks we get Hades and the Underworld. Fast forward several centuries later what most Renaissance artists used to portray as Hell on murals or write about in about Paradise Lost is coming from Dante’s Inferno. What if there is a Hell and just we can’t comprehend it or just really don’t know too much about it – all we know about it is that it sucks. One Buddhist said that what was probably a vision of Hell was people with stick arms that couldn’t bend were trying to fed themselves but couldn’t. But Heaven was a place with those same people with the same stick arms….just feeding each other. I do believe that there is one….just it doesn’t factor in any manner as to how I chose to behave or not. Is it another dimension or hyperreality?

    • I like that Buddhist idea of Hell. Personally, while I hated the movie, I thought the portrayal of hell in “What Dreams May Come” hit it dead on the head for me. It was the mental torture of being torn away from everything lovely and loved. Separated by everyone you loved. I was just reading on the Helenistic version of hell today or something to the faction. It is interesting that the way to create a fear of hell was to dramatize it as a place fury and fire when in fact the fear we should have is that fact we will be separated from the one who is the purest love possible. Now that’s scary.

  4. I think it’s easy to minimize hell when we minimize the Gospel. You hit on it a bit, Katie, when you talked about the fact that we don’t want to believe that we’re bad people, headed to an even worse place.

    In our pop-psychology culture, we all want to believe that we’re “good people” at heart. That as long as our intentions are “good” then it’s ok to do whatever we want. The truth is that we are born separated from God. We are born in sin and we are born TO sin. And we will remain separated from God in eternity – separated from love, from family, from community, from grace – if we continue to believe that we’re “good” all by ourselves. And, if we’re all basically “good” people, then we can’t imagine how a place like hell could exist for us. Certainly (we tell ourselves) a place like hell must exist – but only for people like Hitler or Manson or some child molester we see on the news.

    Not only that, but we make light of such a place with phrases like “funny as hell” or “on a cold day in hell”.

    But the apostle Paul addresses this kind of attitude in Romans 1 when he says that people suppress the truth to believe a lie. When we do that, God turns us over to the depravity of our own minds – so of course we can find a way to mock eternity and hell and separation from the One who made us and loves us.

    I taught our youth group for a few weeks at my old church last summer and we talked about the gospel and what it means. It was scary to hear their answers when I asked them 1. If everyone was good and 2. If everyone had the same value or worth. They all answered yes to the first question and no to the second. This is what our culture tells us – this is the lie we have marketed, sold and believed – and it is leading us by the hand, right down our own “highway to hell”.

  5. I just don’t think it’s possible to truly comprehend hell. Some can’t imagine God, the God of mercy and grace, really sending people to an eternal place of torture. Although, we see in the Old Testament God’s wrath, and it was harsh. Once Jesus came though, we don’t see the direct wrath of God. We only assume that his wrath has come on nations through events and storms, or through people’s lives when destruction comes.
    But I bet people in the Old Testament could understand the idea of hell much more than we can today. Many take for granted that ‘all you have to do is ask forgiveness and poof, all wrongs are forgiven.’ However, people do tend to forget that although God forgives everything, in no way does that mean you won’t ‘feel’ the consequences of your actions. So, ah ha!! Hell isn’t the wrath of God maybe. Maybe it’s the consequence ‘after-effect’, for a life not lived according to God’s word. Torture, physical or mental???? That’s a reality I really don’t want to know. I’m going the other way!! 🙂

  6. Tracy Jimmerson April 3, 2009 — 12:04 PM

    Very True! I love reading your blog. I cherish your heart! You remind me of when Paul wrote in Acts, “These who have turned the world upside down have come here also.”

    May God turn things upside down all around you as you present truth to this generation!

  7. I agree with your blog, and your take on the subject Kate. I think that people are scared of what happens to them after they die. I think that is why the notion of hell that permeates a lot of culture of “only the really bad people” are there. I think that people hope that you get into hell only if your a Hitler, and not a just a ______ (insert sin here). Also I think that people associate “good” with “boring,” and that’s why we get songs like that. People want to have fun, be the rebel, and they believe that the good side doesn’t present those options. If you have ever played a video game with a morality structure the good choices are always soooo boring, but the bad choices are great fun. I think people want to live towards a path of hell, and believe that if they don’t really want to be there then they can just go to heaven.

  8. I see the idea of hell as portrayed by these songs as a symptom of the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality, or conversely, people’s refusal to believe something we can’t see or that can’t be proven by our limited scientific means.

    I agree overwhelmingly about your observations about nobody wanting to think we’re bad people. I’m constantly amazed how most everyone will agree that “nobody’s perfect”, including ourselves, yet not consider that this very truth means we’re flawed. Especially in the church, if more of us operated under the mantra of being broken and needing Jesus constantly, even after giving our lives to him, we might find more of a connection and build more bridges to the people of this world who think hell doesn’t exist or aren’t afraid of it.

    Decent insights, keep’em coming!

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