Hell. Heck. Hades. Sam Hill. The Inferno. Aitch-ee-double-hockey-sticks.
If you’re like most Americans, you believe in it. And it’s not just Christians. The Pew Research Center reports that some percentage of followers of every religion — and a quarter of the non-religious — believe in Hell.
But what Hell means to these Americans isn’t always clear. It could be a view that hews to popular portrayals (brimstone, pitchforks) or it could be a great vast emptiness. It could be endless torture, or maybe it’s … nothing.
The very concept raises a lot of questions. Could a loving God impose an infinite punishment? Is it right to do good things if your motivation is only to avoid Hell? If there’s no punishment, then is there no cosmic justice? Or is the idea of Hell all a metaphor? We’ll deconstruct the arguments for the various interpretations and hear how the idea of Hell has shaped American history.
Some evangelicals (a group most likely to believe in Hell, according to Pew) are rethinking the idea of eternal punishment. As National Geographic reports, a debate is happening between those who believe in an afterlife of torment and those who believe the souls of those who do not enter Heaven will be destroyed.
“My prediction is that, even within conservative evangelical circles, the annihilation view of hell will be the dominant view in 10 or 15 years,” says Preston Sprinkle, who co-authored the book Erasing Hell, which, in 2011, debuted at number three on the New York Times bestseller list. “I base that on how many well-known pastors secretly hold that view. I think that we are at a time and place when there is a growing suspicion of adopting tradition for the sake of tradition.”
Meanwhile, NBC’s sitcom The Good Place brings thousands of Americans a weekly dose of philosophizing on the afterlife and ethics.
Hell is a popular concept. Though nobody is dying to get in.
Lisa Miller, Contributing editor, New York Magazine; author, Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife; @lisaxmiller
Tish Harrison Warren, Priest in the Anglican Church of North America; writer in residence, Church of the Ascension in Pittsburgh; @TishHWarren
Todd May, Professor of philosophy, Clemson University; philosophical consultant for “The Good Place”
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