A couple of years ago, a Chicago-based corporate-identity consultant named Chris Herron gave himself the ultimate challenge: rebrand hell. It was half gag, half self-promotion, but Herron took the project seriously, considering what it would take in the travel market for a place like hell to become a premier destination. The client was the Hell Office of Travel and Tourism (HOTT), which supposedly hired Herron in the wake of a steady decline in visitors caused by “a stale and unfocused brand strategy.” After toying with some playfully sinful logos—the kind you might find on skater/goth products— Herron decided that what the locale needed to stay competitive in the afterlife industry was a complete brand overhaul. The new hell would feature no demons or devils, no tridents or lakes of fire. The brand name was rendered in lower-case, bubbly blue font, a wordmark designed to evoke “instant accessibility and comfort.” The slogan—which had evolved from “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here” (1819) to “When You’ve Been Bad, We’ve Got It Good” (1963) to “Give in to Temptation” (2001)—would be “Simply Heavenly.” The joke was posted as a “case study” on Herron’s personal website and quickly went viral in the marketing blogosphere—a testament to the power of effective branding.
I grew up in an evangelical community that wasn’t versed in these kinds of sales-pitch seductions. My family belonged to a dwindling Baptist congregation in southeast Michigan, where Sunday mornings involved listening to our pastor unabashedly preach something akin to the 1819 version of hell—a real diabolical place where sinners suffered for all eternity. In the late 1980s, when most kids my age were performing interpretive dances to “The Greatest Love of All” and receiving enough gold stars to fill a minor galaxy, my peers and I sat in Sunday school each week, memorizing scripture like 1 Peter 5:8: “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”
I was too young and sheltered to recognize this worldview as anachronistic. Even now as an adult, it’s difficult for me to hear biblical scholars like Elaine Pagels refer to Satan as “an antiquarian relic of a superstitious age,” or to come across an aside, in a magazine or newspaper article, that claims the Western world stopped believing in a literal hell during the Enlightenment. My parents often attributed chronic sins like alcoholism or adultery to “spiritual warfare,” (as in, “Let’s remember to pray for Larry, who’s struggling with spiritual warfare”) and taught me and my siblings that evil was a real force that was in all of us. Our dinner conversations sounded like something out of a Hawthorne novel.
According to Christian doctrine, all human beings, believers included, are sinners by nature. This essentially means that no one can get through life without committing at least one moral transgression. In the eleventh century, Saint Anselm of Canterbury defined original sin as “privation of the righteousness that every man ought to possess.” Although the “saved” are forgiven of their sins, they’re never cured. Even Paul the Apostle wrote, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.” According to this view, hell isn’t so much a penitentiary for degenerates as it is humanity’s default destination. But there’s a way out through accepting Christ’s atonement, which, in the Protestant tradition, involves saying the sinner’s prayer. For contemporary evangelicals, it’s solely this act that separates the sheep from the goats. I’ve heard more than one believer argue that Mother Teresa is in hell for not saying this prayer, while Jeffrey Dahmer, who supposedly accepted Christ weeks before his execution, is in heaven.