Listen to an audio version of this essay:
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.”1
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.
I got saved when I was five years old. I have no memory of my conversion, but apparently my mom led me through the prayer, which involves confessing that you are a sinner and inviting Jesus into your heart. She might have told me about hell that night, or maybe I already knew it existed. Having a frank family talk about eternity was seen as a responsibility not unlike warning your kids about drugs or unprotected sex. It was uncomfortable, but preferable to the possible consequences of not doing so. Many Protestants believe that once a person is saved, it’s impossible for her to lose her eternal security—even if she renounces her faith—so there’s an urgency to catch kids before they start to ask questions. Most of the kids I grew up with were saved before they’d lost their baby teeth.
For those who’d managed to slip between the cracks, the scare tactics started in earnest around middle school. The most memorable was Without Reservation, a thirty-minute video that I was lucky enough to see at least half a dozen times over the course of my teens. The film (which begins with the disclaimer: “The following is an abstract representation of actual events and realities”) has both the production quality and the setup of a driver’s ed video: five teens are driving home from a party, after much merrymaking, when their car gets broadsided by a semi. There’s a brief montage of sirens and police radio voice-overs. Then it cuts to four of the kids, Bill, Ken, John and Mary, waking up in the car, which is mysteriously suspended in space. Below them is a line hundreds of people long, leading up to a man with white hair, stationed behind a giant IBM. When a person reaches the front of the line, this man (who’s probably supposed to be God or St. Peter, but looks uncannily like Bob Barker) types the person’s name into a DOS-like database, bringing up their photo, cause of death, and one of two messages: “Reservation Confirmed,” or “Reservation Not Confirmed.” He then instructs them to step to either the left or the right.
At this point, it’s pretty clear that this isn’t a film about the dangers of operating under the influence. The kids begin to realize that they’re dead. One of them, Bill, a Christian, uneasily explains to the others that what they’re seeing is a judgment line, at which point Mary loses it, shaking uncontrollably and sobbing “I want to go back! Why can’t we all just go back!” The rest of the film consists of a long sequence showing their memorial service, back on earth, where some kind of school administrator speaks in secular platitudes about death being a place of safety and peace—a eulogy that is inter-spliced with shots of Ken, John and Mary learning that their reservation is “not confirmed,” then being led down a red-lit hall and violently pushed into caged elevators. The last shot of them is in these cells—Mary curled in the fetal position, Ken and John pounding on the chain-link walls—as they descend into darkness. There’s a little vignette at the end in which the fifth, surviving, passenger gets saved in the school cafeteria, but by that point I was always too shell-shocked to find it redemptive.
It’s difficult to overstate the effect this film had on my adolescent psyche. Lying in bed at night, I replayed the elevator scene over and over in my head, imagining what fate lay in store for those kids and torturing myself with the possibility that I might be one of the unconfirmed. What if I had missed a crucial part of the prayer? Or what if God’s computer got some kind of celestial virus and my name was erased? When you get saved young, when you have no life transformation—no rugged past to turn from—the prayer itself carries real power, like a hex.2
This anxiety was exacerbated by the fact that, around junior high, youth leaders began urging us to “re-invite” Christ into our lives. They insinuated that those of us who had been saved early might not have actually been saved— particularly if we were just repeating obediently after our parents. Some said the childhood prayers had been provisional, a safety net until we reached the age of accountability (traditionally believed to be twelve). Apparently, the words weren’t enough—you had to mean them, and, at least to some extent, you had to live them. Good works couldn’t get you into heaven, but if your life showed no sign of the Holy Spirit working in you, then this was a pretty good hint that you might not have been completely genuine when you asked Jesus into your life.
One of the most obvious ways of living your faith was through evangelism. I recently re-watched Without Reservation and realized that, as a kid, I’d totally missed the intended message. The film was not a scare tactic meant to trick teens into becoming Christians; it was very clearly designed for the already-saved, a dramatized pep talk urging us to get the word out about hell to our non-Christian friends. The most dramatic sequence of the film (apart from the elevators) is when John, before being carried off to hell, asks Bill, the believer, why he never said anything about eternal damnation. “We rode home from practice together every day,” he pleads. “We talked about a lot of stuff, but we never talked about this.” Bill can only offer feeble excuses like “I thought you weren’t interested!” and “I thought there was more time!”
That this message never got across to me might have had something to do with the fact that, as a homeschooled junior-high student, I actually didn’t know any unbelievers. In my mind, the “lost” consisted of a motley minority of animal-worshipping tribesmen, Michael Jackson, Madonna, and our Catholic neighbors. It wasn’t until I started going to public high school that I began to feel a gnawing guilt, spurred by the occasional realization that my evolution-touting biology teacher, or the girl who sat next to me in study hall reading The Satanic Bible, was going to spend eternity suffering. Despite this, I never got up the courage to share my faith. Part of it was a lack of personal conviction. But I was also becoming aware that the gospel message—which depends on convincing a person he’s a sinner in need of God’s grace—sounded seriously offensive and self-righteous. Our pastor always said that we needed to speak about hell in a spirit of love, but he clearly didn’t know what it was like to be a teenager in the 1990s. I went to a high school that didn’t publish the honor roll for fear of hurting those who weren’t on it. The most popular yearbook quote among my graduating class was Tupac’s “Only God can judge me.” And most of those kids didn’t even believe in God.
In retrospect, Without Reservation looks to me like a last-ditch effort, one of the church’s final attempts to convince the emerging generation of the need to speak candidly about eternity. Over the course of my teenage years, Christians began to slip into awkward reticence about the doctrine of damnation. Believers still talked about the afterlife, but the language was increasingly euphemistic and vague. People who rejected Jesus were “eternally separated from God.” We were saved not from an infinity of torment, but from “the bondage of sin.” Back then, nobody in ministry had the hubris—nor, probably, the sophistication—to rebrand hell à la Chris Herron. Rather, hell was relegated to the margins of the gospel message, the fine print on the eternal-life warranty.
In the King James Bible, the English word “hell” serves as the translation of four different Greek and Hebrew terms. The Old Testament refers exclusively to Sheol, the traditional Hebrew underworld, a place of stillness in which both the righteous and the unrighteous wander in shadows. There’s no fiery torment, no wailing or gnashing of teeth. The devil had not yet been invented (though Satan, a trickster angel with whom he would later be conflated, pops up now and then). Sinners seem remarkably off the hook—so much so that Job laments that the wicked “spend their days in prosperity and in peace they go down to Sheol.” For many of these writers, the word simply denotes its literal translation, “grave,” or unconscious death. The psalmist prays, “For in death there is no remembrance of thee: in Sheol who shall give thee thanks?”
In the New Testament, several writers refer to this place under its Greek name, Hades. There’s also a number of passages about Gehenna, literally “the Valley of Hinnom,” which was a real area outside Jerusalem that served as the city dump. Fires burned there constantly, to incinerate the garbage; it was also a place where the bodies of criminals were burned. The Jewish rabbinical tradition envisioned Gehenna as a purgatorial place of atonement for the ungodly. This is the word Jesus uses when he gives the hyperbolic command that one should cut off the hand that is causing one to sin: “It is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into Gehenna, into the fire that never shall be quenched.” Another Greek term, Tartarus, appears only once, when the author of 1 Peter writes about the angel rebellion that took place before the creation of the world. Drawing from the Greek myth of the Olympians overthrowing the Titans, he relays how Lucifer and his allies were cast out of heaven into Tartarus. In the Aeneid, Virgil describes Tartarus as a place of torment guarded by the Hydra and surrounded by a river of fire to prevent the escape of condemned souls. Except in the 1 Peter version, there are no human souls there, just bad angels.
The most dramatic descriptions of hell come from the strain of apocalyptic literature that runs through the New Testament, as well as the Old Testament prophets. Apocalypticism was a worldview that arose during the sixth century BCE, when Israel was under Syrian domination. It involved the belief that the present era, which was ruled by evil, would soon give way to a new age here on earth in which God would restore justice and all evildoers would be punished. The authors of Daniel and Ezekiel were apocalyptists—so was John of Patmos, the author of Revelation. It’s these authors who provide us with passages such as, “They will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever.” This was a belief system born out of persecution. The Book of Daniel was written in response to the oppressive monarch Antiochus Epiphanes; the Book of Revelation came about during the rule of Domitian, who had Christians burned, crucified and fed to wild animals. As Nietzsche noted in The Genealogy of Morals, these passages are essentially revenge fantasies, written by people who’d suffered horrible injustices and had no hope of retribution in this life. In fact, many of the fantastical beasts that populate these books were meant to represent contemporary rulers like Nero or Antiochus.
I didn’t learn any of this at church. As a kid, it never occurred to me that Solomon and Daniel had drastically different views about the afterlife. Christian theology, as it has developed over the centuries, has functioned like a narrative gloss, smoothing the irregular collection of biblical literature into a cohesive story written by a single, divine author. Secular scholars refer to this as “the myth,” the story that depicts all of human history as an epic of redemption. Paul came up with the idea of original sin, transforming the Crucifixion into a voluntary sacrifice that brought salvation to the world. Drawing from his background as a Pharisee, he connected Hebrew scripture to the life of Christ. Just as sin entered the world through one man, Adam, so can the world be redeemed by the death of one man. As time went on, Satan, Lucifer and Beelzebub were consolidated into a single entity, the personification of all evil. Likewise Sheol, Gehenna, Hades and Tartarus came to be understood as physical representations of the darkest place in the universe. By the time the King James Bible was published in the sixteenth century, each of these words was translated as simply “hell.”
The various depictions of hell over the centuries tend to mirror the earthly landscape of their age. Torture entered the conception of hell in the second century, when Christians were subjected to sadistic public spectacles. Roman interrogation methods included red-hot metal rods, whips and the rack—a contraption that distended limbs from their joints. The non-canonical Apocalypse of Peter, a product of this era, features a fierce and sadistic hell in which people are blinded by fire and mangled by wild beasts. Dante’s Divine Comedy has traces of the feudal landscape of fourteenth-century Europe. Lower hell is depicted as a walled city with towers, ramparts, bridges and moats; fallen angels guard the citadel like knights. The Jesuits, who rose to prominence during a time of mass immigration and urban squalor, envisioned an inferno of thousands of diseased bodies “pressed together like grapes in a wine-press.” It was a claustrophobic hell without latrines, and part of the torture was the human stench.
Today, biblical literalists believe hell exists outside of time and space, in some kind of spiritual fifth dimension. Contemporary evangelical churches don’t display paintings or stained glass renderings of hell. It’s no longer a popular subject of art. If hell is represented at all, it’s in pop culture, where it appears as either satirically gaudy—like animated Hieronymus Bosch—or else eerily banal. In The Far Side, Satan and his minions are depicted as bored corporate drones who deal with the scourge of the post-industrial earth. (“There’s an insurance salesman here,” Satan’s secretary says. “Should I admit him or tell him to go to Heaven?”) One of the most popular diabolical archetypes in recent years has been the effete Satan. He shows up in episodes of The Simpsons and appears in Tenacious D videos, whining about the fine print of the Demon Code. He makes cameos in South Park, where he’s usually involved in petty domestic squabbles with his boyfriend, Saddam Hussein. Satan has become an unwelcome nuisance, an impotent archetype occasionally dragged out for a good laugh. In an episode of Saturday Night Live from 1998, Garth Brooks plays a struggling musician who tries to sell his soul to the devil for a hit song, only to find that Satan (Will Ferrell) is an even more pathetic songwriter than he. When Satan finally gives up and asks if he can leave, Garth shows him out and tells him to lock the door behind him.
Although the sermons of my childhood were often set against the backdrop of hell, I wasn’t introduced to the theological doctrine of damnation until I enrolled at Moody Bible Institute at the age of eighteen. Known within evangelical circles as the “West Point of Christian service,” Moody is one of the most conservative Christian colleges in the country. When I was there, students weren’t allowed to dance, watch movies or be alone in a room with a member of the opposite sex. The campus was downtown, occupying a purgatorial no man’s land between the luxurious Gold Coast and the Cabrini-Green housing projects, but most of the students rarely left campus. The buildings were connected by subterranean tunnels, so it was possible to spend months, particularly in the winter, going from class to the dining hall to the dorms, without ever stepping outside. We spent our free time quizzing one another on Greek homework, debating predestination over soft-serve ice cream at the Student Center, and occasionally indulging in some doctrinal humor (Q: What do you call an Arminian whale? A: Free Willy).
Ideologically, Moody is a peculiar place. Despite the atmosphere of serious scholarship, the institute is theologically conservative, meaning that we studied scripture not as a historic artifact, but as the Word of God. Most of the professors thought the world was created in six days. Nearly all of them believed in a literal hell. One of the most invidious tasks of the conservative theologian is to explain how a loving God can allow people to suffer for all of eternity. God is omnipotent and Paul claims it is his divine will that all people should be saved—yet hell exists. Before taking freshman Systematic Theology, I’d never given this problem much thought, but once I considered it, it seemed pretty significant. In layman’s terms, the argument our professors gave us went something like this: God is holy by nature and cannot allow sin into his presence (i.e. into heaven). He loves all humans—in fact, he loves them so much that he gave them free will, so that they could choose to refuse salvation. In this way, people essentially condemned themselves to hell. God wasn’t standing over the lake of fire, laughing uproariously while casting souls into the flames. Hell was simply the dark side of the universe, the yin to God’s yang, something that must exist for there to be universal justice.3
There were still a number of problems with this formulation, but for the most part I was willing to suspend my disbelief and trust that God’s ways were higher than my own. What bothered me was the numbers. Freshman year, every student was required to take a seminar called Christian Missions. It was basically a history of international evangelism, taught by Dr. Elizabeth Lightbody, a six-foot-three retired missionary to the Philippines who sported a topiary of gray-blonde curls, wore brightly colored wool suits and smiled so incessantly it seemed almost maniacal. During the first week of class, we watched a video that claimed there were currently 2.8 billion people among “the unreached”—that is, people who had never heard the gospel. Dr. Lightbody, like the rest of the faculty, adhered to exclusivism, the belief that only those with faith in Jesus Christ can be saved (as opposed to pluralism, the belief that people of all religions will be saved, regardless of the name they use for God). Jesus said that “no man comes to the Father, but by me,” and we had to take this word for word as the truth, meaning it included those who had no idea who Jesus was.4 Technically, I’d known this since I was a kid (after all, if the unreached could get to heaven some other way, what would be the point of sending missionaries?), but I’d never paused to consider the implications. If you took into consideration all the people who’d ever lived—including those centuries upon centuries when entire continents were cut off from the spread of Christianity—then the vast majority of humanity was going to spend eternity in hell.
I tried to feel out other students to see if anyone else was having similar thoughts, but it was a dangerous subject. Our communal language was so rigid and coded that there was very little vocabulary with which to express doubt. I had to frame my questions as technical doctrinal queries, or else pretend I was seeking evangelism advice (e.g. “Say an unbeliever were to ask you to defend the existence of hell…”). One evening, in the cafeteria, I suggested that it seemed kind of unfair that people were going to suffer for eternity simply because we believers hadn’t managed to bring them the good news. On this point, I got nothing more than a thoughtful nod or a somber “hmm.” A few students gave me knowing smiles and little shoulder squeezes, as though I was in the midst of some revelatory spiritual experience that would lead me to the mission field.
On Friday nights, I went down to Michigan Avenue with a dozen other students to do street evangelism. Our team leader was Zeb, a lanky, pimpled Missions major who probably would have been into LARPing or vampirism if he weren’t a Christian. Instead, he memorized Luther and Zwingli and made vivid chalk drawings illustrating the plan of salvation, all of which made him kind of popular on campus. We’d set up an easel in front of Banana Republic, and Zeb would draw the abyss that lies between mankind and God, which can only be bridged by the cross, telling the story of redemption as he drew. The rest of us handed out tracts to tourists and businesspeople. We usually drew a small crowd—mostly men who were waiting for their wives to finish shopping and seemed to view us as a zany sideshow. It wasn’t one of those vicious “turn or burn” productions, but Zeb’s chalk narrative referred to sin and repentance, and the tracts, which had the reasonable title “How to Become a Christian,” mentioned hell only once or twice. These terms were the water we swam in, but out on the street, against the softly lit backdrop of window displays, they sounded ancient and fierce.
I knew how ridiculous we looked. These people already knew who Jesus was. They’d grown up watching Jerry Falwell spaz out on TV, or sneering at Ned Flanders on The Simpsons. They didn’t know all the theological reasons why God was good, and would probably never give us the time of day to explain them. We were speaking a foreign language. In a just world, they wouldn’t be held accountable for their refusal of the gospel any more than an unreached person who followed his culture’s belief in ancestral worship. When Zeb gave the call to come forward and find forgiveness in Jesus Christ, our audience awkwardly glanced at their watches, put their headphones back on, or yawned.
While I was attending Moody, the most controversial church in the Chicago area was Willow Creek Community Church, out in the northwest suburbs. I’d heard students raving about it—and others railing against it—ever since orientation week. It was popular amongst the Pastoral, Youth Ministry and Sports Ministry majors. The critics were mostly in the theology department. Willow Creek’s pastor, Bill Hybels, was a well-known author and something of a celebrity in the evangelical world, but the big draw was apparently the size of the church. There was a $73 million “Worship Center,” a food court and a parking lot worthy of an international airport. Every Sunday morning, a school bus would pull up to the Moody campus and dozens of students would climb on board to be bused out to South Barrington for the 9 a.m. service. I had been attending a fledgling Baptist church in Uptown that year, and when I got back to the school cafeteria on Sunday afternoons I was routinely confronted with students fresh off the Willow Creek bus, all of whom were visibly charged, as though they’d just gotten back from a rock concert. One blustery Sunday morning in February, as I was walking to the “L” station to catch the train to Uptown, faced with the prospect of another 65-minute sermon about gratitude or long-suffering, I found myself suddenly veering across the campus to get on the Willow Creek bus.
I’d always associated megachurches with televangelists, those bottle-tanned preachers with Southern accents who addressed the cameras from palatial churches with fountains out front. Willow Creek was different. The Worship Center seated 7,000 people, but it was sleek and spare, more convention hall than cathedral. Hybels preached in a simple oxford shirt, and his charisma was muted, reminiscent of the gentle authority assumed by dentists and family physicians. The sermon was based in scripture. At first, it just seemed like the traditional gospel set to a brighter tempo. According to Hybels, God’s love was not an unearned gift granted to sinners, but proof that we mattered on a cosmic scale. Our primary fault was not our sinful nature, but our tendency to think too little of ourselves. We needed to expand our vision, to stop doubting that we could do amazing things for God. It took me several more visits, over the following few months, before I was able to put my finger on what was off. One Sunday, as I was riding back on the bus, staring out at the mirror-plated corporate headquarters along the freeway, I realized that I couldn’t recall anyone at Willow Creek ever mentioning sin, repentance or confession. I never once heard a reference to hell.
I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but Willow Creek was on the front lines of a movement some described as a “second Reformation,” with the potential to remake the Christian faith. Hybels was one of a handful of pastors—including, most notably, Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in California (author of The Purpose Driven Life)—who pioneered what would become known as the “seeker-friendly church,” a congregation targeting the vast population of Americans who had little to no experience with Christianity (“unchurched Harry and Mary,” in ministry lingo). The goal was to figure out why this demographic was turned off by the gospel, and then to create a worship service that responded to their perceived needs.
Essentially, this is consumer-based management.5 During Willow Creek’s inception, Hybels—who studied business before entering the ministry—performed preliminary market research, surveying the unreligious in his community to find out why people weren’t going to church. Unsurprisingly, the most common responses were “church is boring,” “I don’t like being preached down to” and “it makes me feel guilty.” Harry and Mary were made uncomfortable by overt religious symbolism and archaic language. They didn’t like being bombarded by welcome committees. The solution was a more positive message: upbeat tunes, an emphasis on love and acceptance. There would be respect for anonymity—visitors wouldn’t be required to wear name tags or stand up and introduce themselves. Everything was designed for the visitor’s comfort and leisure.
It goes without saying that pastors who are trying to “sell” God won’t mention hell any more than a Gap ad will call attention to child labor. Under the new business model, hell became the meatpacking plant, the sweatshop, the behind-the-scenes horror the consumer doesn’t want to know about. Once I became aware of what was missing, it was almost a game to watch the ministers try to maneuver around the elephant in the room. One strategy was to place the focus exclusively on heaven, letting people mentally fill in the blank about the alternative. Another was to use contemporary, watered-down translations of the Bible, like The Message (reviled around Moody’s theology department, where it was better known as “The Mess”).
Some Moody students accused Hybels of being a Universalist—a charge lodged against Rick Warren as well, based on his refusal to mention the h-word. But away from the pulpit, these ministers were surprisingly traditional. In his book Honest to God? Hybels writes, “I hate thinking about it, teaching about it, and writing about it. But the plain truth is that hell is real and real people go there for eternity.” Warren admitted essentially the same thing when pressed in an interview: “I believe in a literal hell. Jesus believed in a literal hell. And once you’re in, you can’t get out.” This raises the obvious question: How ethical is it to stand up each week before an audience who you believe are going to suffer for all of eternity, and not talk about hell because you “hate thinking about it,” or are afraid people will be offended?
At the same time, I realized that Hybels and Warren were responding to the problem we’d noticed down on Michigan Avenue. Most of my friends at Moody disagreed with their approach, but our only other option was to be the ranting voice in the wilderness. It was a hopeless effort, and we all knew it. People looked at our street evangelism team like we were Jesus freaks. (In fact, a number of passersby felt compelled to say as much.) Every Friday night, we’d ride back to campus on the subway in silence, each of us staring slack-faced at the crowd of people hooked up to MP3 players and engrossed in fashion magazines. Many of my friends were planning to leave the States after graduation to become missionaries to the developing world. Apparently it was easier to convince people of the existence of hell and the need for salvation in places like Uganda and Cambodia, where the human capacity for evil was more than an abstraction. Zeb was planning to go to Albania after graduation to plant churches, though he said he worried this was taking the easy way out, like Jonah jumping the boat to Tarsus to avoid bringing the news to the more affluent Nineveh. He said the U.S. had become so rich and powerful we’d forgotten our need for divine grace.
I started my sophomore year at Moody in September 2001. On the morning of the 11th, I’d overslept and woke up to my roommate—a soprano in the women’s choir—shrieking that we’d been “bombed.” There was one television in my dorm, on the second floor, and I made it down there to find the entire female student body crowded around it, watching the footage in silence. An hour later, we were filing into the eeriest chapel service of all time. The overhead lights were off and the television footage was projected onto a large screen at the front of the auditorium. The school president announced that instead of the regular session, we were going to hold a prayer hour, so we split off into circles, holding hands and whispering in the dark, beneath the muted apocalyptic footage. Nobody knew what to say. We were Bible school students—the closest thing to professional pray-ers out there—and yet people stumbled over common phrases and veered into awkward anachronisms like “keep us from evil” and “bestow thy grace.” When it was my turn, I squeezed the hand of the girl next to me, signaling for her to go ahead. After the service, they turned the sound back on, but it seemed like the newscasters were just as dumbstruck as we were.
Once the initial shock wore off, you could sense people groping around the cultural junk drawer for appropriate terminology. Newscasters and witnesses referred to Ground Zero as an “inferno” and “hell on earth.” In his address to the nation, George W. Bush said, “Today, our nation saw evil.” It was a rhetorical choice designed “deliberately to seek an antique religious aura,” as a writer for the New York Times noted. Biblical prophecy was revived by conspiracy theorists who tried to prove that the disaster was predicted in the Book of Daniel, or who claimed that the architect of the Twin Towers resided at 666 5th Avenue. A handful of people said they saw the face of Satan in the smoke billowing out of the World Trade Center. Very quickly, a makeshift theology of good and evil was patched together. The terrorists were “evildoers” who, as Colin Powell put it, were “conducting war against civilized people.”
Evangelicals responded with similar vitriol. Billy Graham called the acts “twisted diabolical schemes,” and the Church of the Open Door’s David Johnson preached from the Book of Revelation, insinuating that the terrorists were a “demonic force in the earth.” Around Moody, our professors and administrators kept talking about how the pilots must have been surprised when they woke up expecting to be welcomed by Allah and instead found themselves face-to-face with Jesus and the prospect of eternal suffering. This was said with a belabored sigh that often concealed, I suspected, a note of vindictive satisfaction.
That Sunday, Willow Creek was one of many American churches filled to the brim with newcomers. The Moody bus arrived a little late for the morning service, and we ended up sitting in the uppermost balcony, looking down at the crowd of people seeking spiritual comfort. I was eager to see how Bill Hybels would handle the event—whether he would demonize the enemy or invoke safe platitudes about the brevity of life. As it turned out, he did something completely different. One of the biggest lessons of the past week, he began by saying, was that “evil is alive and well.” It was the first time I’d heard the word from his pulpit.
Hybels then did something even more unexpected. He proposed that the evil we’d experienced was not limited to the men who flew the planes. He alluded to the terrorists’ accomplices and the people in other countries who were shown celebrating the tragedy. Those actions were evil as well, he said. He talked about the gas station owners who’d tripled their prices to capitalize on the hysteria and the people who attacked Arab Americans out of rage. At this point, the audience hummed in collective disapproval.
The pastor paused for a moment, and then said, “Let’s bring it close to home—what about the evil in me? Because boy, I felt it this week.” Hybels then described his own anger when he was watching the news footage, his immediate craving for revenge. “What is it in us that makes some of us want others to pay a hundred times over for the wrong done to us?” he asked. “Well, that would be evil, and I felt it in me. Did you feel it in you?” With regard to the military response, he argued that Jesus’s teaching to not repay evil with evil was just as relevant at a national level. Think about the retaliation that happened all over the world, he said: How was that working out for Sudan? How was it working out for Northern Ireland? The vindictive rage we felt watching the attacks from our kitchen televisions was the same emotion that was creating hell all over the world.
I hadn’t felt that rage myself—not because of virtue or self-discipline, but because I was too immature to grasp the full scope of what had happened. It all seemed removed, cinematic. But I did know the feeling he was talking about. It was the same thing I felt when our evangelism team got called Bible-thumpers and Jesus freaks.
I don’t know what prompted Hybels to diverge from the market-tested optimism that day, but it was a powerful sermon—people at Moody were talking about it all week. In fact, in a study on the evangelical response to 9/11, this sermon was cited as the only one that questioned the compatibility of military action with Jesus’s command to love one’s neighbor. The pacifism of the political Left seemed inert and self-flagellating by comparison. Their hesitance to condemn the terrorists, the insistence on the passive voice when describing what had happened, often made it seem as though the attacks had been an act of God, divine punishment for Western imperialism. That Sunday was the only time that someone had asked me to examine myself and my response to the attacks without dismissing their severity, or the reality of the human intention behind them. The next Sunday, Hybels preached a message entitled “Religion Gone Awry,” about how the backlash against American Muslims ran counter to Christian principles. The following week, he invited Imam Faisal Hammouda to speak at the Sunday service, giving the congregation the opportunity to exercise “discernment” in understanding Islam.
One of the most perplexing things about 9/11, for me, was how swiftly the event congealed in and then dissipated from the national consciousness. Half a century ago, when Roosevelt addressed the country after Pearl Harbor, he underscored the severity of the offense by declaring that the nation would not forget it: “Always will we remember the character of the onslaught against us … There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory and our interests are in grave danger.” Since then, it seems we’ve come to see prolonged meditation on this kind of horror as a sign of weakness and a threat to the market. Less than two months after the attacks, Bush noted with pride, “People are going about their daily lives, working and shopping and playing, worshipping at churches and synagogues and mosques, going to movies and to baseball games.”
Willow Creek soon got back to business as usual as well, mostly due to the huge backlash against Hybels’s decision to “share his pulpit” (as his critics phrased it) with an imam. Apparently the honeymoon was over. People began to find tolerance tedious. Although Hybels didn’t apologize for his decision to bring in the imam, he seemed, like any good CEO, to take note of the negative response. In the first sermon of 2002, he encouraged us to put the past year’s events behind us and adopt, instead, “an optimistic hope-filled attitude for the year.” It was the first message of a sermon series that included titles such as “Wellness,” “Family” and “Surviving a Financial Storm.” In the end, his radical sermons about collective evil turned out to be aberrational—like many noble acts inspired by the tragedy and then quickly forgotten.
At the time, I didn’t appreciate just how radical Hybels’s 9/11 sermon was. In speaking about his own capacity for revenge and hatred, he had opened up a possibility, a way of talking about evil that felt relevant and transformative. It wasn’t fire and brimstone; it wasn’t condemning the sinner as some degenerate Other. Rather, he was challenging his congregation to exercise empathy in a way that Jesus might have, suggesting that he among us without sin should cast the first stone.
Back at Moody, though, I was still staying up late at night, thinking about all those people who would suffer for eternity for never hearing the gospel. By the end of the semester, the problem of hell had begun to seriously unsettle my faith—so much so that I had lost the ability to perform the basic rites. When I stood in chapel with my classmates, I was unable to sing along to the hymns in praise of God’s goodness; and when we bowed our heads to pray, I pantomimed that act of supplication. I left Moody the summer after my sophomore year and took a volunteer position with some missionaries in Ecuador, which was just an elaborate escape plan—a way to get away from Moody and my parents. Three months into the commitment, I moved to a town in the south of the country where I didn’t know anyone and got a job teaching ESL. I ditched my study Bible at a hostel book exchange and stopped going to church entirely.
But people who’ve gotten that far into the faith never totally shake it. To be a former believer is to perpetually return to the scene of the crime. It’s been ten years since I left Moody, and I still find myself stalling on the Christian radio station to hear a call-in debate, or lurking around the religion section of chain bookstores, perusing the titles on the Christianity shelves like a porn addict sneaking a glance at a Victoria’s Secret catalog.
In the spring of 2011, I was browsing through a crowded airport newsstand when I glimpsed an issue of Time with the headline “What If There’s No Hell?” The subhead elaborated, “A popular pastor’s best-selling book has stirred fierce debate about sin, salvation, and judgment.” The book in question was the modestly titled Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who’s Ever Lived, and the pastor, it turned out, was Rob Bell. Back when I was at Moody, Bell was known primarily as the pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan—one of the more groundbreaking “seeker churches” in the Midwest. If Hybels was the entrepreneur of the seeker movement, Bell was its rock star. He wears hipster glasses and black skinny jeans and looks strikingly like Bono, if you can imagine the laconic machismo replaced with a kind of nerdy alacrity. Most of Bell’s congregants were Gen Xers who had difficulty with the Bible’s passages about absolute truth, certainty and judgment. His first book, Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith (2005), was purportedly aimed at people who are “fascinated with Jesus but can’t do the standard Christian package.”
I found a copy of Bell’s new book at that same airport and blew through it during my three-hour flight to Michigan. It was a light read. Bell lineates his prose like a free-verse poem, and roughly half the sentences are interrogative, a rhetorical style that seems designed to dampen the incendiary nature of his actual argument. He does not, as the Time headline suggests, make a case against the existence of hell. Rather, he argues that hell is a refining process by which all of the sins of the world, but not the sinners, are burned away. Those who are in hell are given endless chances throughout eternity to accept God’s free gift of salvation and, because this gift is so irresistibly good, hell will eventually be emptied and collapse. Essentially, this is universal reconciliation—the idea that all people will be saved regardless of what they believe or how they conduct themselves on earth.
Love Wins created an uproar in the evangelical community. Zondervan (basically the Random House of Christian publishing), which had published Bell’s previous books, dropped him upon reading the proposal, stating that the project didn’t fit with their mission. After it was published, Albert Mohler, Jr., a prominent reformed pastor, called the book “theologically disastrous” and conservative John Piper tweeted “Farewell Rob Bell,” as if to excommunicate him from the fold. Closer to home, Bell watched as thousands of his congregants left Mars Hill in protest. At the same time, a lot of evangelicals who seemed to have been harboring a private faith in universal reconciliation came out of the woodwork and defended the book. And in the secular media, the theology of Love Wins was lauded as the radical conception of a visionary. Bell was the subject of a long profile in the New Yorker, and Time named him one of the most influential people in the world. “Wielding music, videos and a Starbucks sensibility,” the magazine wrote, “Bell is at the forefront of a rethinking of Christianity in America.”
“Rethinking” is not as accurate as “rebranding.” Throughout Love Wins, it’s obvious that Bell is less interested in theological inquiry than he is in PR. At one point in the book, in order to demonstrate the marketing problems many congregations unwittingly create, he gives a sampling of “statements of faith” from various church websites, all of which depict a traditional Christian understanding of hell (e.g. “The unsaved will be separated forever from God in hell”). Instead of responding to these statements on a theological basis, he remarks, sarcastically, “Welcome to our church.” Later on, he reiterates his warning that even the most sophisticated seeker churches won’t succeed in attracting unbelievers unless they revamp their theology: “If your God is loving one second and cruel the next, if your God will punish people for all eternity for sins committed in a few short years, no amount of clever marketing or compelling language or good music or great coffee will be able to disguise that one, true, glaring, untenable, unacceptable, awful reality.”
Despite Bell’s weak hermeneutics and the transparency of his motivation, there was one moment while reading Love Wins where it seemed as though he might initiate a much-needed conversation about the meaning of hell. Toward the end of the book, he begins to mobilize a more radical argument—that heaven and hell are not realms of the afterlife but metaphors for life here on earth. “Heaven and hell [are] here, now, around us, upon us, within us,” he writes. He recalls traveling to Rwanda in the early 2000s and seeing boys whose limbs had been cut off during the genocide. “Do I believe in a literal hell?” he asks. “Of course. Those aren’t metaphorical missing arms and legs.” Here, I brightened at the idea that perhaps Bell was out to make a statement as bold and daring as Hybels’s 9/11 sermon, using hell as a way to talk about the human capacity for evil.
But no such moment came. As I read on, it became clear that Bell wasn’t actually looking for a way to talk about the darker side of human nature. Soon after he posits the possibility of a metaphorical hell, he glosses over its significance by suggesting that the “hells” of this earth are slowly being winnowed away as humans work to remedy social problems like injustice and inequality. He suggests that Jesus’s allusions to the Kingdom of God were referring not to an eternal paradise, but rather to an earthly golden age (a claim with which few—if any—evangelicals would agree, even if it is commonly accepted among secular scholars). In his discussion of Revelation, Bell skims over most of the apocalyptic horrors to note that the book ends with a description of “a new city, a new creation, a new world that God makes, right here in the midst of this one. It is a buoyant, hopeful vision of a future in which the nations are healed and there is peace on earth and there are no more tears.” Traditionally, evangelicals have read the “new city” as representing heaven, but Bell’s insistence that this new creation is “right in the midst of this one” suggests a kind of Hegelian linear-progressive history, a vision of the future in which humanity improves itself until we’ve engineered a terrestrial utopia. It’s an echo of the contemporary narrative of technological solutionism—the gospel of human perfectability that is routinely hyped in TED talks and preached from the Lucite podiums of tech conferences across the country.
Love Wins succeeded in breaking the silence about hell, and its popularity suggests that a number of evangelicals may be ready to move beyond a literalist notion of damnation, reimagining hell just as God-fearing people across the centuries have done to reckon with the evils of their own age. At the same time, the book demonstrates the potential pitfalls of the church’s desire to distance itself too quickly from fire and brimstone. Bell claims to address the exact theological problem that motivated me to leave the faith, but rather than offer a new understanding of the doctrine, he offers up a Disneyesque vision of humanity, one that is wholly incompatible with the language biblical authors use to speak about good and evil. Along with hell, the new evangelical leaders threaten to jettison the very notion of human depravity—a fundamental Christian truth upon which the entire salvation narrative hinges.
Part of what made church such a powerful experience for me as a child and a young adult was that it was the one place where my own faults and failings were recognized and accepted, where people referred to themselves affectionately as “sinners,” where it was taken as a given that the person standing in the pews beside you was morally fallible, but still you held hands and lifted your voice with hers as you worshipped in song. This camaraderie came from a collective understanding of evil—a belief that each person harbored within them a potential for sin and deserved, despite it, divine grace. It’s this notion of shared fallibility that lent Hybels’s 9/11 sermon its power, as he suggested that his own longing for revenge was only a difference of degree—not of kind—from the acts of the terrorists. And it’s precisely this acknowledgement of collective guilt that makes it possible for a community to observe the core virtues of the faith: mercy, forgiveness, grace.
The irony is that, at a time when we are in need of potent metaphors to help us make sense of our darkest impulses, the church has chosen to remain silent on the problem of evil, for fear of becoming obsolete. The short-term advantages of such a strategy are as obvious as its ultimate futility. Like so many formerly oppositional institutions, the church is now becoming a symptom of the culture rather than an antidote to it, giving us one less place to turn for a sober counter-narrative to the simplistic story of moral progress that stretches from Silicon Valley to Madison Avenue. Hell may be an elastic concept, as varied as the thousands of malevolencies it has described throughout history, but it remains our most resilient metaphor for the evil both around and within us. True compassion is possible not because we are ignorant that life can be hell, but because we know that it can be.
Art credit: Carp Matthew