A Blog by Jonathan Low


Dec 7, 2014

More Heaven, Less Hell: How Do You Sell God In the Internet Era?

If your product isn't selling maybe it needs to be rebranded.

Since virtually everything is being marketed on the internet these days, one would think that religion would follow suit. That's where the worshippers are, the saved and the damned, so why not follow them to the space where they seem to be spending most of their time.

But if even the lure of Black Friday discounts wont bestir them, how can putting on nice clothes and sitting in a hard pew while following what can often seem like obscure rituals on Saturday or Sunday morning hope to compete? 

There are examples - the young Muslims being encouraged to leave hearth and home to join the Islamic State in 'Syraqistan' let alone their own countries being one notably successful if less than salutary case. But for most adherents of mainstream religion, traditional methods and channels remain dominant. The question is why.

Whether its a dishwashing detergent, a political candidate or a religion, the elements of attracting believers have been identified, deconstructed, analyzed, repackaged and managed. So the issue may be the nature of the message. Which is why, as the following article explains, there may need to be less hell and more heaven in 'the pitch.'

Since people dont have a lot of time and seem to have created their own self-reflective universe on the web, it stands to reason that the most effective means of reaching them is by focusing on those themes that move them in a positive way. Unless, of course, they are suicidal, but that is a relatively small and stable number in most populations. Which is why accentuating the positive may be the key in religion as it is in most digitally denominated enterprises. JL

Meghan O' Gieblyn reports in The Guardian:

Pastors who are trying to 'sell' God won’t mention hell any more than a clothes ad will call attention to child labor.
A couple of years ago, a Chicago-based corporate-identity consultant 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 for a place like hell to become a premier destination in the travel market. Herron decided that what hell needed 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 a lower-case, bubbly blue font designed to evoke “instant accessibility and comfort”. The slogan, which was once “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here”, 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 south-east Michigan, where Sunday mornings involved listening to our pastor 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, memorising scripture such as 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 recognise this worldview as anachronistic. Even now as an adult, it’s difficult for me to hear biblical scholars such as 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 Nathaniel 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. 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 mother 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. 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 30-minute video that I was lucky enough to see at least half a dozen times over the course of my teens. The film has both the production quality and the setup of a driver’s education video: five teens are driving home from a party, after much merrymaking, when their car gets broadsided by a truck. We soon see 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 types the person’s name into a 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. The rest of the film consists of a long sequence showing the memorial service for the kids, where a school administrator speaks in secular platitudes about death being a place of peace – a eulogy that is spliced with shots of Ken, John and Mary being led down a red-lit hall and violently pushed into caged lifts. The last shot of them is in these cells as they descend into darkness.

It’s difficult to overstate the effect this film had on my adolescent psyche. Lying in bed at night, I replayed the lift scene over and over in my head, torturing myself with the possibility that I might be one of the unconfirmed. I recently rewatched Without Reservation and realised 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 clearly designed for the already-saved, a dramatised pep talk urging us to get the word out about hell to our non-Christian friends.
That this message never got across to me might have had something to do with the fact that, as a home-schooled 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 neighbours. It wasn’t until I started going to public high school that I began to feel a gnawing guilt, spurred by the occasional realisation 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 with them. 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.
Over the course of my teenage years during the 1990s, 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 as Chris Herron did. Rather, hell was relegated to the margins of the gospel message, the fine print on the eternal-life warranty.

* * *

Hell has changed a lot over the years. 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. 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. 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.
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 6th century BC, 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 evil-doers 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. 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.

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. 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 16th 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. Dante’s Divine Comedy has traces of the feudal landscape of 14th-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”. 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 Gary Larson’s comic The Far Side, Satan and his minions are depicted as bored corporate drones who deal with the scourge of the post-industrial Earth.
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 in Chicago at the age of 18. 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 no man’s land between the luxurious Gold Coast district and the notorious 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 and debating predestination over soft-serve ice cream at the Student Centre.

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 artefact, but as the word of God. There’s a widespread misconception that biblical literalism is facile and mindless, but the doctrine I was introduced to at Moody was every bit as complicated and arcane as Marxist theory or post-structuralism. 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 (ie 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.
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. In freshman year, every student was required to take a seminar called Christian Missions. During its first week, we watched a video that claimed there were currently 2.8bn people among “the unreached” – that is, people who had never heard the gospel. 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. Technically, I’d known this since I was a kid 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 (eg “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 sombre “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 live-action role playing if he weren’t a Christian. Instead, he memorised Luther and Zwingli and made vivid chalk drawings illustrating the plan of salvation, all of which made him pretty 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 business people. 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. 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 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. When Zeb gave the call to come forward and find forgiveness in Jesus Christ, our audience 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 north-west suburbs. I’d heard students raving about it – and others railing against it – ever since orientation week. Willow Creek’s pastor, Bill Hybels, was a well-known author and a celebrity in the evangelical world, but the big draw was apparently the size of the church. There was a $73m Worship Centre, a food court and a parking lot worthy of an international airport. 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 come back from a rock concert. One blustery Sunday morning in February, as I was walking 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 at the front. Willow Creek was different. The Worship Centre 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. It took me several more visits before I realised what was off: I realised 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 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 of Christianity (“unchurched Harry and Mary,” in ministry lingo). The goal was to work out why these people were turned off by the gospel, and then to create a worship service that responded to their perceived needs.
Essentially, this is consumer-based management. (Hybels keeps a poster in his office that reads: “What is our business? Who is our customer? What does the customer consider value?”) 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. The solution was a more positive message: upbeat tunes, an emphasis on love and acceptance. 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 clothes ad will call attention to child labour. Under the new business model, hell became the sweatshop, the behind-the-scenes horror the consumer doesn’t want to know about. Once I became aware of what was missing at Willow Creek, it was almost a game to watch the ministers try to manoeuvre around the elephant in the room. One strategy was to place the focus 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”).
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.” 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 realised that Hybels and like-minded pastors 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 US 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.
I started my sophomore year at Moody in September 2001. The Sunday after 9/11, Willow Creek was one of many American churches filled with newcomers. I was eager to see how Bill Hybels would handle the event – whether he would demonise 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. 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. 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 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. 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 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. At the time, I didn’t appreciate just how radical it 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. (Two weeks later he invited Imam Faisal Hammouda to speak at the Sunday service – an act that led to a huge backlash. People began to find tolerance tedious).
Back at Moody, though, I was still staying up late, thinking about all those people who would suffer for eternity for never having heard 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 English as a second language. I ditched my study Bible at a hostel book exchange and stopped going to church entirely.

Rob Bell
Rob Bell appears on Oprah’s The Life You Want Weekend. Photograph: Suzi Pratt/FilmMagic
But people who’ve got 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 10 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 catalogue.
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 bestselling 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 was Rob Bell. Bell wears hipster glasses and black skinny jeans. Most of his congregants were generation Xers who had difficulty with the Bible’s passages about absolute truth, certainty and judgment.
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 sets out 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. After it was published, Albert Mohler Jr, a prominent pastor, called the book “theologically disastrous” and thousands of Bell’s congregants left his church in protest. At the same time, a lot of evangelicals who seemed to have been harbouring a private faith in universal reconciliation defended the book. In the secular media, the theology of Love Wins was lauded as visionary. “Wielding music, videos and a Starbucks sensibility,” Time magazine wrote, “Bell is at the forefront of a rethinking of Christianity in America.”
“Rethinking” doesn’t feel as accurate as “rebranding”. Throughout Love Wins, Bell seems less interested in theological inquiry than he is in PR. 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 mobilise a more radical argument – that heaven and hell are not realms of the afterlife but metaphors for life here on Earth. He recalls travelling 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.
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 recognised 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 harboured 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.
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.


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