Hell on Earth

A quick glance at the religious, political and socioeconomic landscapes of the United States easily reveals steeply increasing divisions and polarizations. Is your state blue or red? Do you identify yourself as "right" or "left," Republican or Democrat? Are you earning more than $1,000,000 or less than $200,000? Do you value more or less government regulation in health, finance, environment, and security?

In American Christianity, the trend of dichotomies is equally prevalent. Are you pro-gay or anti-gay, pro-life or pro-choice, conservative or progressive? Do you view science through the lens of evolution or creation? Are you more inclined to watch "Life of Brian" or "The Passion of the Christ"? Do you long for a Christian nation or for the separation of church and state? And so on.

Myself, I've come to believe that the differences among American Christians can be boiled down to one fundamental theological difference -- about hell. Specifically, do you believe that hell is a matter of the afterlife, or do you believe that hell is a reality in the earthly life? (Some of us believe in both, yet one or the other consistently takes precedence in our outlook on life.)

Those who believe that hell is a place or state of being in the afterlife tend to prioritize the spiritual salvation of souls (meaning the escape from eternal damnation) -- for one's own soul first and foremost, as well as the souls of one's family, and then for the poor unfortunate souls of the world who need Jesus. The practical implication of an eternal hell is the earthly responsibility to manage and mandate life according to moral codes that ensure one's acceptance into heaven rather than hell.

Those who believe that hell is already a reality on earth tend to value and pursue the physical salvation (meaning the salving or relieving) of persons who are "going through hell" -- sympathetic first to those in similar situations of hell as oneself, and then developing an understanding of other hells by inference. The practical implication of an earthly hell is the conviction to prevent or resolve tangible hellish circumstances.

So for example: by those Christians who believe in an eternal hell, homosexuality is viewed as an immoral activity that threatens one's eternal situation -- but by those Christians who believe in an earthly hell, homosexuality is understood to be a distinct identity that has been targeted and tormented by the real-life hell of discrimination.

The belief in hell on earth (or not) is especially evident in the platforms of politicians who reference faith among their significant influences. The instantly infamous Todd Akin, for example, whose professional and spiritual development includes a Master of Divinity degree, asserted that the earthly hell of rape should not take priority over the eternal status of a fetus' soul. Likewise Paul Ryan appears not to believe in the experience of hell on earth, as his "Path to Prosperity" budget proposal would aggravate the vicious hell of poverty. But with his belief in eternal hell -- and presumably his own salvation -- well settled, Ryan's primary moral task per his faith is to responsibly manage life (hence his focus on the national debt).

To be fair, there are many who believe in hell on earth who prioritize the relief of their own circumstances rather than engaging anyone else's hell. There are many who affirm an eternal hell who believe that easing another's affliction will be salvific to that person's soul in the afterlife. This dichotomy over hell can blur the boundaries of other theological and political dichotomies.

More importantly, both perspectives on hell hold the potential for challenging us to engage others. The Christian who believes fundamentally in eternal hell is prompted to see and consider an "other" to be a real person who is to be genuinely valued -- not only for having a soul but also for having a life. The Christian who believes in hell on earth is compelled to understand the systemic intricacies of earth's hells, to look truthfully at another's wounds, and to contribute wholeheartedly to the lessening of hell on earth.

In any case, I find myself wishing that more people would believe in hell.