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Why We Need the Language of Hell

If you listen closely to the language of hell, underneath it you will hear a cry for justice. Something horrible -- even damnable -- has happened. And we are utterly powerless to undo it.
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James Eagan Holmes allegedly slaughters 12 people at a movie theater in Colorado. Survivor Stephanie Davies describes the event: "We were laying there, literally in the mouth of hell."

Anders Behring Breivik kills 69 people at a summer camp in Norway. Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg seeks to capture his grief: "It was a paradise of my youth that has now been turned into hell."

A tsunami devastates the Tōhoku region of Japan, killing thousands. Daily Mail reporter Alex Thompson describes the scene as "Hell on Earth."

Two planes hit the World Trade Center in New York City. Brian Williams describes the event 10 years later: "It was a day when hell rained down on earth from the skies and changed all of our lives forever..."

As these and numerous other examples demonstrate, when seeking to describe a natural disaster or manmade tragedy, hell is often the first word that springs to mind. And we don't just use "hell" to describe the event. We also demand it as punishment when human perpetrators are involved.

After Wade Michael Page allegedly opened fire in a Sikh temple in suburban Milwaukee, a commenter expressed his disgust online: "Meet Wade Michael Page, white supremacist and latest entrant to the gates of Hell."

Lynn Johnson, who was in the Chicago theater with her children when Holmes started shooting, expressed her hope that he would "burn in hell" for his crimes.

And when Seal Team 6 assassinated Osama Bin Laden, Mike Huckabee responded to the news with a glib, "Welcome to hell, bin Laden."

How should we interpret this phenomenon? Does it merely reflect the faith position of the observers? In some cases, definitely. But when one considers the increasing secularization and pluralism of Western society, why would people still be so quick to grasp for such hellish imagery?

In a recent essay "Hell In Our Time: Dantean Descent and the Twenty-first Century 'War on Terror" (published in "Hell and Its Afterlife"), Rachel Falconer suggests, "The first-hand experience of disaster is usually mapped onto pre-existing narratives. And all these different narratives comprise an image-bank, or better, a composite narrative trajectory or story to which many continue to give the name hell."

This theory definitely has merit. When confronted by the chaos of a mass murder or a devastating earthquake, it's only natural that we would try to impose meaning on such an apparently random event. Humans are called "homo sapiens," which means "the wise or rational man." But I wonder if a more apt name would be "the meaning-seeking man/woman," because we are hard-wired to fit everything into a narrative that makes experience both rational and predictable. This gives us the illusion of security -- until the next challenge to our neatly ordered world explodes across the front pages. But for the time being, the narrative of hell is handy, and it seems to satisfy on an emotional level, so it works.

From an evolutionary perspective, you could also argue that our ability fit such events into a narrative like hell would have also conferred a survival advantage. Those groups who were able to rationalize and then respond to such events sooner would be more likely to survive in the aftermath and perhaps even use the disaster to their advantage. The binary distinction of heaven and hell certainly has a way of simplifying things. So once again, the theory seems to make sense.

But is that all there is to it? Is the ubiquity of hell language merely a survival mechanism, a cultural artifact leftover from 2,000 years of Christianity?

In an interview conducted for my upcoming documentary "Hellbound?," psychologist Richard Beck offers another perspective. Even though he is pretty much agnostic about the existence of a literal hell, he thinks we need the language of hell when it comes to rationalizing such tragic events. Without it, we are left with nothing but the languages of psychology and politics, and neither seems adequate to the task. To this list I would add the languages of sociology and biology, but the point is the same: These perspectives may be perfectly capable of helping us understand how and why something happened. But they are utterly incapable of expressing the cosmic nature of our loss. And all of them are missing the key ingredient that makes the language of hell so appealing: hope.

That may sound like a paradox. But if you listen closely to the language of hell, underneath it you will hear a cry for justice. Something horrible -- even damnable -- has happened. And we are utterly powerless to undo it. We can rebuild damaged property, punish perpetrators, even put them to death, but that will never actually restore our loss or heal our grief. And so we get angry. And we call down hellfire upon our enemies, upon nature, upon God, even. But in the midst our anger, some part of us hopes -- maybe even believes -- that there really is someone out there who cares. Someone who has witnessed our suffering. Someone who has the power not only to undo the damage but also to hold the perpetrators to account for their crimes -- possibly forever.

Those of us who have the luxury of observing such grief from a distance are prone to glib observations and abstract theological conversations about how all of this might play out. But for those in the midst of it, all they're grasping for is some way to get through their pain. And even though I have my own reservations about the concept of a literal hell, I'll be the last person to take this language away from them, because I may have my own need for it one day.

Kevin Miller is the director of 'Hellbound?,' a feature-length documentary about hell that hits theaters this September.

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