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.
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