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In Defense of Hellfire

The rhetoric of damnation has been lost. But how else can we adequately condemn injustice?

These are difficult times for writers and orators who wish to specialize in the language of Moral Harangue. We live in an era where persuasive speech is largely comprised of lukewarm appeals to self-interest. One seeks to prove to one’s audience that they have something to gain—or, at the very least, nothing to lose—by supporting the desired moral proposition. When we denounce our political foes, we usually do so by vaguely suggesting that their ideas are “backwards” and that “history” will “judge” them. This is pretty toothless stuff: Our politicians are almost all nihilists who cheerfully consign their fellow-humans to endless miseries on a daily basis, so why would they give the faintest fart what human beings not-yet-born will think of them? (To say nothing of the fact that ascendant evil-doers always—and often correctly—assume they will be the ones writing the history books.)

For those who like their rhetoric neat, of course, there is the language of revolution. But this is tricky to deploy. The invocation of revolution nearly always carries an implicit threat of violence: “If you don’t do the right thing, we will come kill you.” If you’re a pacifist, you may think that this is rarely, if ever, a morally justifiable threat. And even if you aren’t a pacifist, you must at least think carefully about when to use revolutionary language: It’s probably strategically unwise to invoke violence that you have no stomach or ability to carry out. Leftists are, by a significant margin, less well-armed and well-trained than their political opponents. Calls for uprisings and guillotines sound like lazy, empty irony rather than anything that could actually happen. The bluff is ludicrously easy to call.

But Back In The Day, there was another option available when you wanted to denounce your foes: the language of hellfire.

The idea of hell is, perhaps, the part of traditional Christianity that seems the most absurd and weirdly Off-Message to non-Christians. After all, isn’t it rather at odds with the whole notion of Love Thy Neighbor that the creator of the universe would have a subterranean torture chamber where those who displease him are roasted in perpetuity? New Atheist types are always eager to point out that hell is an absurd contradiction: How can a god that inflicts horrific pain on his creations for eternity be the arbiter of any kind of morality?

There are two ways to approach this apparent contradiction. Option #1: super lean into the idea that Hell Is A Good Thing in a way that makes everyone around you extremely uncomfortable. During the first 1,000 years or so of Christianity, there was recurring theological speculation that the blessed in heaven could actually see the damned in hell—and, what’s more, that they enjoyed seeing the damned in hell. Tertullian, a 2nd-century Christian writer, looked forward with giddy anticipation to his front-row seat to the torment of the wicked: “What a panorama of spectacle on that day! Which sight shall excite my wonder? Which, my laughter?” He imagined “so many and so mighty kings, whose ascent to heaven used to be made known by public announcement… groaning in the depths of darkness,” and the provincial governors who tortured and executed his coreligionists “melting in flames fiercer than those they themselves kindled in their rage against the Christians braving them with contempt.” A couple beats later, Tertullian begins to sound less like an anti-establishment revolutionary and more like an incel posting a screed on 4chan, as he pictures the fiery torment of “the tragic actors… more vocal in their own catastrophe,” “the comic actors… more lither of limb in the fire,” and “the athletes… not in their gymnasiums, but thrown about by fire.”

Tertullian clearly got some kind of creepy, maybe-erotic kick out of imagining various Chads being burned alive: but other, soberer theologians also concurred that those in heaven would witness the spectacle of hell, and that it, like all God’s works, would be a cause of rejoicing. Many hundreds of years after Tertullian, Thomas Aquinas wrote: “That the saints may enjoy their beatitude more thoroughly, and give more abundant thanks for it to God, a perfect sight of the punishment of the damned is granted them.” Aquinas hastened to clarify that it wasn’t the torments themselves that caused the enjoyment, but the knowledge of God’s perfect justice, of which the torments were merely an insignificant side-effect. (Thomas Aquinas would definitely have been one of those guys in high school who claimed to like the Saw series “for the plot.”)

Illustrations by Ellen Burch

There are fire-and-brimstone varieties of evangelical Christianity that still preach basically along these lines. But I was raised Catholic, and in modern Catholicism, we go in for option #2: don’t bring up hell that much and when you do maybe don’t talk about the fire stuff okay. Hell is literally real in Catholic theology: That is to say, hell is not a “metaphor,” but an actual place, with actual flames, and any conscientious theologian will be forced to admit this when pressed. But when I went to church as a child, most priests—if they mentioned hell at all, which was rare—would talk about hell primarily as the condition of being cut off from the love of God. This, the priests hastened to assure us, was the worst agony of all, worse than any merely physical torture. I think this is a pretty clever maneuver! The fire-and-bodily-agony thing just makes God sound like a garden-variety serial killer, so pivoting to the psychological dimensions of eternal torment is a way to take the murderous edge off God’s sadism, while simultaneously assuring everyone that hell is still definitely very bad. It reminds me of the way one of my family members used to justify being against the death penalty on the grounds that a) killing is wrong, but also b) keeping people locked up forever is actually much crueler than just killing them, and people who have committed terrible crimes deserve to suffer.

There’s simply no getting away from that odd tension between doing the right thing because it brings you closer to a loving God versus doing the right thing because the same loving God will light you on fire if you don’t—but it’s really hard to argue that being lit on fire isn’t more terrifying. I had a three-year stint at a Catholic school where we all publicly prayed the Act of Contrition at the end of every day, and I’ve always loved it as a model apology. It’s written in the voice of an overly honest man frantically trying to cover his bases in real time:

Oh my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended You, and I detest all my sins because i dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell but MOST OF ALL (!!!) because they offend YOU, oh God, Who art all good and deserving of all my love.

That hastily-disclaimed “because I dread the pains of hell” really says it all. No living human with a flesh-and-blood body truly believes that forfeiture of the love of God could possibly be worse than the physical torments of hell. Given the choice between being gored with hot pokers over and over and over, and being afflicted with a particularly fierce case of FOMO, who would choose the pokers? No one, and anyone who says otherwise is a liar.

Given the visceral grittiness of the torments of hell, the language of hellfire—in times and places where people actually believe in hell, or at least have to publicly pretend that they do—is a powerful rhetorical register. Unlike revolutionary language, it isn’t an outright threat to slaughter your enemies, but neither is it a bloodless civil censure. It is, in effect, telling your political opponents: “What you have done is so evil that when the omniscient, omnipotent author of the universe finally holds you to account, he will probably light you on fire, rip your entrails out of your body, and feed them back to you in an endless cycle for the rest of time.” It’s a way to express moral outrage so furious, so implacable, that not even an eternity of torture could expiate it. Forget “cancel culture”: If you really intend to anathematize a member of your community, tell everyone why that person deserves to go to hell. Or, if you think your entire community is destined for the flames, then hellfire language is a way of expressing smoldering, vengeful despair, of declaring that we all deserve to be obliterated for what we have condoned, that the sins committed are so bad that no one who has been touched by them should escape punishment. Take, as an illustrative example, this speech by the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, in which he invites the wrath of God on a nation that has enriched itself on the agony of slaves: 

Yet I know that God reigns, and that the slave system contains within itself the elements of destruction. But how long it is to curse the earth, and desecrate his image, He alone foresees. It is frightful to think of the capacity of a nation like this to commit sin, before the measure of its iniquities be filled, and the exterminating judgment of God overtake it. For what is left us but a fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation? Or is God but a phantom, and the Eternal Law but a figment of the imagination? Has an everlasting divorce been effected between cause and effect, and is it an absurd doctrine that, as a nation sows, so shall it also reap? “Wherefore, hear the word of the Lord, ye scornful men that rule this people: Because ye have said, We have made a covenant with death, and with hell we are at agreement; when the overflowing scourge shall pass through, it shall not come unto us; for we have made lies our refuge, and under falsehood have we hid ourselves: Therefore, thus saith the Lord God, judgment will I lay to the line, and righteousness to the plummet; and the hail shall sweep away the refuge of lies, and the waters shall overflow the hiding-place: And your covenant with death shall be annulled, and your agreement with hell shall not stand; when the overflowing scourge shall pass through it, then ye shall be trodden down by it.” 

It’s very hard to imagine Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez getting up in front of the nation and declaring that our country, left unreformed, merits “the exterminating judgment of God.” William Lloyd Garrison and other abolitionists of his ilk have been vaguely reimagined in American history as milquetoast Anti-Slavery Good Guys, but in their time, they were viewed as dangerous radicals and seditionists. Today, a person who speechified in this manner about an analogous issue, like the prison-industrial complex, or the labor abuses of multinational companies, or the immigrant police state, would probably be accused of inciting domestic terrorism. 

I myself don’t quite know how to feel about hell. I was raised in a religious tradition where you never can be sure who is going to hell and who isn’t. The weight of particular sins depends on the inherent nature of the action itself, but also on the knowledge and intent with which you committed the sin. In theory, any number of sins that seem trivial when viewed from the outside could, in the fullness of their secret psychological context, turn out to be hellfire-worthy. And, by the same token, someone who does ostensibly terrible things all the time may perhaps not really understand, in their heart of hearts, that what they do is sinful; or they might sincerely repent of their sins at a critical moment, and in the end, they might escape hell altogether and join the ranks of the blessed. In my charitable moods, I hope that everyone’s private moral ledgers balance out somehow, that people who seem evil are really not so evil, and that my own moments of goodness will ultimately prove heavier and more numerous than my evil actions. Intellectually, I think we are supposed to try to love everyone, along the lines Jesus outlines in the gospels: that we should turn the other cheek, and not cast stones at our fellow sinners.

But then again, Jesus is a contradictory model in this respect, because when he’s not exhorting people to love their neighbors, he’s roaming around the countryside irritably smiting fig-trees and flipping over money-changing tables. And these days, my own internal compass is all in a muddle. I’ve now spent one year working in an immigration internment camp—serving as one very small, increasingly mutilated wrench in the gears of the United States’ deportation machine—and those charitable moods are harder and harder for me to muster. I spend a lot of time thinking about the peculiar evil of judges, bureaucrats, lawyers, and political operatives. Sure, my clients from Central America suffer at the hands of gang members and domestic abusers, and very possibly these perpetrators are evil too—but with them, I don’t feel qualified to perform any precise moral calculus. There is some unknowable quantity of suffering, fear, and material deprivation that plays into the decisions those kinds of people make, and I don’t know how to factor this against the magnitude of their apparent sins. Their lives feel too distant from my own for comparison.

But the sort of person who becomes an ICE attorney, or an immigration judge, or an advisor to a president is someone much closer to me. They are people I would have encountered in college or in law school. They, like me, live lives of relative comfort and certainty. The stakes of the decisions they make are, for themselves, largely professional, social, and reputational, not life-or-death. People like Kris Kobach, Jeff Sessions, William Barr, Ken Cuccinelli, and Stephen Miller grew up with every conceivable advantage and still choose to devote their lives to grinding the faces of the poor into the dirt. I read an article recently about Agnelis Reese, an immigration judge in Louisiana, who has denied 100 percent of the asylum-seekers who have appeared before her, making her the harshest immigration judge in a country with some pretty stiff competition. The article’s author, Gabriel Thompson, highlights one hearing transcript where the judge lectures a man facing deportation to Eritrea about his faith:

“Reese asked if he had ever told anyone about [his sexual abuse while imprisoned in Eritrea] before revealing it to the doctor at Pine Prairie. “I did not,” he said. “This is very shameful for me to tell.” 

Later, S. said that, despite daily beatings, he refused to convert to Orthodox Christianity. “And every time you said no?” asked Reese.

“Yes, based on Matthew 10:22,” he replied. 

“I didn’t—sir, I’m not asking you to quote scripture,” said Reese.

“Jesus is asking me to talk for him.”

Reese snapped. “And when you lied to the asylum officers or failed to disclose your sexual abuse, what do you think Jesus thought about that?” The judge followed that up with a lengthy diatribe, chastising S. for not revealing the abuse earlier. 

Knowing that courtroom scenes like this are happening all across the country, it’s difficult to avoid feeling at least a tad Tertullian. How do we talk about these things? What language of moral disapprobation could possibly be vivid enough? How do we allow people like this judge to live respectable lives in human society—to eat in restaurants, go to the movies, attend PTA meetings—when the things they do in the ordinary, plodding course of their workdays are so repugnant and inexcusable that they should be permanently cut off from all love and communion with their fellows?

We might, like William Lloyd Garrison, take a leaf out of the book of the prophet Isaiah:

“Woe to unjust judges and to those who issue unfair laws, so that there is no justice for the poor, the widows, and orphans. … Oh what will you do when I visit you in that day when I send desolation upon you from a distant land? To whom will you turn then for your help? Where will your treasures be safe? I will not help you; you will stumble along as prisoners or lie among the slain. And even then my anger will not be satisfied, but my fist will still be poised to strike you.”

When you feel powerless, there is at least some satisfaction in telling the powerful exactly what they deserve. You hope that maybe—if you express your hatred of evil, and the complacency that enables it, with enough conviction and passion—others will be stirred out of their slumbers and roused to righteous anger too. What else can we do, if we hope to avoid the exterminating judgment of God?

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