The language of heaven and hell.

About two months ago, I came across the above billboard. I wound up tweeting it with this snarky comment attached; “So, what you are saying is…” The follow up comments were as expected (mocking, laughter, the few defenders) and there were a couple shares via face book. All that is simply to state that if I wanted to follow in a popular bloggers footsteps, I could have posted my own “Church Sign of the Day.”

But there’s more to this sign than a simple case of bad grammar and silly phrasing.

While the meaning seems at first unclear (does God save everyone? Or is it that everyone in hell believes?) this church reveals itself to be deeply entrenched in the “us vs. them, convert or else” discourse that so permeates evangelical Christianity. The language used is all about knowing some sort of secret; some secret about the final destination of the ones who don’t go to church (but should). And in doing this, the church locks itself into certain language about hell. That language is this; “there is a real physical hell, it will be horrible there and because it’s horrible there, you will know there is a God.” Scare tactic Christianity at it’s finest.

This is the kind of language of hell I was brought up in. The church culture I was apart of would have been proud of such statements, as the end goal was proving that “we” have the right answer and all the knowledge. The unfortunate things is, the Christian scriptures are unclear as to what hell actually is (do not confuse figurative language with literal language) and for all intents and purposes, the bible is clear on one thing; those who don’t believe in Jesus, don’t believe in him, won’t have “eternal life.”

The bible is just as unclear about heaven, perhaps even more so. Neither place has a location and most Christians know more about heaven and hell from Paradise Lost than they do from the Bible. So where does this language come from? Is it only the us versus them dichotomy? Well, it’s also highly consumeristic. This church is selling a product. A product called eternal life and that product is dependent on the passerby wondering what this means and stepping inside. Once inside, the true sale can take place. The sale of heaven and assurance of one’s soul not being in hell, suffering, and saying “well, I know there is a God now!”

Now, don’t think this is malicious on the church’s part. They probably very much believe in what they are doing. What they are portraying, though, is that God is here to punish the unbeliever and the wicked and is so desperate to prove His existence that He would cause unbelievers to suffer eternal conscious torment just to make it known that He is there. And He will have the final say.

When hell is spoken of in this way, heaven becomes the upsell. Another unknowing convert is made and the machine rolls on; guilt tripping, assigning final places of consciousness and making sure that everyone knows God exists. Except that to me, this seems like a very small God to believe in. If God is really the kind of God we Christians say He is, then it seems to me that God would find a far more grandiose and majestic way of proving His existence. Or not even proving it, just testifying to it.

The language we use to speak of heaven and hell says much more about our picture of God than we ever realize.

What do you think? Am I off base here? What kind of language/phrasing have you encountered about hell in your life?

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5 thoughts on “The language of heaven and hell.

  1. You identify yourself as a Christian and yet you seem to have a very pessimistic view of God and church. Why is that? Do you really believe that the purpose of the bible’s and the church’s teaching on heaven and hell is to “prove the existence of God” and scare people into heaven? If so, you are correct in seeing the God you’ve been presented with as a very small God. That said, that is not the God of the bible at all! So much i’d like to say here at this point but perhaps i’ll wait and interact more as/if you reply to this. Suffice it to say here and now, heaven is not a place for people who are scared of hell, it is a place for people who love Jesus and have put their faith in Him for the forgiveness of their sins. You may have been “sold” a faulty package, but don’t start distrusting the Author over it: in this case, it’s good and right to shoot the messenger 😉

    1. Perhaps I was unclear, but the point of the post was to analyze how the way we speak of hell (or heaven) influences our view of God. I would agree, this is not the God of the bible. God is not presented in scriptures as being desperate to prove God’s own existence. Rather, this is what happens in a consumeristic, us vs. them, Evangelistic setting. It’s a human problem, a linguistic problem and culture problem. Thanks for responding! I love whatever well-thought out feedback I get. 🙂

  2. That’s exactly what they are doing. Selling something. For two thousand years people have been buying into Christianity without even realizing why it and other religions were created in the first place. It gave people hope, something to believe in, explanations of the world and how it worked, a security blanket that kept them warm at night and kept them from murdering the rich, because they would be rich in heaven if they just follow like sheep and behave. Of course, since the bible was written, our view of how the universe ACTUALLY works has changed so drastically, but some people hold on to these fallacies because it was designed so ingeniously. It works off fear. Every attempt to think on your own is thwarted by sayings like “testing your faith” and when bad things happen, “it’s God’s will”. It’s funny how they say God loves all the creatures he created, yet millions of children are starving around the world, and those who don’t believe are going to burn in fire for eternity. I don’t know if you’re a parent, but if you do have a child or children, and you NEVER talked to them, and they never saw you or heard from you, then you found out that they didn’t even believe you existed, would you have a right to be angry at them and torture them, to burn them in fire? That’s what God does, and they say it, only they don’t put it that same way. But they want it both ways. They say that’s the way God is, but that he is perfect and loving. How perfect and loving is that? Seriously? It’s a huge scam and it’s poisoning the minds of people every day. It makes me sick. Belief in a higher power is one thing, I don’t mind that, but to worship a being such as that and call it loving is the ultimate slap in the face to not only intelligence, but ethics and logic as well. I hope you haven’t bought into it.

    1. Thanks for the comment and the feedback! I may not have made it clear in the post (because I try to keep these things as short as I can), but I certainly don’t buy into the sort of God that is murderous and torturous. The child metaphor you gave is very gripping. I’ll have to think a little more on that, but thanks again for responding!

      P.S. I briefly scrolled through your blog. Good stuff!

  3. When I was a fundie, I have told people and a friend that if they don’t except christ as their personal lord and savior they won’t go to heaven. They will go to hell.

    And yes, I would say this with a straight face.

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