Checking my social media feed last Wednesday morning was startling. "Hell's gates are opening" and "may he rot in hell" were just two of several similarly themed status updates. News had just broken of the suicide death of Ariel Castro.
I would be surprised if the social media commentators thought through the literal or theological implications of their hell references. They were simply using a cultural shorthand metaphor to communicate disgust at the indescribable crimes Castro committed. I share that disgust. However, the repeated reference to hell was jolting and made me wonder when, if at all, is it appropriate to talk about hell in public.
Even within the Christian community, there are a wide variety of views about the existence of a literal place of punishment in the afterlife. Those who hold traditional views on the subject generally "soft-sell" their position. However, even though religious references to hell are relatively rare, casual and popular references to hell seem to be increasing. Graphic advertisements for the new Diablo video game release are daily television fare. Attend a business meeting and the word "hell" is used as an oral punctuation mark with comma-like frequency.
It is striking how the non-religious usage of the term hell is insensitive compared to the traditional religious usage. As evidenced in the Castro case (and whenever someone who is notoriously "evil" dies), there are many ready to pronounce eternal judgement. The Christian tradition, however, has been very careful to pass judgment on those who have died. It is God's place and not man's to judge. Discussion of hell is intended as a warning for the living.
There is a core underlying principle that gets confirmed by our predisposition to talk about hell. It is this—actions have consequences. "The wages of sin is death" writes the Apostle Paul, and the intuitive sense that indescribably evil actions deserve indescribably horrid consequences seems something that is widely understood, even if rarely articulated.
However, often overlooked is the second part of the same verse—"but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord."
At the core of the Christian gospel is the notion of substitution.
The consequences of evil are not ignored but taken care of on our behalf. This allows for a framework of forgiveness based on grace, not merit.
Now I understand that such theological reflections are a bit beyond what most people intend when they spice their chatter with verbal h-bombs. But I wonder if the casualness of talking about hell in public is perhaps stripping our sensitivity to some important principles about how we live our life together. Actions have consequences—that is the way the world was created. But if every action had its full consequences, if we lived in a world of only merit in which there was no concept of grace or forgiveness, life would be hellish indeed.
I have no evidence that Mr. Castro sought forgiveness before his demise last week; but what I think about his eternal destiny matters not a whit. It is God who will judge each of us, and the opinions we have of each other for good or ill matter little. What I do know, however, is that the hell that evil deserves, whether committed by notorious sinners or more refined sinners, has been paid for and grace and forgiveness are freely offered.
Whatever our theology, the casual references to hell only cheapen what are substantial matters.