When I was a child, hell was a real, physical place. It was "deep down in the ground, a lake of burning fire with brimstone," as my mother used to say as she stared me in the eye. My friends and I heard hell spoken of in church constantly, we heard about it in the admonitions of our parents and grandparents and we read about it.
I had a color-illustrated children's Bible that had several drawings of hell _ its red and yellow fires, the anguished faces of burning sinners, a grinning Satan lording over his kingdom. That book often scared me so much that I would keep my bedroom light on all night. No way was I going to face the darkness alone and be consumed by hell.
I had not thought of hell for years, until a few days ago when I read a newspaper brief about a poll by the Oxnard, Calif.-based Barna Research Group, an independent marketing outfit that tracks behaviors, beliefs, trends and values. The national survey found that an overwhelming majority of Americans believe in life after death and that heaven and, of course, hell exist. The high numbers surprised me.
According to the poll, nearly two-thirds of Americans said they believe they are heaven-bound. A mere one-half of 1 percent believe they are going straight to hell. The poll found that 76 percent of Americans believe in heaven and 71 percent in hell. Interestingly, at least to me, these figures were the same 10 years ago.
The King James Dictionary-Concordance defines hell as "a place or way of punishment for those who turn against God; furnace of fire, outer dark." Theologian Robert Johnston, professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., said: "If you really believe in hell, you wouldn't want to go there. By definition, hell is the denial of goodness."
My schoolmates and I outgrew beliefs in heaven and hell as we became worldly, as we came to know Paradise Lost and Dante's Inferno that secularize the concept of hell the place, also called Sheol and Hades, that eased our fears of eternal punishment.
One of my best undergraduate term papers was on the "the vale of Hinnom," a valley near Jerusalem. There, the Canaanites are said to have worshiped Baal and the god Molech. They sacrificed their children in a fire that always burned. Two kings of Judah also practiced this murderous rite.
Later, after the prophet Jeremiah predicted that God would destroy Jerusalem, "the vale of Hinnom" would become known as the "Valley of Slaughter." During Jesus' lifetime, the valley was Jerusalem's garbage dump, where the city's raw waste, including the dead bodies of animals and executed criminals, was tossed. The site burned continuously, and the stench over Jerusalem was unbearble when the wind blew just right. Wild dogs howled and growled all night, every night, as they fought over the tons of putrefaction.
In his teachings, Christ used the "Valley of Slaughter" as the symbol of hell itself. Though he referred to it as "Gehenna," no one missed his meaning.
Although Sodom and Gomorrah were not considered hell per se, these places of fornication _ believed to be at the bottom of the Dead Sea _ experienced God's wrath. The imagery of destruction is that of hell: (Genesis 19:24-25) "Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven, and he overthrew those cities, and all the valley, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground."
So, Americans are again thinking of hell. And why not? The fall of the World Trade Center, the attacks on the Pentagon and other acts of terrorism have put Americans in the mood for tales of the Antichrist and suggestions of hell on earth.
The rhetoric of terrorist groups sometimes alludes to hell and the total destruction of Americans and the American way of life. Images on television and on the front pages of newspapers show smoke and fire and death, and terrorist leaders are portrayed as Satan's proteges hell-bent on destroying civilized life and even heaven itself.
Theologians will set me straight if I am wrong, but I am convinced that beliefs in "good" and "evil" have returned in a major way and will be around for a long time. With good and evil come heaven and hell. With heaven and hell come "us" and "them" _ the infidels, the Antichrist.
I predict that when the Barna Research Group revisits its heaven-and-hell survey in 10 years, the so-called war on terrorism will be just as deadly, and more Americans than ever before will believe in heaven and hell.
Yes, we Americans tend to be optimists, but, for the time being, hell has come to us.