Have you seen that new movie “Hell Is for Real?” Of course, you haven’t. Because it doesn’t exist. It’s heavenly counterpart, however, earned $21.5 million in ticket sales in its opening weekend.
Sixty-four percent of Americans believe in the survival of the soul after death, and a majority believes in both heaven and hell, according to a Harris Poll released in December 2013. But while most are comfortable discussing the afterlife and heaven, talk of hell can scatter the masses.
So why are Americans afraid to talk about hell?
Rebecca Price Janney, a cultural historian and author of “Who Goes There? A Cultural History of Heaven and Hell,” traces the shift back about 70 decades to World War II. During this time, many asserted that American soldiers couldn’t possibly go to hell because they’d already served their time having “been through hell” on the battlefield. The idea offered great comfort to those at home who were grieving lost loved ones.
“This [idea] caught on and persisted over the decades,” Janney says, “and we saw it re-emerge strongly during the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks: ‘How could these dear people who died so tragically possibly go to hell?’”
Resisting the idea of a literal hell may offer comfort, but the reasons many today shy away from it may be more simplistic and pragmatic. I spoke to several people who have studied the issue and they listed at least three reasons we shrink back from hell-talk: