In October 2016, pastor Kenneth Copeland warned Christian voters, “you’re going to be seriously, seriously held to account by God if you don’t vote … you’re going to be guilty of murder. You’re going to be guilty of an abomination of God. You’re going to be guilty for every baby that’s aborted from this election forward.” My breath grew shallow as I listened to the video repeatedly, making sure I got the quote correct.
The more I listened, the queasier I felt because I had forgotten just how powerful and foundational the rhetoric of hell is in creating a spiritual and political consensus among Christians. Whoever can help capture more territory from the devil and his army is the candidate to vote for. In the language of spiritual warfare, one candidate’s individual behavior pales in comparison to the millions of unborn souls that are saved.
But the threat of hell doesn’t just make conservative evangelicals politically active — it encourages the policing of other people’s spirituality so that no one backslides into the fiery depths of damnation. I remember being told in youth group that I was to witness to every nonbeliever. “But what if they don’t want to hear about God?” I asked my pastor one night after the service. “What’s the worst that can happen?” Pastor Andy asked in return. “Are you going to scare them into Hell #1, Hell #2, or Hell #3?” As a soldier for Christ, one’s job was to protect the boundary while advancing against the enemy.
If you have never believed in hell, it’s easy to mock the idea as ludicrous, or at least very archaic. Many who may have grown up in a faith household and left might remember the fear it instilled in them. Certainly, pastors such as Rob Bell and academics such as Jonathan Kvanvig have attempted to tackle the perceptions of hell, with different conclusions. But I think it’s time to suggest that the Christian focus on hell is helping to drive evangelicals into Trump’s camp, and keeps them there.
I know something about this fear. My father worked for three televangelists and my grandfather was a missionary. My mother and I used to listen to Kenneth Copeland’s sermons in the early 80’s. I became an expert on descriptions of eternal punishment. First there was the hell of made of fire and brimstone that continually burned but never consumed its victims. Some people would be cast into outer darkness, a place of weeping and gnashing teeth beyond the rim of the universe. There were the dry places where demons not housed in bodies wandered while plotting to inhabit another body. Last was the lake of fire, which was the second death.
The more I read about hell, the less it seemed a stationary place. It could activate itself here on earth, which is why we as Christians hold the line against it. I was taught to hate homosexuality because it was a “lifestyle sin” — a perpetual sin that brought hell into the Christian community. In my family, it was never enough just to be a Christian, or to think oneself a Christian. I had to be a soldier both defending the righteous and advancing the kingdom. To do any less meant I could be disowned during the final judgment.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’ (Matthew 7:21-23). I think this fear of spiritual rejection is what keeps many evangelical Christians loyal to Trump, who promised to protect their rights at all costs, who is working nonstop to give them a conservative Supreme Court.
You might find yourself asking, But what about systemic racism and babies being separated from their parents because they are fleeing violence? Are not those societal sins as well? Sadly, even moderate pastors such as Tim Keller create a kind of spiritual hierarchy, with hell as the focal point. Issues of injustice are never framed as sin.
In December of 2017, Keller tweeted, “Jesus didn't come primarily to solve the economic, political, and social problems of the world. He came to forgive our sins.” In April of 2018, he tweeted again, “Unless you believe in Hell, you will never know how much Jesus loves you.” If eternal punishment is seen as the core engine of a faith, is it then so illogical to see how quickly many in the evangelical community not only supported Trump, but have shown no signs of leaving?
It is a war of rhetorical paradigms, a war of narrative. Whoever has the more intriguing narrative wins, and people underestimate the unspoken terror of being on the losing side, where the cost is your soul.
It wasn’t until I moved to New York City and ended up living in Episcopalian seminary with gay priests, who became my mentors and friends, that I finally threw off the chains of hell. These priests embodied a sacred, joyous love that was so holy, the threat of backsliding, and eternal damnation had to retreat before it. No sermon on grace did more for me than sharing community with those two. Progressive Christians need to critically engage with this rhetoric of hell on both an individual and cultural level if we are ever to help free those under the captivity of this siege mentality.
Some conservative evangelicals are already trying to revamp their image by signing the Joint Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel, where, among other tenets, they deny that “‘Gay Christian’ is a legitimate biblical category.” The graphics are slick and the language is logical and calm. Evangelicals are not retreating. They are advancing, with their fear of hell fueling the engine. That is an unending, unyielding fuel source.
This spring I had coffee with a Christian friend who recently came out as gay. He was raised in an evangelical environment similar to mine, even though he is a generation younger. “How do I get rid of hell?” he asked me. I sighed, knowing the long journey ahead of him, knowing the rhetorical lines will always be fought over. “It might take a while,” I said. “But you’ll get there.”