"Do you believe in hell?" a friend asked. "Absolutely," I fired back—images of gang shootings in D.C., Bosnian refugees, and bodies hurled from the heights of the Twin Towers rushed to illustrate the point. "Only I'm pretty convinced it's what we make here on Earth, not some end-time reality." Moral decisions have consequences in the here and now, individually and communally. Hell? I've seen it.
But what about after death? What about the "eternal" part?
Almost everything I know about hell's eschatological aspects I learned from watching UPN's now- defunct series Buffy the Vampire Slayer—sort of an interactive "Divine Comedy." Valley-girl Buffy Summers and her Virgil (embodied by tweedy professor Rupert Giles) battle soulless creatures that slither out of the "hell mouth" (conveniently located under the high school), returning the creatures to blazing torment forever.
I would feel bad about this pop theological education, except I'm not alone.
For 700 years Dante's epic poem, mainly the "Inferno," has been the source of inspiration for preachers, pastors, and not a few theologians, who promoted hell as a physical place with its own address, zip code, and smoking embers. Add to their oratorical brimstone the fiery images from artists—Gustave Doré, Hieronymous Bosch, or Buffy-producer Joss Whedon—and you've got a potent pedagogy.