09/19/2012 10:05 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Why Americans Care So Much About Hell

Whether they realize it or not, Americans are steeped in the language and imagery of hell. They encounter it at the movie theater, in church, on television, in heavy metal music, video games, novels and comic books--even in their food. Ever tried Doyle's Made in Hell hot sauce? What about Hell's Fury coffee?

Then there are all the phrases that include the word "hell": What the hell? Like hell. From hell. Go to hell. Raise hell. Hell no. Hell yeah! Run like hell. Feel like hell. Look like hell. Mad as hell. See you in hell. Shut the hell up!

As Brad Jersak says in his book Her Gates Will Never Be Shut, if Dante were to come back today, he would be completely confused: Is hell a place, a state of being, a catch phrase or a brand?

How can we explain this obsession with hell? On one level, it's pretty easy--hell is a brilliant marketing tool. Converging on themes of death, torment, violence and despair, it offers us a never-ending storehouse of titillating images. Embracing hell also represents the ultimate act of defiance, the triumph of the individual over the oppressive majority. So if you want to position yourself or your product as the choice of self-styled mavericks everywhere, associating it with hell is an obvious move.

But far from a rhetorical gloss, I think the prevalence of hell in American language and culture actually represents the outworking of three concepts that have defined America since its inception: freedom, justice and truth.

Hell is often pitched as the realm of ultimate freedom, a place liberated from the constraints of God and religion where Satan and his minions rule and we get to party like AC/DC on tour circa 1979. But in its traditional understanding, hell is actually the end of freedom. For those who don't believe in an afterlife, death is the backstop for all of our decisions. The consequences of our choices begin and end in this life. But if you're a person of faith, death is not the end, so it seems like we need a reward/punishment scenario like heaven and hell to serve as a final day of reckoning. Americans are constantly debating the nature of freedom; it's limitations and the consequences of our bad choices. So it's only natural that the language of hell would creep into those debates, because these same issues are front and center in any discussion of hell.

It's difficult to talk about freedom without also discussing justice, because it seems logical that my freedom should end when it impinges upon yours. But how should we handle these violations of freedom? In other words, what is justice? For many people, justice equals punishment--if not revenge then at least retribution. But how do we balance the desire for payback with other functions of the justice system, such as deterrence, public protection, restitution for victims and the desire to rehabilitate offenders? This is an ongoing debate that mirrors the current debate over the doctrine of hell. At every point in history, some of these concerns receive more emphasis than others. Currently, a growing number of Christians are suggesting we've clung to a retributive interpretation of hell (and justice) for far too long. Perhaps it's time to place more emphasis on restitution and rehabilitation. But even among these people, few are willing to give up the idea of retribution altogether, feeling intuitively that an external system of rewards and punishments is a vital part of human society. So our discussions of human justice and divine justice are engaged in a reciprocal dialogue that won't end any time soon.

Finally, comes truth. If you're a public figure in America, people will forgive you for all sorts of indiscretions, from adultery to theft to drunken driving. But there's one thing Americans simply will not tolerate: lies. The problem is, discerning the truth is more difficult than ever. It's often determined by who can hire the best legal team rather than who is most forthcoming with the facts. Couple that with a growing recognition that truth is always open to interpretation, and we find ourselves in an increasingly ambiguous and stressful world. For many people, the language of hell cuts right through this confusion, fear and doubt, replacing our uncertainties with a binary system of eternal absolutes--a system Americans seek to emulate within their own justice system. Whether such a view actually represents the best approach to freedom, justice or truth tends to take a back seat to the immediate psychological relief it appears to offer.

So while most Americans are unaware of the prevalence of hell, and some are trying to do away with the concept altogether, I don't think America can survive without it. Hell is simply doing too much work. I have no doubt our concept of hell will continue to evolve over time, but I don't think it will go extinct until we do.

Kevin Miller is the director of the feature-length documentary Hellbound?, which hits select theaters starting Sept. 21, 2012. (He also happens to be a Canadian.)