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Heaven in the American Imagination
Heaven in the American Imagination
Gary Scott Smith
Oxford University Press, 2011
360 pp., $35.95

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Kelly James Clark


Hellish Convictions

Heaven and hell in the American imagination.

"O God, if I worship thee for fear of hell, burn me in hell; and if I worship thee in hope of paradise, exclude me from paradise; but if I worship thee for thine own sake, withhold not thine everlasting beauty."
                                                                                               —St. Francis Xavier

A few years ago, Christian philosopher Marilyn Adams gave a talk at Calvin College on hell. Bottom line: she was agin' it. Most of the students in my Philosophy of Religion class were scandalized, and the source of their outrage was that if there were no hell, they would lose all motivation to be faithful to God in this life. If one could grab for all of the gusto—sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll (and no getting up early on Sundays for church)—and still get into heaven, why believe in God at all? Atheistic hedonism seemed the best policy: all of the pleasures that this life has to offer plus an eternity of bliss. The alternative, faith in God the Cosmic Party Pooper, demands a lifetime of self-sacrifice.

Some things became clear. My students were motivated more by the stick (fear of hell) than the carrot (desire for heaven). Even more disturbing, they were motivated by selfish desire—avoidance of pain—not by love of or faith in God. Explaining to them that they should be faithful because God is our greatest good, even in this life, left them strangely unmoved. They indignantly demanded their hell.

And not just any hell would do. It had to be savage and brutal ...

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