I don’t want to go to hell.

Just saying that sounds terribly unmodern (and for a preacher unseemly).

We’ve come a long way from Dante leading us through the infernal rings of hell, up the mountain of purgatory, arriving finally at the beatific vision of paradise. Renaissance art followed, more fascinated with hell than heaven. People daily lived wary of God’s judgment.

Alas, we are cured, it seems. We think little of hell today. Heaven fares better. More believe in heaven than hell, surveys say – which does not, of course, make hell the less; it only moves it further from our thoughts.

American religion has turned “this-worldly,” but at a loss we hardly fathom.

The late Nobel poet Czeslaw Milosz mused over this.

“Have we really lost our faith in that other space?/ Have they vanished forever, both Heaven and Hell?/ Without unearthly meadows how to meet salvation?/ And where will the damned find suitable quarters?/…Let us implore that it be returned to us/ That second space.”

Religious communities are caretakers of second-space words. We must be on a break.

“Why don’t you ever preach on hell?” one woman has asked me more than once. My reply is cute but curt: “I’m too busy bringing down heaven to raise hell.”

The power of heaven to compel us, however, need not exclude the power of hell to repel us. Love-based religion beats fear-based any day, but judgment and mercy are not mortal enemies (or immortal ones either!). Mercy is moot without judgment, just as love without fear is sentimental.

Take care, however, when over-enthusing over the return of hell. The Bible holds hell before the eyes of the faithful as a reminder against presumption. It does not fantasize about all the evildoers that will end up there, vindicating at last those of us who “deserve” heaven – we being the do-gooders, of course.

All live under judgment, even if all judgement lives under grace.

I am suspicious of any who are cocksure that hell will be full, or empty, or non-existent. The latter two alternatives would please me fine, and I pray that God’s love will win over all friends and enemies at last.

Like anyone else, I too hope against hell. Much as I would like to do without it, though, without it my passion might cool. Hell keeps the heat on. And it keeps me looking up.