Where the *&^# is that ABC story on hell?

Vision of HellOne of the many, many things that we GetReligionistas do not do very well is handle religion news carried on broadcast and cable television. There is, however, a good reason for this. Actually, there are several of them.

One is that I don’t watch very much television. Not because I am some kind of elitist snob. It’s just that I’d rather watch movies rather than news. I would rather read the news or interact with multimedia news online. Surprise.

I realize that there are some wonderful archives of television news stories online. However, the whole matter still seems to be rather hit and miss. And the “miss” side of things really ticks me off.

Take, for example, what I understand was a rather interesting 20/20 feature the other night on hell. What time does 20/20 come on, anyway? However, I know about the piece because Jeffrey Weiss wrote about it the other day at the Dallas Morning News religion weblog:

I’d love to post a link, but the stupid ABC site is just about unnavigable and I can’t find what I heard last night. But I noted two interesting items:

(1) In an extended discussion about the Christian idea of salvation, including an interview with what was described as an evangelical pastor, I never heard the word “Jesus.” Maybe I missed it?

(2) The segment claimed that Satanists are all actually atheists. And interviewed a self-styled Satanist who filled the bill. That seemed to be a serious stretch. It’s not like there’s a Satanic “pope” who sets “doctrine” for everyone who claims to be a Satanist, after all.

Now if you go to the 20/20 site, you will find a story, “Touching Heaven and Hell — One Man’s Brush With the Beyond Changes His Life,” by reporters Sylvia Johnson and Rob Wallace. It starts like this and quickly turns into yet another standard-issue NDE ratings booster:

Matthew Dovel says he calls himself “a hostile witness to heaven and hell.” Dovel is one of the thousands of Americans who have reported what are called near-death experiences. Although science can find no facts to support the notion that people have actually glimpsed the afterlife, many people brought back from the brink of death swear they’ve been to heaven.

Far fewer report visiting hell, but Dovel believes he’s seen both. And he’s had a few brushes with death.

That doesn’t seem to be what we want to find. So maybe what we are looking for is this Good Morning America story about one evangelical pastor — repeat, one — wrestling with timeless issues of God, free will and theodicy:

A prominent Tulsa, Okla., minister was scandalized not by sex or embezzlement, but by his belief in hell. When Carlton Pearson began wondering if modern believers still need a medieval pit of fire, it cost him his congregation.

Breaking news: Christians only believed in hell during the Medieval era. Forget all of those Eastern Orthodox icons, passages in the New Testament and other hellish references in the early church. And forget John 14:6, while we are at it.

ladderBut it appears more likely that the story for which Weiss saw a promo was this 20/20 feature by Rob Wallace and Farnaz Javid: “The Fascination With Hell’s Fury — Hell Has Played a Role Across Cultures and History, but What Does It Mean Today?” And, yes, if you search the short print version of the report it appears that the word “Jesus” is “not found.”

We are told this:

This afterlife for so-called sinners has fascinated society since the dawn of time. The very thought of the place inspired Dante to write his “Inferno,” giving us history’s most detailed description of the underworld.

Since then, artists from Michelangelo to Marilyn Manson have shaped our opinion of the infernal abyss. Most religious teachings describe hell as the netherworld anyone might end up in who strays from the straight and narrow. That view seems to be changing in this age of logic and political correctness.

A decade ago, 56 percent of Americans polled said they believed in hell. After the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the number shot up to 71 percent (polls conducted by Harris and Gallup), then fell in recent years, but this pattern is not a new phenomenon. Man’s definition of the abyss has shifted since the dawn of humanity. And through it all, it seems the more sinister hell is made out to be, the more it is mocked and embraced. It is a surefire punch line on television and in movies, and it’s used to market everything from comic books to chewing gum.

This report, however, is only 626 words long (whew, as opposed to 666). Surely this is not the whole story on such a complex topic. And, alas, there are no atheist Satanists in sight. Perhaps that was in a different feature?

That’s how things go, when you try to cover television online. The images flicker past or you miss them altogether because you have to do something like cook supper for your family, take a walk or go to church. Then it is hard to find what you are looking for with the search engines.

So let me end by joining with Weiss and asking: Did anyone see any of these reports? Are there illegal versions of them somewhere user-friendly, like YouTube?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jennifer

    Actually, I saw the 20/20 piece, and each of the excerpts that you quoted were part of the hour-long piece. I thought that 20/20 gave considerable time to the Catholic view of hell and purgatory. They also devoted a lot of attention to the Oklahoma pastor who used to work for Oral Roberts and now no longer believes in hell, but they gave very little attention to what evangelicals actually believe about heaven or hell.

  • Brian V

    The very thought of the place inspired Dante to write his “Inferno,” giving us history’s most detailed description of the underworld.

    While visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC some years ago, I found the bookstore lined with posters and T-shirts emblazoned with the sentence (attributed either directly to Dante or indirectly so via John F. Kennedy): “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who refuse to take a stand.” I don’t know if Kennedy ever said such a thing. If he did, he was as ignorant of the Divine Comedy as the writers of the promo quoted above. Canto III of the first Cantica places those who chose not to make a choice outside of hell, which they endlessly circle, pursued by wasps and chasing vain banners. Oddly enough, there is precious little fire in Inferno, and the worst of sinners — the treacherous — are frozen in ice.

    I point this out to call attention to the gap between conventional understandings of certain texts, such as the Comedy or the Bible, and what these texts actually say. There’s little in the 13,000-plus lines of Dante’s poem to suggest it was inspired by the “very thought” of hell. John Freccero comes closer to Dante’s concerns about this world and life by titling a collection of his essays on Dante The Poetics of Conversion. I’d think a reporter would look these things up, but then the quote comes from a blurb, not a real story.

    Still, a story about the fear of hell sells more lucrative commercial spots than one about singer-songwriters who are Christian but not in the Contemporary Christian Music mold (an in-between condition which Furay and the late Mark Heard share with Jan Krist, Pierce Pettis, Brooks Williams, and the band Over the Rhine, just to name a few). A theologically informed story on hell would probably be too much to expect from the news industry, and a thoughtful consideration of the troubled tradition of apokatastasis (the hope that all will be saved in the final restoration of creation) from Origen, Gregory and Clement to von Balthasar is completely out of the question.

  • http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct Ted Olsen

    Here you go:

    ‘Nobody Goes to Hell’: Minister Labeled a Heretic | One Minister Challenges the Idea of Hell and Loses His Congregation

    The Fascination With Hell’s Fury | Hell Has Played a Role Across Cultures and History, but What Does It Mean Today?

  • http://www.nathandaywilson.blogspot.com Nathan

    We all know that the force of religion is active and increasingly obvious. That’s not news.

    But now, it must be nearly time for the rapture or something! After all, Wal-Mart has just introduced a new line of toys — One2Believe — based on biblical characters. There is even a talking Jesus action doll, so now you have an idea for my Christmas present.


  • Elizabeth

    I also saw nearly all of 20/20 Friday and Jennifer is correct. The whole show was devoted to certain aspects of thoughts about hell, with all the stories mentioned shown in different segments.
    While much of the show really was fascinating – especially the interview with the ‘evil’ murderer who refuses to feel bad for killing people, actually telling the family that pain is a part of life and get over it – it was pretty lame when it came to actually looking at the beliefs or perceptions about hell. The whole Pearson part of the show was the only segment I came remember that actually looked at his perception of hell, what he used to believe, and why it changed.
    The idea behind the show held such promise, and yet fell so short.

    PS- as far as the satanist/atheist thing, that’s not the first time i’ve heard that. While I agree i’m sure there’s more than one type of satanist, evidently the teachings of the actual church of Satan are atheistic, and more about debauchery.

  • Camassia

    I read a book on new religious movements recently that said the official Church of Satan, the one formerly run by Anton LeVey, believed that Satan is just a symbol for human energy and will or something. However, a splinter group called the Temple of Set split off because it believes in a real deity, called Satan and Set and various other names throughout history. It’s funny how much the picture looked like a lot of American churches these days — there’s the mainline that prefers metaphorical explanations to supernatural ones, and then there are the “fundamentalist” dissenters who take things literally.

  • Martha

    Brian V., when they’re linking Michaelangelo and Marilyn Manson in the same sentence, we’re not talking about the higher criticism here ;-)

    I wonder did they use the ‘devil with a pitchfork and tail’ imagery to demonstrate how our ‘age of logic’ cannot believe in hell any more?

  • Hans

    However, a splinter group called the Temple of Set split off because it believes in a real deity

    Hmmm, Thulsa Doom’s (James Earl Jones) creepy snake cult in “Conan the Barbarian” is called “Set”. Lousy, plagiarizing satanists.

  • Brian V


    Well said. As T.S. Eliot wrote so long ago:

    “In the room the women come and go
    Talking of Marilyn Manson.”

  • Charles

    Actually, Set is originally a god from the ancient Egyptian pantheon. He’s the god of chaos who embodies hostility & evil. He is depicted as a beast having a curved snout, erect square tipped ears and a long forked tail.. He fooled his mortal enemy Osiris lord of life and fertility, and killed him, whence apparently Osiris became the Judge of the Dead..

    Seems Set is a rather apropos choice of deities for schismatic Satanists, eh? Being such “enlightened individualists” ..

  • rw

    Terry, I think there absolutely should be more coverage of what happens on television by GetReligion. As for the ephmeral nature of TV, and the fact it doesn’t always fit a person’s schedule, I have but one word:


  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Don’t have one. And I’m waiting for AppleTV 2.0, frankly.

    And part of the problem is that it is hard to know what to tape in advance. The stuff you really need is the live material in the regular newscasts. The FEATURE material is, to one degree or another, ending up online most of the time.

  • Hans

    Charles, you’re way off.

    Actually, Set is originally a god from the ancient Egyptian pantheon. He’s the god of chaos who embodies hostility & evil. He is depicted as a beast having a curved snout, erect square tipped ears and a long forked tail..

    That’s sounds like Gozer the Gozerian to me.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    The diffference is that nobody but himself proclaimed that LaVey’s “church” was in any way “official” Satanist doctrine. I could just as well write a book and call it “The Satanic Bible”, that would not give me any more authority than writing “The Linux Bible”.

    On the other hand, it is Aquino who claims that have an actual revelation from “Set”.