One of the reasons horror works is because it taps into our anxieties. Unhealthy theology can do the same thing.
Clive Barker’s Hellraiser franchise has always made this explicit. Eternal torture, and not mere death, is the threat. The baddies are called Cenobites, a term historically used to refer to Christians who live in monastic communities (as opposed to eremites/hermits, who live alone). Although the first film presented the Cenobites as extradimensional entities rather than demons, later sequels made their demonic status more explicit—and even incorporated God, angels, and other aspects of traditional Christian theology.
As a religious person, you might find it worthwhile to reflect on these questions:
1. Do you worship an all-powerful Hell-bringer?
If your theology is too Hell-centric, you may find yourself believing in a God whose defining interaction with people involves threatening them with Hell and then sending them there.
Yes, you’re safe; for some reason, religious movements that teach their own adherents they’ll be tortured for eternity tend not to be very popular. But if the characteristic of God most other people will see—the main difference your theology has with a secular universe—involves the presence of eternal torture rather than the presence of love…well, you’re essentially describing Pinhead.
Yes, you can frame it as something God is unsuccessfully warning people about out of love, or say real love involves the threat of eternal torture, or however you want to spin it, but you’re still describing a God who—in the vast majority of cases—brought people out of the void to torture them eternally. That’s pretty metal, and non-sociopathic people are going to tend to reject it if they feel like they have the option.
Fortunately, there are ways around this theology and its blasphemous implications. Hans Urs von Balthasar dedicated much of his public life to reframing our modern understanding of God around love rather than damnation, and Bishop Robert Barron has a delightful explainer on the subject. You can hold theologically orthodox beliefs about Hell without worshipping damnation.
2. Do you make contact with God by solving a puzzle?
Pinhead’s victims in the Hellraiser franchise are tricked into damnation by solving the Lament Configuration, a puzzle box that opens a gate to the Cenobites’ dimension once it’s solved. They rarely know that’s what they’re doing, so that makes the threat of eternal torture brutally unfair.
Do you preach that God works the same way? Do you believe people are damned, or saved, based on how well they can figure things out? Do you believe damnation is generally accidental, and that most people never knowingly have the option of avoiding it?
Pope Francis’ concerns about neo-Gnosticism are all about avoiding theologies that say the only way you can connect with God is by solving the cosmic Lament Configuration.
3. Have you rejected humble grace?
The defining vice in the Hellraiser universe is arrogance. Arrogant people want to solve the puzzle box; Pinhead and the Cenobites, in their arrogance, feel entitled to torture people for eternity. That’s why the best antidote to developing a Pinhead theology is staying humble.
Religious people often face ridicule for saying things like I don’t know, but I trust God to work it out because it sounds like a cop-out, and maybe it is. But it’s still the best possible answer to any theological question, because the first thing we know about God is that he’s transcendent—that he’s completely beyond our ordinary understanding of how anything works.
The second thing we know about God, in the Abrahamic tradition, is that he’s loving and merciful. So attributing malice and cruelty to God because they seem like traits he would have based on the theology that we have definitely figured out is a direct inversion of our two core beliefs in God: a rejection of his transcendence, and a rejection of his mercy. That’s profoundly unappealing to humble, compassionate people, creating a baseline cultural tension surrounding God and faith.
That’s why cosmic horror, like we see in the Hellraiser franchise and Lovecraftian mythos, is so popular right now. That’s why contemporary pop artists like Lil Nas X and Rina Sawayama are riffing on Hell imagery so much, and so well. That’s probably a central reason why the number of religiously unaffiliated people is increasing so rapidly in the West.
Worst of all, these theological mistakes are both magnifying our vices and causing unimaginable suffering to the people we love. It’s a conjunction of events that would make Pinhead smile—but I don’t think it makes God smile.