Four dumb ‘cracker’ hell-fire films that exemplify the folly of a burning hell

(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here.) I like the Mormon definition of hell. It’s called Sons of Perdition, which to me has always sounded like a sequel to the Laurel & Hardy film “Sons of the Desert.” We keep the criteria for Sons of Perdition very vague. To get in there, someone has to fight against the gospel while having a clear knowledge of the truth. That sort of closes the gates of Mormon hell to everyone who has lived on earth except for Cain and Judas, and maybe Harry Reid (just joking on that last name.)

What hell is like is an obsession for a lot of us out there. My brain is fried from watching a bunch of southern evangelical films of the early 1970s from the late Ron Ormond, who went from making cheap science fiction films in the 1950s, to making tame “adult” films in the 1960s to make “hell, fire and brimstone” cracker evangelical films in the 1970s.

Dig these titles: “The Burning Hell,” “The Grim Reaper,”(with a young, buttery Rev. Jerry Falwell!)  and “If Footmen Tire You What Will Horses Do?” (The last one also includes commies as well as Christian-haters). It’s easy to ridicule these films. They basically have the same plot: Some people, mostly young, scorn Christianity and the warnings of real, burning hell that resembles Jonathan Edward’s “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God.” One of the unbelievers has the bad luck to die — usually in a wreck. The camera then lingers lovingly for scores of minutes on the eternal tortures and miseries of the good old boy(s) who were earlier scorning God. Eventually, one of the unbelievers who is still alive wanders into a church. He listens to a Southern-fried preacher (in two of the films the preacher is played by a real preacher, the delightfully named Estus W. Pirkle). The climax of the film involves the disbeliever being so swayed by the Reverend Pirkle, and so afraid of hell, that he/she is born again and saved. It’s too late for the dead sinners, though, they keep burning forever.

The idea of the hell envisioned by Ormond and Pirkle still carries a lot of strength. The “Left Behind” series of books, which has sold 70 million-plus copies, imagines a post-Rapture where millions are consigned to a burning hell after prolonged suffering on earth. Today’s Islamic radicals consider the victims of their terrorism as “infidels,” and consign them to an eternal hell of suffering. And I recall watching a feature film on one of the SLC area TV evangelical channels, “Final Exit,” in which a woman murdered by a serial killer burns eternally in hell due to her promiscuous lifestyle. Her killer, however, due to a pre-execution conversion to Christ, is welcomed into heaven.

These depictions of hell, and what some people believe God will do to his children, are appalling. It is an evil doctrine, in opposition to God’s love for his children and, in regards to Christianity, it also mocks the suffering of Jesus Christ. This point merits expansion. Though Mormons are taught that Jesus Christ suffered far more in the Garden of Gethsemane than on the cross being crucified, the traditional viewpoint is that Christ’s, or God’s, atonement was achieved in part through the pain he experienced being crucified.

However, in these movies a mortal’s post-earthly existence in hell is forever, which includes eternal suffering, usually by burning, that of course never ends. The obvious question: why would God wish his children to suffer more pain than Christ himself suffered on the cross? To take this doctrine is to worship a vengeful God, the opposite of love and charity.

The absoluteness of this doctrine is evil. If one does not accept Christ in the same manner of someone else, that individual is consigned to an eternal punishment in hell. Taken to its absurd conclusions, the vengeful God that hell-believers worship would consign to eternal torture an infinite amount of devout Mormons, Jews, Muslims, Seventh Day Adventists, Buddhists, and so on, who reject the entreaties of those who see only a narrow passage to heaven and a vengeful God punishing those who don’t “dot their i’s or cross their t’s.”

To sum up, to teach of any ‘hell’ with endlessly burning sinners is evil. This doctrine hangs around still (has anyone been to an evangelical “hell house” for Halloween?) and it will always hang around. But as time goes, there are less adherents fooled, frightened by it.

(If anyone wants to watch those bizarre, hysterical evangelical southern cracker films from Ron Ormond and the Rev. Estus W. Pirkle, they’re available on that repository of culture, YouTube.  ”The Grim Reaper” is here and “The Burning Hell” is here. “If Footmen Tire You What Will Horses Do is here. The far worse, 1995 “Final Exit,” is here. They are, literally, a trip.)

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18 Responses to Four dumb ‘cracker’ hell-fire films that exemplify the folly of a burning hell

  1. Jim W says:

    Burning in Hell forever doesn’t sound fun.

    But Sam Raimi’s DRAG ME TO HELL was entertaining.

    • Doug Gibson says:

      I agree the film was pretty good, although as an old horror film fan I hate the recent trend of sticking a last-second “twist” negative ending to horror films, and Drag Me to Hell did that.

  2. Bob Becker says:

    Learn something every day. I thought “Sons of Perdition” was the name of a band. Had no idea it was a descriptive term for the LDS conception of “hell.”

  3. Lasvegasrichard says:

    Gotta love religion along with the infinite dogmas .

  4. laverl09 says:

    I like the Mormon concept that all of us as children of the same God (except those few profligates mentioned in this article) will inherit one of three kingdoms of glory.
    Most of Mormonism is about what to do and how to act to inherit the highest heaven, but as the article implies, most all of God’s children will go to some kind of Heaven.

  5. bfwebster says:

    Doug: about six years ago, I wrote a post on “Mormons and Hell” in which I pointed out that we actually believe in three types of ‘hell’ (not levels, but potentially successive), the first two of which end almost everyone involved, and all of which are quite different (thankfully) from the standard Christian belief.

    I’m also reminded of Orson Scott Card’s definition of “son of perdition” in Saintspeak: A Mormon Dictionary: “Judging from the fact that the Lord hasn’t mentioned any daughters of perdition, this looks like one more position that only men can hold.” :-) ..bruce..

    • bfwebster says:

      Uh, “end for almost everyone involved”. Makes a difference. :-)

    • Doug Gibson says:

      Thanks for sharing the post, it was very interesting. … With all the missionary work going on in the spirit world, it seems possible that debates over what is right and wrong will be almost as intense there as they are here. (That’s just me talking, though.)

  6. Gregory A. Clark says:

    Good column, Doug. Well, so far as it goes, anyway. But why stop there? :)

    Hell aside (eternal or not), God Himself also drowned all the babies on earth, and willfully and explicitly targeted and slaughtered all the Egyptian firstborns, despite their innocence.

    To take this doctrine is to worship a vengeful God, the opposite of love and charity. These depictions, and what some people believe God will do to his children, are appalling. :)

    Understandably, many people instead define God according to their own preferences, and avoid the negatives. After all, who could reasonably worship such a being?

    But when it comes to God’s Word, mere mortals don’t reasonably get to pick and choose what to keep, and what to dump. By definition, everything the omnibenevolent God does is good. Because, you know: thumbs up on drowning and slaughtering babies. Among multitudes of other atrocities.

    And yet the claim goes, “God is love.” And “Heavenly Father loves all his children unconditionally.” Sheesh. With love like that, who needs hate?

    Redefining “love,” as CS Lewis so disingenuously attempts to do, doesn’t solve the fundamental problem.

    The problem of theodicy isn’t only that God *allows* evil. It’s that, all too often, He IS evil.

    • Jim W says:

      All sorts of unjust things happen on earth. If this earth life was all there is, then things like the flood wiping out all life, the final plague in Egypt, murders of innocents, famine, natural disaster, life under tyranny, deformed bodies or minds, illnesses and injuries of every stripe, etc. would be hard to reconcile with the idea of a just and loving God.

      But the LDS concept of eternity includes the belief that the scales are ultimately balanced. That those who were destroyed by the flood continue to exist, and that through Christ’s atonement and resurrection their mortal fate isn’t their final judgment. Christ alluded to the balancing of the scales in his parable of Lazarus and the beggar.

  7. Howard says:

    “Do not fear those who kill the body, but fear Him who can destroy both body and soul in Hell” Mat 10:28; Lk 12:5
    Guess you had better pray to God His Word is Wrong eh?

  8. Nathan says:

    You said, “though Mormons are taught that Jesus Christ suffered far more in the Garden of Gethsemane than on the cross….”

    A friendly correction: Although we believe he bled from every pore due to the weight of our sins in Gethsemane, Jesus again felt the weight of our sins while He willingly suffered crucifixion and death by one of the most cruel methods ever known. Thus, his physical suffering, and spiritual impact of our sins while on the cross coupled with the emotional loss of support from the Father at the end of His time on the cross arguably makes the time on the cross the most suffering He experienced during the atonement. Not that it really matters as the atonement was an experience that none of us fully understand, but we appreciate the personal effect it has in our own lives. Sorry if this is considered a threadjack.

    • Nathan says:

      It’s always good to cite one’s sources during correction. My source is taken from the church’s website:

      We can’t fully understand how Jesus suffered for our sins. But we know that in the Garden of Gethsemane, the weight of our sins caused Him to feel such agony that He bled from every pore (Doctrine and Covenants 19:16-17).

      Later, as He hung upon the cross, Jesus again felt the weight of our sins even as He willingly suffered painful death by one of the most cruel methods ever known. Jesus the Christ, page 462 states, “It seems, that in addition to the fearful suffering incident to crucifixion, the agony of Gethsemane had recurred, intensified beyond human power to endure. In that bitterest hour the dying Christ was alone, alone in most terrible reality.”

  9. Pingback: Mormons and hell, revisited | Adventures in Mormonism

  10. laverl09 says:

    The atonement covers every child ever born who dies before the age of accountability (regardless of place, regardless of race, regardless of religion) and so all those slaughtered children you mention are already in the highest heaven.

  11. Seraphim says:

    The idea that a person only goes to or experiences hell if they choose it has been around a lot longer than the Mormon movement began. It can be found in various church fathers, most notably St. Isaac of Syria and St. Gregory of Nyssa

  12. Dan Maloy says:

    It boggles my mind when I think of the belief that some (non-LDS) Christians have of ‘hell’. To claim that they believe that God is both loving and just (as they must, as a Christian….I mean that’s a major, major part of being a Christian, ie, believing that God is in fact ‘loving’ and ‘just’….how can you be a Christian WITHOUT believing those things) but then in the next breath, after professing their belief in both a loving and a just god, claim that God will A) consign someone to the pain of literal flame on one’s body for all eternity (burn vicitims often describe being burned by fire as the single most excruiating type of pain they have ever experienced) and B) leave those suffering in ‘hell’ for all eternity even though those suffering there must SURELY at some point ‘pay for their sin’ by suffering an amount of pain equal to the amount of pain they themselves caused by their sins. No, it should not be hard to cast aside the traditional view of Christian hell as taught at the pulpits of 99% of Christian churches simply by understanding and admitting what the scriptures and the Holy Spirit already tell us: that God is in fact both loving and just. I literally thank God I understand that, and by understanding that, I know the falseness of the ‘hell is fire on flesh’ lie. I am indeed free of this lie. Good luck to us all.

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