Go to hell! That's a curse or a command, depending on who is saying it and in which language. Nevertheless, it is a fairly universal rejoinder when a person runs out of intelligent things to say. I've been cursed with that expression many times ... and guess what? I never have taken it very seriously.
Horns and hoofs, fire and brimstone, eternal damnation... Who invented this? Does anybody really believe this? Well, yes – millions of people around the world not only believe that there is a real Devil, but fear him in a most petrified way!
“Literal burning hell” is a phrase often used by Fundamentalist Christians (both Roman Catholic and Protestant), as well as millions of Muslims. It is a theological term that defines their belief in the notion that anyone who does not believe as they do, at his or her death, will be immediately condemned to an eternal, neverending, searing punishment for their disbelief.
This back-at-ya philosophy is a New Testament construct. The Old Testament has none of it – save for exactly two references to “Satan” by name, and a few other allusions to an “adversary” who may or may not be the exact same personality as the character in the New Testament. The fightin' Fundies point right to the Garden of Eden story to prove that Satan was right there in the beginning, tempting and beguiling mankind to disobey God.
When the adversary character first makes the scene onstage in the Genesis account, it is in chapter three. He is called “the Serpent.” The omnipotent God had created the Heavens and the Earth, plant life, wild animals and livestock, one man and one woman, in the first two chapters. Then the omniscient God didn't know if the pair really loved him; so, in order to determine whether or not they did, he put them to the test. He placed a magic tree right in the middle of the Garden, and forbade them to touch it or eat its fruit.
Well, as the Bible says: Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, 'You must not eat from any tree in the garden'?” She replied: “We must not eat from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, for if we touch it we will die.” (Genesis 3:1-3).
Whereupon, the Serpent croons to the woman: “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good from evil.” (Gen. 3:4,5). Well, you know how the story goes. The omniscient God finds out what happened and blows a gasket. Then the cursing begins. He curses the Serpent first. (Note: The Serpent was not a conventional snake prior to this – he/it was more akin to some kind of a wild animal. And certainly not a personage resembling President Barack Obama, as depicted by the History Channel's hokey miniseries entitled The Bible).
God's curse on the Serpent is: “Cursed are you above all livestock and all the wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life.” (Gen. 3:14). Now the Serpent becomes a snake.
Then God curses the woman thusly: “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children.” (Gen. 3:16). Next comes the first sexist put-down in the Bible... “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” (Gen. 3:16).
But it's not over! Then God curses the Earth! Fundamentalists have a decided contempt for our planet. It is cursed by God. They refer to it as “God's footstool,” a miserable place that is all going to burn some day – so why take care of it? He notifies Adam: “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.” (Gen. 3:17).
The next time Satan appears as an actor in the grand Biblical play, it is in the book of Job, about halfway through the Old Testament, but totally out of sequence. This time, however, he is not a serpent or a snake. He is a personage in the company of angels right in the very presence of God Almighty. Call it a prequel. Sort of like in Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. Act two presumably occurs chronologically, way before Genesis, Adam and Eve, and the scene in the Garden of Eden. It is set in Heaven. Satan is a fabulously beautiful angel, even outshining God himself. Well, he thinks so anyway.
Our Fundamentalist friends and relatives constantly refer to Job when they encounter difficulties in their own lives. This story makes a big impression on people who fear their god. At any time God may be sitting up there in Heaven, and, for all they know, Satan is probably taunting him by saying something like: “Well, look down there ... see that pious woman, Margaret McMillan, there in Cincinnati. She is just dripping with righteousness. I'll bet if you killed her son in a car crash, she would fall apart and curse you! In fact, she would probably go out and get drunk, become an alcoholic, lose her job and her house, and end up killing herself!”
I can't even begin to recall all the “testimonies” I have heard from Christian Fundamentalist Believers over the years, who stand up in church services and say: “Pray for me. God has sent all sorts of trials and tribulations into my life, and I just don't know how much more I can stand. Satan is really trying to get me to fall away and deny God.”
Well, get this... In the entire forty-two grindingly long chapters of the "Book of Job," Satan gets a grand total of six verses! Six... The famous trials of Job began as a wager between God and the beautiful angel, Satan. He challenges God. Here is his cameo performance from Job chapter one:
One day the angels came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan came with them. The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?”
Satan answered the Lord, “From roaming through the earth and going back and forth in it.”
Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.”
“Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied. “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything that he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, and that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.”
The Lord said to Satan, “Very well then, everything he has is in your hands, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.” Then Satan went out from the presence of the lord. (Job 1:6-12).
So, the curtain falls on Act Two, Scene One. Satan just up and leaves God sitting there. So, did Satan do anything to Job? Hell no! He didn't get a chance. From that moment on it is God's show all the way.
The book of Job grinds through thirty-five chapters of God's inflicted sufferings. All his family dies, all his flocks and herds are likewise killed by God. He is infected with festering boils and hemorrhoids. He is a real mess, but hangs in there. Three “friends” stop by and, seeing his misery, proclaim that it is obvious that he has offended God somehow. Job sticks to his guns. But finally, by chapter thirty-seven, he gives up on God, concluding that “the Almighty is beyond our reach...” (Job 37:23).
One of the biggest all-time questions that Christians ask is: Why do the righteous suffer? Actually, it is asked by all men and women throughout the ages – everywhere. Why does anyone have to suffer, righteous or not? The answer is that it is arbitrary and random. There is no rhyme or reason to life. It is a crapshoot.
He didn't actually curse God as Satan had predicted ... but this was enough to put God's knickers in a twist. He was pissed that his dear “servant” Job pooped out. Like a Deist, Job just concludes that God is distant – out there somewhere – and just ignores us if he wants – doesn't waste his time on our prayers, and only notices us when we don't worship him properly.
Then, God really loses it. He gets all wound up. He rants and raves, he hoots and howls. He snorts and blows. Reminiscent of the famous scene when Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion are quivering and quaking in front of the great and powerful Oz, Job turns into a wobbling mass of jello.
God roars at Job for four whole chapters, until poor Job throws himself onto a bed of nails, and bleats: “I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:6). Obviously, Job learned a valuable lesson that all Fundamentalists strive to maintain in their minds constantly: God is sovereign. He is in charge, and can do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, and to whomever he wants at any time. It's all God's show, and poor Satan doesn't even get to take a bow before the curtain comes down.
Intermission: Satan, AKA the Devil, doesn't get another mention in the Old Testament. So take a breather. The New Testament is about to begin.
Well, act three is kind of different compared to the first two acts. In act one, the Serpent actually did his deception thing, causing the man and woman to “sin” by eating fruit in disobedience to God. In act two, Satan didn't even have a chance to do anything but bet God that Job would crumble – which he did ... sort of. In act three, scene one, Satan rates a grand total of twelve whole verses! Wow, I'm so unimpressed.
Anyway, the scene is the Judaean Desert. Jesus is up on a mountain fasting for forty days. He is hungry. Obviously. The Devil arrives stage left, and says: “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone.’” (Luke 4:3,4). That attempt at temptation was a flop, so... The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor, for it has been given to me and I can give it to anyone I want to. So if you worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered, “It is written: Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.” (Luke 4:5-8). What a put-down! Satan didn't even get to square one. So Jesus simply dismisses him. When the devil had finished all his tempting, he left him until an opportune time. (Luke 4:13).
Well, finally! Act three, scene two. The aforementioned “opportune time” arrives, and Satan gets to go out onstage and really razzle-dazzle 'em! The scene is the “End Times.” Christians have been calling every day, month, and year, for over two thousand years now, the "End Times." We have been warned of the calamitous end of the Earth as we know it since the Apostle John wrote his nightmare vision entitled "Revelation."
Our friends, the Fundamentalists, are convinced that we all are unable to avoid that Satan-inspired performance. And they are all gleefully waiting for it. They assure us that we won't be happy campers – but they will! After all, they have a fire insurance policy.
But, once again, it really isn't Satan causing all the mayhem to come. Satan is, per usual, just an onlooker in God's play – a sort of walk-on performance. It is God and his son Jesus who get to kill one fourth of humanity “by the sword” ... send famine and plague and wild beasts up on the Earth. Likewise, they are responsible for turning the sun black and the moon to blood, and sending hail and fire mixed with blood, as well as burning up a third of all the trees and grass, drying up the oceans, and turning a third of all the stars black. And that ain't the half of it – but you get the picture.
Poor ol’ Satan. He really wants to be a badass, but every time he tries to do something really diabolical, God beats him to the punch and does it for him – and way bigger and better. All in all, I have to say that Satan just doesn't seem very scary to me. Okay, he talked Adam and Eve into taking a bite of the forbidden fruit ... but who did all the cursing? And he questioned Job's piety ... but who tortured the poor guy into near insanity? When he attempted to entice Jesus with a few kingdoms here and there, he was rebuffed.
So why are the Fundies so paranoid? At this point, Satan has merely been allowed to tempt and deceive. He is sort of a cynical character who thinks he is smarter and better-looking than God, and is sort of out to rain on his parade.
In any case, our Fundamentalist neighbors, friends, relatives, and civil servants are all living in fear. They fear Satan because he can tempt and beguile them. But mostly they fear their God, whom they are genuinely afraid of because it is he who can actually condemn them to frizzle and fry forever ... and ever.