When I was a kid, it was against decency regulations to say hell on broadcast television or radio (or for that matter, Jesus, or Christ. Religious sermons and usage in those context were exempt, of course). In the 70s Battlestar Galactica the expletive Hades was substituted for Hell. And Frack was more of an interjection like Frack, I forgot the key to my room! and not the more universal emphatic like Listen you frack-up, you have one chance to get the frack out of my way before I totally beat your fracking head in. Swearing in BSG got an update with the times.
Swearing in general got an update with the times. A lot of the softer swears graduated to general public acceptance, the way that darn, dang, crap and blast! are considered mild and archaic today. Even during the Ashcroft-era resurgence of intense decency regulations and heavy fines, hell was regarded as safe public broadcast fodder, even when used as an expletive or an emotional emphasis.
That said, in recent years hanging with a preteen girl, I discovered that hell is still fairly reserved when near some of our younger population…more or less. At the time, the little girl thought use of Hell as an expletive was a pretty big deal. Her mom was not as concerned. A couple of years later, I haven’t actually checked to see how its status has changed.
I suspect the reservation of hell as a swear is less a matter of it being profane than it being a delicate subject. We refrain from discussing Hell around children the way we refrain from discussing death around children. The way that Ms. Beetle stops moving if you forget to punch airholes in her jar, or if you forget to feed her adequately. Ms. Beetle will eventually stop moving with the unrelenting march of a few weeks of time. And at that point, it’s a short step to wonder how many weeks a little girl gets before she stops moving, too. It’s a short step to wondering in how many situations inaction or neglect can reduce weeks of life down to days or hours, and how many Ms. Beetles and little girls are in similar circumstances.
Hell and the threat of divine judgement and eternal damnation is for many families a real subject like death. Hell is, for them, as real a place as the moon or Australia, and all the implications that come with Hell, that people are judged and go there, are also accepted as true. The narrative of Hell comes with quite a bit of awkwardness when a little girl might think about its implications. Little boys and girls can be so terrible as to anger God so much that they would be sent to Hell for all eternity to suffer excruciating pain — spankings times lots and lots and lots, forever and ever and ever. Never mind that this is a span of time that turns infinitesimal the lifespan of the universe (thousands of trillions of years, based on heat death estimations — trillions of years more than Yahweh or Hell were ever conceptualized by Humans). Sending even a bad bad person to Hell is worse than sending a little girl to live out her days as a child prostitute, which, itself seems a bit harsh even if she pushed her brother down a well (e.g. Angelica Transom, 1889)
To be fair, Hell doesn’t get less awkward when your little girl becomes an adolescent teen and is neglecting her homework and getting high with her friends and experimenting with boys (or experimenting with other girls). At that point comes the matter that God / Jesus / The Church doesn’t seem to agree with her or you or anyone else as to who the baddies are. The parish boy who raped Marceille and claimed she consented while she was sleeping? He goes to Heaven. The lesbian couple down the block who helped Marcielle seek professional help and not poison herself out of shame? They go to Hell. The religious school counselor who told Marceille that she’s filthy and unclean and worthless for losing her virginity before marriage? She goes to Heaven. The nice doctor who arranges for Marceille’s abortion? She goes to Hell. It goes on and on and on like this every day.
To be fair, Hell doesn’t get any less awkward when your little girl survives her adolescence to become an adult, goes to college or gets a job and tries to build a life of her very own. At this point, it’s curious enough that the Pope wants to condemn sexually active women, abortion providers and gays, but is less interested in fighting against poverty and starvation (both of which are pandemic across the earth). After a while one might get to thinking about the role of the Pope and what his job is, but then there’s that thing with Hell being an eternity of pain and suffering (on that Hospital pain scale from one to ten, Hell is twenty-five).
Many people decide that Hell’s pretty ridiculous as it’s taught, but many don’t. Supposing in the Socratic tradition that it is entirely as advertised. One human soul in Hell amounts to more suffering than all the suffering caused by all the human beings throughout time, combined. And there’s not just one person in Hell. There’s One Hundred Billion.
Why doesn’t the Pope pass a bull issuing salvation to everyone?
I mean everyone. Dead, alive, vampires and zombies. Hitler and Stalin and Caligula and Vlad the Impaler. Alan Wilson and Jim Morrison and Sid Vicious. Every murderer. Every suicide. Every unbaptized infant. Every primitive aboriginal. Joffery Beratheon and Cersei Lannister and Gregor Clegaine just in case they exist in an alternate reality. Dogs and cats and gerbils and goldfish, lest they have souls… The Pope could free them all if he wanted to, and it would be the greatest act of mercy in the history of the Vatican.
Why has no Pope in the history of the Church ever done this? Why doesn’t Pope Francis do this? Why doesn’t he feel obligated as a human being let alone a human leader, to do the fracking math, and shut down Hell for all time?
Hell never really gets unawkward.
As a postscript, Regarding broadcast profanity regulations, I strongly recommend I Bet You They Won’t Play This Song On the Radio (Eric Idle, circa 1981, SFW) and more cynically The FCC Song (Also Eric Idle, Circa 2004, really rather NSFW) which illustrates how the subject of freedom-of-speech vs. public propriety developed from a matter of modest annoyance to one of seething outrage. Enjoy!