Propaganda 101: HEAVEN or HELL (Fellowship Tract League Tract #115)

So: HEAVEN or HELL, which do you choose?

Ah, false dichotomy, how long has it been since we last danced? It seems but yesterday I held you in my arms, as you whispered sweet nothings; but I have so many dance partners and you imagine yourself the only one.

Are you going to heaven or to hell?” asks the first line of this tract. “The Bible teaches that many seemingly good people are going to hell, because … Sin has a price. You might be wondering what happens to people when they die in their sins.” And so on. The parts that I’m skipping are lengthy references to the Bible that don’t mean very much to the message that’s being demonstrated here. Except maybe the bit where it mentions people being “cast into a lake of fire.”

Does anyone else find it strange that the word “hell” in these doesn’t have a capital letter? To me this is a weird modification of English grammar; here I thought that Christians considered Hell to be an actual place—or at least a proper noun. Heaven doesn’t get a capital in this tract either, so maybe it’s a style issue.

The tract goes on to say, “The Bible tells us God desires to save everyone. … Do you want to be saved? The Bible teaches that there are several things you must do in order to be saved.

The propagandist here makes several assumptions that haven’t been addressed. The first: the reader may not believe in the concept of sin. Without sin this threat is totally moot. Can’t die in your sin if there is none. It also assumes that Heaven and Hell are meaningful places to the reader. As if they don’t believe in Olympus, Valhalla, Elysium, any other afterlife–or none!

I’ve been looking at a lot of these tracts and this type seems to be directed at other Christians.

The way to be saved is so simple! Yet many refuse to be saved. They will not accept Jesus Christ alone for salvation from sin and its penalty. They refuse to believe that Lord Jesus is powerful enough to save them by Himself. Do you?

Or, Mr. False Dichotomy, maybe there isn’t a Jesus.

Parsing this tract gives me a unique segue into something that I’d like to talk about, not just false dichotomies, but the implementation of “conversion by threat.” To instantiate such a piece of propaganda first I must set up a paradigm that includes the elements that I am going to threaten with: in this case Heaven and Hell. Then I set up a balance between them by exploiting the human reaction to threats: explicit focus.

When presented with danger or stress things get really simple: safe and not safe. So, I set up something extremely dangerous, “Eternal torture in Hell!” and on the other side of the proverbial coin, I put something extremely safe, “Eternal bliss in Heaven.” Although, oddly, neither Heaven nor Hell are described in this entire tract, so really it’s not offering Heaven except in the title, only being rescued from the threat of Hell. Saved.

Once I’ve got that threat up, and I have my audience hooked on it, I sell my solution. At this layer of abstraction the human mind sees the two necessary elements of a stress action and, of course, chooses the case that doesn’t involve the serious danger. Threatening people with eternal torture to get them to agree must be one of the most cynical mechanics that I have ever seen in Christian propaganda.

“Do as I say or this bad thing will happen.”

In the parlance of my academic peers this is called an appeal to fear. It works by instilling fear, in this case via threat, in the reader and then feeding on that in order to make the rest of its case. This appeal is particularly fragile in that it has no depth to it. Appeals to fear require that the reader not examine the appeal too deeply, in this tract, not to question the assumptions made in the tract:

If there is no Heaven or Hell then this threat is moot.