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Going to Hell in a Handbasket
For many, this is exactly where we are headed as a people.

It is a colorful phrase. For large numbers of people, it accurately and powerfully depicts where we are headed as a nation. It is especially popular among evangelical Christians, right wing Republicans, and those who sell books, magazines and other products to these groups. It is a staple among those who believe that the world as we know it is coming to an end soon. Many seem to find in this cliché a fulfillment of biblical prophecy. But where did this vivid phrase come from, what does it actually mean, and does it paint an accurate picture of what is happening in to us as a people?

There are various clues, but no definitive conclusion can be drawn about the origins of the phrase. Historian Eric Partridge, in his "Dictionary of Catch Phrases," dates the term to the early 1920's. Christine Ammer, in her "Have A Nice Day: No Problem! A Dictionary of Cliches," also traces the phrase to the early 20th century, and notes that the alliteration of "hell" and "handbasket" probably contributed to its durability. She adds that since handbaskets are "light and easily conveyed," the term "means going to hell easily and rapidly." That seems right to me, as it adds a note of immediacy to the prediction. After all, it makes a great deal of difference whether one believes that as a society we are slowing evolving in ways that will have dire consequences a few centuries from now, as, for example, is probably the case with respect to a peril like global warming, or whether we face those consequences next year or next week. Those who want you to buy their books today, contribute to their ministry this week or vote their way in the next election, naturally gravitate to the idea that the consequences of not following their advice will have devastating consequences IMMEDIATELY.  Hence, "going to hell in a handbasket," since it implies a destruction that is swift and sure, is to be preferred to simply "going to hell" or the all too domesticated,  "going to the dogs." 

In any event, the phrase is of relatively recent origin, and is certainly not found in the Bible. In fact, the word "hell" is actually very rare in Scripture, appearing only twenty times in a very long book.  And when it appears, the word does not refer to a place that an entire nation or society shall inhabit as a result of actions taken by a small group of evil persons.  Yet this is the way that phrase is most frequently employed today by those who insist that their source of inspiration IS the Bible.

By the way: What IS hell? The answer might surprise you.

Carl Sandburg, writing in the 1890s, and commenting on an earlier variant of the phrase, muses; "The first time I heard about a man 'going to hell in a hanging basket' I did a lot of wondering what a hanging basket is like." Curious that Sandburg wanted to know more about the basket, when the important element of the metaphor is not the basket, but rather who is carrying it, and in what direction he or she is traveling. For it seems that those who employ the phase nearly always have a clear idea of who is responsible for the evils that are driving us all so rapidly to destruction. Take a look at just a few of the comments posted on this site's forum employing the image: (Just click on the quotation to see the writer's complete thought in context.)

"Liberalism is the reason America is going to hell in a handbasket."  Donna

"The demoralzation of family values. Both parents who work and can't be home so the kids get into trouble....everything is sending us in a downward spiral toward hell in a handbasket." Darth

'The problem with the Church today is a lack of deep abiding love for God, for Christ, and for the brethren. This is the reason most of the world is going to hell in a handbasket."  Len

Others have different evils or different villains in mind: the politically correct, the pro-choice movement, feminists, humanists, or the theory of evolution, environmentalists, gun-control advocates, the media, the movies, or computers, drugs, crime, homosexuals or just plain sex, the Supreme Court or the federal government, Congress or the National Endowment for the Arts. Those who warn that the end of the world is near as a result of such things can, of course, turn around and claim success when, as a result of their preaching of course, the world does not come to an end. In this scenario anything short of actually arriving in hell can be counted as a great success.  Just like the mantra I use to keep elephants at bay when I ride the subway system in New York City. Totally, 100% successful. 

It may at first seem ironic that in one of the most peaceful and prosperous periods in American history there is so much talk about our nation "going to hell." At the very time that logic would dictate we should be counting our blessings, we seem to be mesmerized by our faults. Yet historians tell us that this tendency to think of ourselves as a nation in deep decline has been part of American culture from the earliest days.  It's a part of our myth of origins that our Republic was founded in a near idyllic state, a "city set upon a hill," and has done little but decline from that high moral and spiritual plateau ever since.  The preoccupation with our shortcomings has been particularly pronounced during good times.  Indeed it seems that we are prone to what one researcher has aptly described as "moral panic." The sense that we are threatened by unprecedented danger, such that we must rise up to fight, or face certain doom. So in each generation there seems to be some new threat on the horizon, some mortal danger that is sure to "send us to hell in a handbasket," if we fail to meet the challenge.  It appears we are motivated by a sense of moral and spiritual crisis, and are energized by a sense of cosmic disaster, but find persistent problems of the real world (like one fifth of our children living below the poverty line) to be hardly worth our attention. 

The peril must be so dire that the righteous will rise up to join the great "crusade" through which the evil handbasket carriers will be driven out of whatever seats of power or influence they currently inhabit, be it the White House, Disney World or the denominational headquarters of some liberal, Protestant denomination. 

I remember, for example, during the 1960's when rock music first burst upon the scene in a big way. There were dire warnings then, that rock was an instrument of the devil, and a sure sign that we were falling into a deep moral and spiritual decline. Today rock music is a staple as a part of worship in many conservative or evangelical churches throughout the land.. Now that rock music has lost its novelty, and early "rockers" are in their rockers, listening to the "oldies" on CD's in their retirement homes, we don't hear very much about rock-n-roll being the engine that will lead us toward our final destruction. 

Just a few years ago, the prophets of doom were preoccupied with the Y2K computer virus as the sure and certain indicator that the end was near. Today it seems incredible that anyone was particularly worried about such a trifle. Still, there's one thing certain; the infinite power of the American psyche will identify yet another basket carrier to come along and threaten us all with the prospect of going to hell. I believe we will mature as a people only when we disenthrall ourselves of the notion that any one person or group has the power to send us to any place as dire as hell. When we do that, we may begin to focus on finding solutions to problems of this world, like all those children who are living below the poverty line. 

If hell is an option for each of us, it is far more likely to be the consequence of actions and decisions we make, than any peril presented by others. Hell is not, as the philospher said, "other people," it is ourselves.

 

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and Executive Director of
  CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).  
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here.
God and Science (Hypertext Edition, 2005).
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion:
Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).

Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.  

For more information about Charles Henderson.