When Hillsong United’s New Song “Hurts Like Hell”

Hillsong United released Empires last week, debuting at #5 on the Billboard 200.

“Christian worship band” notwithstanding, it’s an impressive showing. Though Empires doesn’t resonate with me as much as last year’s Zion, it’s still a solid offering. If nothing else, Hillsong United keeps reinventing itself with every album.

It’s crazy hearing the Hillsong United of today compared with Hillsong of the 90’s. Were they even called “United” back then? Hillsong United — indeed, worship music at large — has journeyed a long way since “Shout to the Lord.”

There’s a song on Empires called “Even When It Hurts (Praise Song),” and I want you to listen to it. Follow the words of this conveniently constructed lyric video as the song unfolds.

Though I should warn you of something sinister about this supposed “worship song” — namely, a word. A most dreadful word. A curse word. Yes, the same beautiful girl who sings “Oceans” also swears h – e – double hockey sticks in a love offering for the dear sweet Baby Jesus.

To be sure, this ain’t no Darlene Zschech singing for Hillsong (United?) anymore.

Before I get any further with this post, I need to drop the satirical shtick. I’ve already been there, done that in the last week. Apparently, not everyone gets satire. Humph.

Indeed, Hillsong United now has a worship song that includes the lyric: hurts like hell.

I’ll admit, the line caught my ears the first time I heard it. Not that it was “wrong” or didn’t belong, but simply that it stood out. To my knowledge, I can’t think of another worship song that includes hell without referencing the literal place and its literal gates.

So, does “hurts like hell” go too far? Does it cross some Christianese worship line like “sloppy wet kiss” did?

Wait, remind me again why we needed to boycott “heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss” and replace it with “heaven meets earth like an unforeseen kiss”? Are we scared of kisses or something?

Sigh. I don’t get Christians sometimes.

I guess opponents of “hurts like hell” would say we’re not taking hell seriously when we use it in a simile? Some would go even further and say it’s a cuss word that should never be uttered under any circumstances. We certainly wouldn’t use the f-word in a worship song, right?

I don’t know what else to say other than life isn’t always peaches and dreams. I wonder if Christians who oppose “hurts like hell” are also people who haven’t experienced much pain or loss.

How else do you describe your parents’ divorce?

How else do you describe your miscarriage or child’s fatal car accident?

How else do you describe entire homes lost in tornadoes and floods? Prolonged joblessness, debt, deformity, addiction?

What words do you use to describe … that? What words are there?

One of my biggest beefs with the Church is the assumption that Jesus makes every tear go away. We no longer struggle with anything anymore because the Holy Spirit inside us absorbs our hurt like a sponge.

Maybe someday that prophecy will come true. Gosh, we hope.

But for today, we brave this world of chaos and devastation. For many of us, it is a world that feels less like heaven and quite like hell.

I myself have been blessed, all things considered. Nine years ago I did lose a dog who was my best friend and not all “just a dog,” and I’ve gotta say those ensuing days hurt like hell. I’d never experienced anything like it. I wrote about Annie in Struggle Central, and losing her when I did the way I did left my heart torn and searing.

But lest anyone forget this worship song’s subtitle amid hellish circumstances — like the Psalms of old, it is a Praise Song.

Even when it hurts like hell —

I’ll praise You.

I hope Christians can get past a four-letter word for the praise of a God not inflicting the struggle but walking us through it. We acknowledge the hurt, and we cry out against this hell of a fallen world.

And yet.

May we praise Him. May His praise stay my anthem and yours and all of ours.

Even when it hurts like hell.

Hillsong United hurts like hell

What do you think about including “hurts like hell” in a worship song? Check out Hillsong Pastor Fergusson’s thoughts on approving the lyric. Oh, and watch out for the comments over there. You know — Christians.

  • I saw it AS a reference to Hell the place. Hurts like hell hurts, which is separation from God, which hurts like a son of a biscuit. 😉

    So to me, it was one of those supremely clever lyrics, the likes of which are the driving force behind my adoration of Relient K. They mix metaphors and have incredible brilliant wordplay as well. I love when songs do stuff like this.

    • The sad thing is that many Christians would probably prefer “hurts like a son of a biscuit” to the line Hillsong actually went with. But I love your perspective on it.

      Sadly, I never boarded the Relient K train back in the day. So I can’t relate with you there. But maybe someday I’ll give them a go.

      • No time like the present! Here’s my current favorite: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c-YhzEKM4W0 🙂

        I can’t sing the very last few lines without crying, personally. So “me.”

        • Stefanie

          I think the song is great as it is… it is meaningful… my concern is that, at least the first time singing it, people won’t be listening to the rest of the song, but just asking, “what did she just say?!”

  • Beth Ewing

    It’s important for a worship leader/team to be able to sing lyrics that hold truth in their lives. I have no problem with this and understand what hell on Earth is. I could sing this song all day! If other’s have never been through that kind of tragedy and want to keep to the surface, that’s fine as well. They don’t have to sing anything that doesn’t glorify God in their worship. Many a song have I not sun because my heart was not right in that moment.

  • Pablo Diaz

    I think Hillsong messed up here.
    Why would they use a word that is obviously offensive to christians?
    Whats next? Dropping the F-Bomb in worship? Horrble.
    Worship is such a sacred act and why do we have to bring in profanity into it? Isnt there plenty of that in secular music?
    What a cop-out. There are so many other ways to express extreme pain and they had to go the easy route.
    They need to change the lyric, appoligize first to God and then the church, and re-release the “Clean” version.
    Hillsong needs to know that there are so many churches world-wide that look up to them and use their songs. The message they are sending is: “its OK to curse when you are worshipping God”.


    • With respect, I think there’s a big difference between singing “hell” and “fuck.” We already refer to hell the literal place in several worship songs, and all Hillsong is doing is referring to hell in the metaphorical (though some could convincingly argue that the pain of their “metaphorical hell” feels more like a literal hell). I hope we don’t get hung up on vocabulary words and lose sight of the driving message of this song: life hurts, life hurts A LOT, but even when it does we will praise Him.

      Thanks for commenting, Pablo. I really appreciate your perspective, and I hope my perspective makes sense too.

      • christi

        I agree with you. I would like to go a step further to suggest there is a difference between using it in a phrase such as, “What the hell?!” which is more of a curse word, because it is kind of thoughtless, often used in an angry or puzzled expression… and really doesn’t even make sense…versus “….hurts like hell.” The latter is actually making a comparison. It is suggesting that there are some things in life that are so incredibly hard and agonizing, that we can literally equate it with hell/the idea of hell. People make this statement to try to pinpoint the degree of anguish, because we all know that hell IS the worst place/experience ever according to the Bible. I think it is all about context.

    • Doug Melven

      I don’t think they messed up at all. They were describing a real pain.
      And making the point that even in that very real pain, they still praised Him.
      And if you think using the word “hell” is bad, what about what the Psalmists wrote in Ps 58:10 and 137:9?
      Those are some horrible pictures.
      Also the word “hell” is used 54 times in the King James Bible. Do you have a problem with the Author of the Bible?

  • Pablo Diaz

    I totally get the reference to Hell being a place of extreme pain… Although no one knows what hell(hades) is like. No one.
    Have you guys ever been to hell? Didn’t think so.
    I have been listening to Hillsong for as long as I remember, including at least 10 live concerts. With that being said, lets not be gullable… “Hurts like hell” is a slang term often used as light priganity. Yes?
    So my point is that why use that terminology when there are so many other phrases that will not divide the body of Christ. Apostle Paul once said that he wouldnt eat meat in order not to offend beleivers. Using that terms is such a cheap shot. Hillsong has always tried to be edgy, but they did not have to go there.
    Another point:
    Worship is a sacred event. During that time why should we be forced invocate the place of satan?

    Many believers around the world look up to and play Hillsongs in their sets. They have a BIG responsibilty to help the body of Christ and not throw in MSG into spiritual food.

    I know many of you might not agree, but its OK to question ministries. They are not absolute. They are susceptable to error. Only God is absolute.

    Thanks and Love,

    • Samara

      I actually completely agree with you (Pablo) on every point you said. Worship is a very intimate place for me, throne room, His presence, sacred, etc. I have listened to Hillsong for years as well. And I recently purchased the CD with this particular song on it. I was driving around Toronto with my unsaved friend in the car, and I heard what I thought was “hurt like hell.” We actually turned it up so we could hear what we thought we were hearing. We both were surprised! I had to google the lyrics to be sure! Here’s the thing for me- and I know not all will agree with me either- I grew up where ‘heck’ was almost not encouraged to say (over exaggerating a bit!). And even in the last year, I’ve recently used the phrase, “like hell,” one or two times- but still felt funny about it! What I’m not comfortable with is that phrase in my worship songs. Today I thought I would research if others felt and thought the same way. I thought to myself, I don’t want to be some ‘religious nut’ or split hairs about it. But I had to be honest with myself in realizing I was not, and am not comfortable with my worship song I sing to God including those words. And trust me, I am very frank and real with God in our talks! At the end of the day, worship songs to me are not about me- they’re “To God” and “For God.” My writings, sure I journal my pains and struggles. So Ill take the advice of Hillsong and not listen to their song.

      • Thanks for your input, Samara. Everyone has different lines with what they’ll say or sing in the presence of God, and you’re completely validated to express your worship to Him up to or far beyond whatever line your heart has drawn. Much love!

    • Daniel Reyna

      I completely agree with you as well. So often God’s holiness is minimized, but we are in His holy presence when we worship to him. I think Hillsong could have used a different word here and don’t know why they didn’t. I don’t think they would ever remove this word, which is sad, but it doesn’t mean I won’t listen to them anymore.

      I still think they have an anointing on them. God has truly blessed them with the ability to lead people in worship, however, I don’t place them on a pedestal. I think that is a mistake many Christians make. A lot of people would be surprised if they found out how incredibly normal and “just like us” christian artists are. Some of them still living in their sin like all of us are.

  • peter chung

    This is the first time I have ever written in a blog, but I found reason to today. People curse on a regular basis. We’re not perfect. But i don’t know if it’s a good idea to add a word that will undoubtedly cause unnecessary controversy– especially in a song that will be listened to by millions of Christians and even non-Christians. That’s where I find my first disagreement with Hillsong’s songs which I almost exclusively listen to.

  • Star Turtle

    I think it was perfectly fine

  • Jonathan Gutierrez

    The use of the word hell has no place in this song for these reasons : 1) It is distinctly used as a curse word. When you say “like hell” even in a simile it is to utter a curse or in extreme hyberole and is not a characteristic of one who has been saved 2) Anyone who draws any parallel to hell, no matter what pain they have experienced, clearly has no idea what hell is like. It is the eternal and perpetual, unexplicable, unimaginable place of those who reject Christ. 3) Worship is for the glory of God. This song on mentioning hell is so man-centered that the hearer wants to run from such a revolting song. In other words: Who cares about our feelings towards God in pain? Let God be uplifted and we must decrease. Lastly listen to this clip it os well worth your time

  • Kayla

    So, I understand that using this word in this context and atmosphere is probably not the best, and I have a few points that defend them and also to go against these lyrics. Being a Christian that battles regularly with depression and anxiety, yes, these trials can seem like a sort of hell. I believe that all Christians can agree that hell is a place of pain and suffering. This ties into our sin and diseases in a big way because it is painful and it leads to death. I still don’t understand why they put this into a worship song, because as we all obviously see, it has made a good bit of people upset. I personally don’t think there is anything wrong with it, because the pain and darkness I’ve dealt with can only be described as hell. Anyways, I also think that this is due to the fact that Hillsong tends to have younger artists and musicians involved, so I believe with experience, they won’t be making a mistake like this again. That’s just my opinion on the matter.