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Introducing the Mastermind of I-71's 'Hell is Real'

Introducing the Mastermind of I-71’s ‘Hell is Real’

The Origin of the “Hell is Real” Billboard

The Hell is Real billboard along I-71 has been adopted as the slogan for the Columbus-Cincinnati soccer rivalry.

Jimmy Harston never envisioned himself putting up billboards. Over two decades ago, while on his farm in Bowling Green, Kentucky, Harston felt a divine calling to erect a massive sign inquiring, “If you died today, where would you spend eternity?” On the other side, the sign proclaimed, “You don’t accept Christ; Christ accepts you.” Although Harston believed this would be a one-time project, it was just the beginning of a larger mission.

According to Harston, who is now a semi-retired lakefront real estate developer, God provided him with the means to install similar religious signs in various states, including Ohio. He insists that when the Lord gives you a task, you must not ignore it. Hence, Harston continued to heed the call and fought legal battles whenever local authorities tried to prevent him from displaying his billboards. His devotion led him to collaborate with Bob and Nancy Hall, a couple from London, Ohio, who granted him permission to erect two double-sided billboards on their I-71 adjacent property in 2004.

Jimmy Harston, the Kentucky real estate developer behind the "Hell is Real" sign and other religious billboards across Ohio and other states

These billboards, one displaying the Ten Commandments for northbound drivers and the other posing a question about eternity followed by the alarming statement “HELL IS REAL” for southbound travelers, have become an iconic sight in Ohio. The colossal block letters in white with a red “H” against a black background deliver a powerful message. Harston emphasizes that the wording was meticulously chosen after earnest prayer, and though it may be unwelcome to many, it aligns with biblical teachings about righteousness and the consequences of straying from the righteous path.

The Ohio billboard has achieved almost legendary status. It can even be found on Google Maps, with user reviews praising its significance. One reviewer expressed how important the sign is to fellow Ohioans, while another humorously referred to it as a must-see for “Corn Again Christians.”

The “Hell is Real” Sign and the Columbus-Cincinnati Soccer Rivalry

Interestingly, the “Hell is Real” billboard found fame beyond its religious context within the soccer community. When the Columbus Crew and FC Cincinnati, then a USL franchise, started their rivalry in 2017, fans on both sides embraced “Hell is Real” as a potential moniker for this new clash of teams. The name gained popularity because the infamous sign sits along the route between Columbus and Cincinnati. The rivalry intensified when FC Cincinnati joined the MLS in 2019.

Columbus Crew fan Victor Ortiz pulls a "Hell is Real" flag from his car prior to the MLS soccer match against FC Cincinnati in August 2019.

Although the 72-year-old Harston is aware of this soccer association, he finds it bewildering. To him, the billboard’s purpose transcends sports, reaching millions of individuals who encountered the sign before the advent of Columbus or Cincinnati soccer. Harston, who confesses his preference for baseball over soccer, remains dedicated to maintaining the billboard. While the red “H” may have faded to a pinkish hue, he plans to remove a recent addition of a devilish figure in the corner during his next visit. With a 50-year lease, the sign will continue to remind passersby about the reality of hell for many years to come.

Reflecting on his mission, Harston expresses his conviction that the Lord had a purpose for the billboard. He concludes, “Hell is real, that’s all I know to tell you.”

Derby Day

On Sunday, Aug. 20, soccer fans will witness another Hell is Real match between the Columbus Crew and FC Cincinnati at Lower.com Field.

This story is from the August 2023 issue of Columbus Monthly.

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About Eira Davis

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