Fire Down Below

Keith Hopkins

  • The Formation of Hell by Alan Bernstein
    UCL, 392 pp, £25.00, December 1993, ISBN 1 85728 225 6

Hell is not just God’s vengeance on humanity, nor is it only, in Sartre’s sardonic phrase, other people. To be sure, it can be the tortured, persecutory visions of a few psychotic madmen. But the most troublesome, pervasive hell is the nightmarish world which each of us constructs, unconsciously, in the sweat of unconfessed, unconfessable fantasies. Hell is that private world of shame, fear and terror, that we have all sometimes felt, and have hoped to forget in the public daily world of post-breakfast conventionality. Hell, for modern liberals, whether atheists or believers, is the vulnerable undercurrent behind the mask of respectability.

For orthodox Christians, ancient or modern, and for many believers of other religions, hell is everlasting punishment for the wicked. It is a place of public torture for broad categories of wrongdoers: thieves, murderers, liars, adulterers, oppressors, whether rich, poor or princes. Punishment in hell is appealingly democratic, but collective. No private Room 101 for specially selected terrors. Instead, hell has huge racks of living carcases, strung up by the offending organ: adulterous men hang by their genitals, seductive women by their nipples or hair, liars by their lips. Sinners are submerged to their necks in communal pits, inexhaustibly capacious, of boiling pitch or shit. Devouring animals, snakes, dragons, rats, gnaw at resurrected bodies, while water or food comes tantalisingly near, but remains ever out of reach. Angels of punishment, God’s emissaries in hell, watchfully ensure that suffering is severely eternal.

This standard version of fiery and eternal punishment is deeply problematic, not least for those who believe in a God who is good, omnipotent, just and lovingly redemptive. The lines of debate have long been worked out. If God is indeed good and omnipotent, why is there so much evil in the world? One standard answer evolved by ancient Jewish visionaries and Christian church fathers is that God gave humans the freedom of moral choice. It is, of course, only a partial answer, since much evil is the result of natural forces, rather than human decisions. A second standard set of answers is now deployed: puny humans are in no position to question God’s divine purpose and besides, every evil gives the opportunity to display extra fortitude and virtue. Even so, eternal punishment for sin in a fiery hell (the ancients knew no intermediate purgatory) seems inconsistent with a loving and redemptive God. Punishment after death, one might well argue, comes too late for reform, and in its eternity seems disproportionately long and severe. Most modern liberal Christians play down the old centrality of eternal punishment, and see hell either as a reformative prison, or as a neutral holding zone, where the punishment consists in deprivation: sinners cannot share in the bliss of uniting with God in paradise.

Such theological debates have a long history. In the third century, Origen, who castrated himself in the hope of frustrating temptation, kindly thought that, at the end of time, all God’s creatures would be saved. So powerful is God’s mercy, even the Devil would be forgiven. His merciful attitude toward others proved anathema to the orthodox Christian Church. If all sinners were to be saved, what is the reward of virtue? John the Baptist would be treated no better than the Devil. If the mildly good were to be confused with the very good, the favoured status of ascetic monks would disintegrate. Under Origen’s regime – horror of horrors – brothel-keepers would eventually enjoy the same salvation as consecrated virgins. St Jerome’s indignation is audible even now. Far safer to stratify the rewards of the relatively virtuous in heaven, and to condemn all sinners to everlasting punishment. Some people, Augustine claimed, falsely believed that God would listen to the pleas of interceding saints, and would be merciful to sinners after due punishment. Augustine knew better: God’s punishment is eternal; these people were merely chasing an imaginary impunity to foster their own depravity. ‘The more merciful the theory,’ Augustine declared, ‘the more it contradicts the words of God.’ Harsh truth must take precedence over hopes for loving forgiveness.

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