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In the Hands of Angry Gods

The case for hell on earth

The Penguin Book of Hell, Scott G. Bruce, ed. Penguin Classics, 304 pages.

James Joyce gives his readers a taste of the eternal torments of hell in his 1916 roman à clef A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Toward the beginning of the novel, Joyce’s adolescent alter-ego Stephen Dedalus sits through the fiery sermon of the Jesuit Father Arnall, a scene in which the author marshals his literary genius to convey the full terror of damnation. By the priest’s description, “Hell is a strait and dark and foul-smelling prison, an abode of demons and lost souls, filled with fire and smoke.” So far so good, as that would seem to be the popular depiction of perdition. But with upsetting specificity, Father Arnall remarks that in hell, the condemned are so heaped on top of one another that they have absolutely no liberty of movement, “they are not even able to remove from the eye a worm that gnaws it.” In the Jesuit’s explication, hell is a place of “foul matter, leprous corruption, nameless suffocating filth.”

Moving from sulfury clichés to ever more baroque and intricate descriptions of the infernal hereafter, the priest perseverates before the congregation on this realm which “burns eternally in darkness,” that contains all the “filth of the world, all the offal and scum of the world . . . a vast reeking sewer,” best described as the foul odor of a “jelly-like mass of liquid corruption . . . of nauseous loathsome decomposition.” Hell is a “boundless, shoreless and bottomless” place, where “blood seethes and boils in the veins, the brains are boiling in the skull, the heart in the breast glowing and bursting, the bowels a red-hot mass of burning pulp, the tender eyes flaming like molten balls.” These fetid corpses are a “huge and rotting human fungus,” where a mere whiff of the decomposing bodies of the sinful “would suffice to infect the whole world.” Father Arnall rhetorically asks his charges, including a Stephen Dedalus who is now tortured by his impure thoughts and his even more impure actions, “What name . . . shall we give to the darkness of hell which is to last not for three days alone but for all eternity?”

The question of how we can name a place such as this is at the center of scholar Scott G. Bruce’s new anthology The Penguin Book of Hell. Joyce’s immaculate and terrifying description of the damned in the eternal hereafter isn’t included in Bruce’s compendium, though much else is. Excerpts from Church Fathers, scripture, prophetic writings, Dante, William Blake, and even the playlists used to torture those indefinitely detained in American camps during the “War on Terror” are included in Bruce’s exploration of how hell has been represented across millennia of history in Jewish, Christian, and pagan contexts. A loss that Father Arnell’s homily isn’t included for consideration, as few secular modern depictions of hell rival the religious as much as does Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Joyce matches the terror of the eighteenth century American theologian Jonathan Edwards, whose 1741 sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” warned his New England audience about a hell where the “flames do now rage and glow,” and was delivered with so much abjection that congregants supposedly fainted in the pews.

Hell’s seeming unconquerability, its persistence in our culture, shouldn’t be surprising.

But if Edwards’s disturbing evocation of hell was meant to instill a fear that would lead to conversion, Joyce’s talents were arguably commandeered for the opposite purpose. In Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the reader is to understand Father Arnall’s homily as an assault, a cynical but exquisitely adept use of Christianity’s traditional rhetoric about punishment in the afterlife designed for social control. An older Dedalus would later argue in Ulysses that his native Ireland was dominated by “two masters,” the colonial one in London and the ecclesiastical power in Rome, and much of Father Arnell’s speech should be read as a variety of studied, affected, gothic Catholicism. But so visceral are Joyce’s descriptions that the reader of the novel would be forgiven for reacting by developing a newfound fear of hell (or, through a Dedalus-like guilty conscience, acquiring one for the first time). Protestations of secularity aside, whether in a Joyce novel or elsewhere, hell is a hard place to escape from. Hell’s seeming unconquerability, its persistence in our culture, shouldn’t be surprising. As Bruce writes in the introduction to his collection, the idea of hell is “arguably the most powerful and persuasive construct of the human imagination in the Western tradition.” Perdition is not abolished easily.

Maybe it shouldn’t be. Though it’s true, as Joyce’s novel makes clear and as Bruce reiterates, that hell “has inspired fear and thereby controlled the behavior of countless human beings,” for all of the unnecessary guilt there is something so evocative, so powerful, so charged in the idea of hell that I worry about abandoning the concept too quickly. First though, let’s be clear—the idea of hell hasn’t been abandoned by the majority of Americans. According to the Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study, 58 percent of Americans believe in a literal hell as a place of punishment and damnation. Interestingly, at 72 percent, even more Americans believe in heaven. Of the 14 percent who believe in heaven but don’t believe in hell, presumably there are a variety of theological positions embraced, ranging from the position that the irredeemable sinful cease to exist upon death, to the “heresy” traditionally known as “universalism,”  which is the belief that everyone will find salvation, regardless of creed or conduct.

That “New Atheists” like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett would understand hell as a barbaric and superstitious fable is obvious, but many of the traditionally religious have jettisoned such rhetoric as well. Controversial evangelical pastors like Rob Bell and Carlton Pearson have questioned or outright rejected a cosmology of hell, with the former writing in Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived that belief in hell can be “misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the . . . message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy.” And I don’t disagree with Bell; in fact, I imagine that there is a lot of overlap between those reform-minded evangelicals, atheists, and myself, all admitting that there is something abusive in convincing a child that they’re bound for the torments of eternal fire. To defend the rhetoric of hell while ignoring the reality that such beliefs have caused psychological trauma to millions of people throughout history would be dishonest, and it’s understandable why the 14 percent of Americans who’ve embraced a heaven without its opposite take part in a venerable, and compassionate, theology which rejects the idea of hell.

Secular though I may feel that I am, I can’t escape the heat of hell.

But it’s important to avoid the fallacy which assumes that just because literal belief in hell may not be as popular, that it’s no longer worth taking seriously. I’d suggest that the brimstone may burn and waft a bit more even among the secular than we might assume. In Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, the British philosopher John Gray describes how among some committed philosophers “it is a matter of pride to be ignorant of theology.” Yet this ignorance obscures our own intellectual genealogies, for the “Christian origins of secular humanism are rarely understood.” When we criticize unfettered capitalism, we can’t help but think of avarice; when we rightly denounce the narcissism of our leaders, we can’t but consider pride; and as a result, who among us hasn’t thought that hell might be worthy as a punishment for those who do evil? We’d be forgiven for missing hell a bit. More generally, when we pretend that an ideology of “pure” materialism, “pure” scientism, “pure” secularity is even possible, we simply serve to ignore the traces of the transcendent and the relics of religion which are evident in ostensibly “modern” ideologies. That’s why, secular though I may feel that I am, I can’t escape the heat of hell. We’re still haunted by the demons who are imprisoned there.

This essay is no justification for a belief in a literal hell; I don’t think that if you drill far enough into the earth you’ll suddenly come upon a legion of devils in subterranean caves. Though it also needs to be made clear that the idea that that’s what most of the faithful believe has much more of the snarky New Atheist slander about it than it does any sense of reality as to what most theologies argue. The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church “affirms the existence of hell and its eternity,” but it also defines that place rather abstractly as “a state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed.” Pope John Paul II explained that “rather than a place, hell indicates the state of those who freely and definitely separate themselves from . . . the source of all life and joy.” Father Arnall’s gruesome enumeration of the terrors of hell, all stench of decomposition and infinite burn of dark fire, may be poetic, but it should also in some sense be thought of as a metaphorical approximation of that which by definition is fundamentally inapproachable, that which is impossible to accurately describe in human language. Sophisticated theodicies have always differentiated between hell as a state and hell as a location, so when I wash my hands of literal belief in perdition as a place, I understand that it’s true of normative Christian theology as well. Rather, I want to understand how a skeptic such as myself might get something useful out of the idea of hell.

Because to claim that my own position on hell is perfectly congruent with the arguments of the Church—one where I still argue for the importance of hellish language—would be disingenuous. When discussing eternal things, the noumenal, the transcendent, there is a difficulty in language, where the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s declaration that “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” can seem the most honest. Both the Church and I (and I suppose the New Atheists as well) agree that a group of coal miners aren’t going to crack some rock and find the gates of hell. That hell is not a literal place, bound by physicality and defined by materiality, is a given except for the most fundamentalist of believers.

When it comes to hell as a “state,” then I must confess that my own faith gets mixed up with issues of simile, metaphor, and allegory. If I must make an affirmative confession, I suppose that regarding things-not-of-this-world that I’m basically agnostic, though this is not a mealy-mouthed type of atheism so much as it is a profound pose towards epistemology, that branch of philosophy concerned with what we know and how we know it. Truer to say that I’m what theologians call an ignostic, that I don’t even know what I don’t even know, and that I believe when it comes to language about ultimate things we’re too often mired in ambiguity and uncertainty to make definite claims. I’ve generally embraced an understanding that the claims of belief are different from the claims of science, and that creedal confessions are more like poetry than they are logical inferences about the objective world. In such a context I affirm the poetry of perdition, the rhetoric of damnation, the language of hell. I’m not sure what it means to say if hell is “real” or not, but I know that the poetry like Father Arnall’s which is used to describe it very much is, and I think we abandon those words at our own peril. If we see the sweetness of heaven without the bitterness of hell, we exorcize one of the most powerful ideas in our metaphorical arsenal.

And we abolish the idea of hell at the very moment when it could be the most pertinent to us. An ironic reality in an era where the world becomes seemingly more hellish, when humanity has developed the ability to enact a type of burning punishment upon the earth itself. Journalist David Wallace-Wells in his terrifying new book about climate change The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming writes that “it is much, much worse, than you think.” Wallace-Wells goes onto describe how anthropogenic warming will result in a twenty-first century that sees coastal cities destroyed and refugees forced to migrate for survival, that will see famines across formerly verdant farm lands and the development of new epidemics that will kill millions, which will see wars fought over fresh water and wildfires scorching the wilderness. Climate change implies not just ecological collapse, but societal, political, and moral collapse as well. The science has been clear for over a generation, our reliance on fossil fuels has been hastening an industrial apocalypse of our own invention. Wallace-Wells is critical of what he describes as the “eerily banal language of climatology,” where the purposefully sober, logical, and rational arguments of empirical science have unintentionally helped to obscure the full extent of what some studying climate change now refer to as our coming “century of hell.” Better perhaps to have this discussion using the language of Revelation, where the horseman of pestilence, war, famine, and death are powered by carbon dioxide. 

The rhetoric of hell is charged and powerful for metaphorically conveying the full impact of climate change, the language of burning and thirst, immolation and consumption, a tangible reminder of what’s existentially at stake. Such rhetoric also has an important moral dimension to it. Hell is not just a symbolic representation of an unpleasant place to which you would not want to go, it’s also explicitly a location of punishment. Obscene when fundamentalist preachers claim that this or that natural disaster is the result of individual sin, but in one sense climate change is the logical conclusion of our society’s rapacious greed, slothfulness, and gluttony. Love of the automobile, air conditioning, eating meat, cheap airplane flights, and consumer goods transported thousands of miles around the world have all contributed to the dire predicament in which humanity now finds itself. Romans 6:23 claims that the “wages of sin is death;” I know not whether that’s metaphysically true, but there is a disquieting resonance when it comes to the effect that oil companies and their consumers have all had on the future of our planet.

Hell might make us feel terrible, but it provides a warning and a corrective to the hubris that threatens the world.

We must be careful with such moralizing language however, for while it’s appropriate to castigate the offenders in corporate boardrooms and their government enablers who’ve brought us to this precipice, and that perhaps we must turn an eye towards our own individual complicity in ecological collapse as well, the reality is that the vast majority of people who will suffer because of climate change are not the authors of this calamity. Rising temperatures will disproportionately affect those in developing countries, and it will of course ultimately impact the lives of generations unborn who had no say in who drove a Hummer. We’re confronted then with a seeming obscenity, the punishments of hell enacted upon those who did nothing wrong. Yet the theological rhetoric of hell already provides a powerful model for thinking about that exact same circumstance.

For when confronting the enormity of climate change, of the innocent punished for our own iniquity, there are worse narratives to orient ourselves towards than that of Christ harrowing hell to liberate the righteous from the confines of limbo. Scriptural precedent, from Job to the prophets, grapples with the reality that suffering is not always equal, that injustice is often a function of human affairs, and that there is call for humanity to correct its own sinful ways. Meghan O’Gieblyn, in an essay from her recent collection Interior States, which reflects both on her evangelical youth and this new trendiness in ignoring hell, echoes Bruce when she writes that hell “remains our most resilient metaphor for the evil both around and within us.” Hell might make us feel terrible, but it provides a warning and a corrective to the hubris that threatens the world. She writes that “it’s precisely this acknowledgment of collective guilt that makes it possible for a community to observe the core virtues of the faith: mercy, forgiveness, grace.”

For a conflicted, skeptical, doubtful believer such as myself, whose faith is idiosyncratic enough that sometimes I think it’s barely honest to call it a faith, that’s the power of such language. Metaphors should only be abandoned warily and for good reason, and the flames of the hereafter remain too scorching to quench them fully. Hell is a concept by which we can evaluate our iniquities, our capability for evil, the ruin we enact on our world, and maybe the ways in which we can rectify those sins. Faith is a window, but not a clear one, that looks unhampered out onto a world of discernable and measurable reality; it exists not to give us a scientific perspective but rather as an expression of how we wish reality would look. Damnation’s reality may not frighten me, but I cannot be but terrified by its language. There is wisdom in understanding that we may approach heaven, but only after we’ve harrowed hell on earth.