Who believes in Hell nowadays? Not many – even academics appear to have limited interest. The Greek Geographer Pausanius once claimed that Hell lies “as far beneath Hades as Hades is beneath the Earth”. However, only the most fundamental of Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims consider it an actual “place” nowadays. Yet, when we stare at the lurid paintings of Bosch, we glimpse the former power of the idea. For much of Western Christian history Hell has been an academic and cultural obsession. But where did this obsession come from and why did it die away?
Spanning six millennia, Hell is certainly an ancient concept – the Egyptians, Greeks, Chinese and Romans all had broad ideas of it. However theirs were limited compared to Christianity’s. Indeed we are not told of anyone actually entering the jaws of Ammit (the Egyptian Hell); the Greek Hell was grey and miserable, Achilles claimed “you just hang around like a bat squeaking”; the Chinese Hell could be easily avoided; you could visit and return from Virgil’s Roman Hell. Moreover this Roman Hell was held by many intellectuals, such as Seneca and Cicero, to be a fantastical belief only held by aged women and pre-pubescent boys. Thus Western Christianity’s belief in Hell might not have been unique, but the extent of it was.
The most ancient ideas of Hell are of an “ice cold place”; the West’s fiery Hell developed later from the Jewish tradition of Gehenna – an old valley of Pagan sacrifices, converted into a municipal rubbish dump. It was always burning to destroy rubbish and the bodies of criminals. Such fires seemed a suitable place for the damned and thus were elaborated on by the apostles, especially Matthew with his description of “everlasting fire prepared for the devil” (25:41). Saint Paul’s talk of “eternal destruction” (2, Thessalonians 1:9) is also very powerful. The first detailed Christian exploration of Hell came in the late third century AD, via the apocryphal Apocalypse of Paul. It describes horrific torture scenes complete with evil angels, rivers of fire and carnivorous worms. However, the man most responsible for popularising Hell, in the early years, must surely be the Church Father Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 225 AD). In De Spectaculis he claims that people should not go to the theatre on Earth as it would not compare to the spectacle of Hell that could be enjoyed from Heaven – acrobats would jump more nimbly in the flames and tragic actors would bellow more loudly from the pain!
Why were the Church Fathers so interested in Hell? By the end of the 1st century AD Christianity was developing into a major proselytising religion and predicted the imminent end of the world. Preachers such as Paul wanted to save as many souls as possible before the Apocalypse – Hell was a useful tool to encourage people to repent. The lack of Second Coming did not reduce our interest though. It carried on mushrooming until it achieved its peak in the High Middle Ages. The 1215 Lateran Council made the crucial, final decision that damnation was a perpetual punishment. This made the Christian Hell the most frightful form of damnation on the market. The only other two that could compare in intensity – the Buddhist and Hindu Hells – were nasty, but inflicted only temporary punishment before rebirth. One hundred years later came the most famous development of the period – Dante’s Divine Comedy and its grisly nine circles of Hell. The inscription on the gates of Hell that Dante notices on his Virgil-guided tour, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here!”, gives a good hint of what is to come. Woven amongst the gruesome verses of his Inferno are also many references to his home town of Florence. Many high-ranking Florentines are condemned and issues as topical as Florence’s immigration problems moaned about! The gossipy nature of this work, together with its sublime poetry and intriguing horror movie element, made it a certain success. In fact the comedy was so popular that it sparked yet further attempts to dream up even more ghastly forms of torment, culminating in the right-hand panel of Bosch’s c.1500 triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights (fragment pictured above). It might seem strange that a church obsessed with transcendental beauty should not attempt to supress such disturbingly graphic and completely imagined depictions of Hell. This might be because, in a world of flogging, torture and execution, people were more used to extreme violence. A cynic might also rightly comment that all this church-supported depiction of eternal Hell conveniently matched the church’s material interests. The more people thought about Hell, the more they realised how dependent they were on the church and the keener they were to obey ecclesiastical authority and buy indulgences!
The Reformation kept Hell-fire burning for a while. Whilst some Protestants eventually white-washed Catholic depictions of Hell, many saw it as central to predestination (i.e. God has already decided that some of us are “elect” and others damned). Both sides also assumed that they were fighting the Anti-Christ on behalf of God, often sparking witch-hunts which fuelled the wider European Witch Craze. This dualistic world-view (that the universe contains both a force for good and for evil) works well with Hell. A growing sense of the individual was also occurring. People were becoming more interested in personal Grave Stones, in proving their individual moral worth as they came to believe that they, not just the Church, were responsible for their salvation or damnation. There continued to be some proponents of Hell in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Theologians such as Tobias Swinden, William Whiston, Jonathan Edwards and most famously the poet Milton created terrifying images of it. With statements like “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n!”, the Satan of Paradise Lost has certainly proved memorable. However, at the same time, Western thought as a whole was rapidly losing interest in perdition. Descartes undermined the idea of perpetual physical torture through his declaration that the soul (the only part of us that travels to the after-life) was immaterial and thus unable to feel pain. More generally the philosophies of Hume, Hegel, Nietzsche and others, together with Gibbon’s critical account of the early Christians, led to a scepticism that challenged the very heart of Christianity. For academic circles who debated even the existence of God, belief in Hell fell off the map.
Moreover even prominent believers were losing their faith in the diabolical realm. There was an increasing refusal to believe that an all-loving God could create somewhere as awful as Hell; that we could be damned without hope of redemption for the “sins of moments” (Alexander Pope). Blake was just as insistent that God must be forgiving and thus stated that his (Blake’s) Hell was only a “memorable fancy” and that he could not “believe there is such a thing literally” (1790). By that point the Industrial Revolution and mass urbanisation were beginning to diminish the power of parish churches over the popular imagination. The numbers of extreme, domestic roaming preachers were reducing and being replaced by missionaries who went abroad partly to battle far-Eastern ideas of Hell. Engels may have exaggerated with his famous saying that “the workers are not religious, and do not attend church” (1844), but he pointed out the rough direction in which the man on the street was heading by the nineteenth century. A direction which did not care a toss about the technicalities of the after-life.
In the last century we have continued to dampen ideas of Hell even more, to the extent that even former curators of Hell have rejected it. Indeed the Vatican now defines it as merely the “eternal separation from God” (Catechism 1035). Shrieking sermons about damnation are long gone – when did you last hear Hell preached from the pulpit?
Is this a good development? Broadly, yes. Chasing people towards God via means of torturous threats is not a positive approach. It is more akin to the medieval practice of placing criminals’ heads on pikes to warn citizens not to break the law. Explaining the good that derives from the Christian life is a much healthier way of bringing people to God. Moreover it does seem problematic to pair the vindictive justice of Hell with the compassionate God so vividly described in the New Testament. And under scrutiny the ideas of Tertullian, Augustine, St Bernardino of Siena et al, that watching the torment of the damned would be “heavenly bliss” (Augustine), seem frankly perverse. It would be a mistake, though, to believe that all pre-enlightenment Christians believed in a gruesome, perpetual Hell. Origen’s second century AD criticisms, that an eternal Hell could not exist as Christ will overcome all evil (including Hell, if it exists), still seem a sound argument. Leibniz expressed similar views in the eighteenth century. In our time Phillip E. Hughes has also argued this fundamental problem well – “When Christ fills all in all… how is it conceivable that there can be a section or realm of creation that does not belong to this fullness, and by its very presence contradicts it?”
So it seems Hell is moribund as a theological concept, but has it really gone from our lives? In my view, no; Hell is still as hot as ever it was. We have just changed our understanding of it. There is a basic reason why artists have laboured over representations of Hell, far more than of Heaven – why Dante’s Inferno and Botticelli’s accompanying illustrations are so much more memorable than his Paradiso. It is because eternal torment is so much easier to conceptualise than eternal ecstasy. We all know Buddha’s story where the turtle can only tell the fish what land is like in terms of what it is not like; there is nothing in the fish’s experience that could relate to the qualities of land. Heaven and Hell are no different. We can dream up gory fantasies because there is so much gore on earth, but the idea of divine perfection is utterly alien to us. Do the closing lines of Once in Royal David’s City, “All in white shall wait around”, or fluffy pictures of God in the clouds, really do justice to Heaven? Orwell’s famous remark that Heaven would be like “choir practice in a jeweller’s shop” underscores our failure to give a convincing picture of it. Our representations of Hell nowadays are increasingly convincing though. Why? Because they are grounded upon real life. The Chapman brothers’ models “Hell” (destroyed) and its replacement “F*cking Hell” show a grotesque vision of the Hell of the twentieth century – the World Wars, the Sino-Japanese War, Korea, Vietnam, Rwanda, Cambodia, the Balkans. Is not any depiction of the intense sufferings of the last century a depiction of modern Hell? They are as grotesque as Bosch, but represent real, not purely imagined, events.
Thus Hell is still here, just changed. It may no longer be pokers and pitchforks, but nor is it just a component of expletives; it is more than the M25, Oxford Street or when we stub our toe. In the words of extreme Southern evangelicals HELL IS REAL. Well, at least on earth it is. There are endless theological problems with trying to define the after-life; we are ultimately and unavoidably uninformed about what any form of Salvation or Inferno might really be like. We cannot write off Hell as it has some scriptural foundation and does perform a function of justice – is mere absence from God enough of a punishment for Hitler? However it is pointless navel-gazing about Heavens and Hells that we know so little about. The Eastern tradition of focusing on Christ as redeemer seems sensible. God can sort out the details when the time comes, we don’t need to know. I am glad that the speculative fantasies of Dante have lost their theological grip. Blake’s idea that “Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell” is much more helpful. We can choose whether to seek the good or indulge in evil. So let us now concentrate on harrowing the real and challengeable Hells humanity has created – no need to make up any more.
We welcome Max Grodecki, who has agreed to write for Lay Anglicana on an occasional basis. You may remember him from last year’s ‘The Young Apprentice’, where it occurred to us at Lay Anglicana that he might have something to say to our readership. I hope you will agree that this first article more than fulfils that promise.
I have just finished my A-levels at Cranbrook School, Kent and am embarking upon a gap year. During this time I will be applying to university to read theology and travelling as much as possible – from Hong Kong to Canada hopefully. On a work front I am applying to political think tanks and am interested in journalistic opportunities. Despite a somewhat edited appearance on the national television, I am as interested in business as ever – I run two mini-enterprises trading all things collectible. I have spent much time running various charitable groups and think civic engagement is tremendously important. I hope to continue this work in placements at Hub Ventures and Student Hubs. Amongst other things, architecture, singing, theatre, opera, politics, public-speaking and writing are particular enthusiasms of mine. As the above article suggests, matters theological and religious also interest me!