I’ve been thinking a lot about Hell lately, not because I want to, but because we’ve become so good at surrounding ourselves with its working replicas in the here and now. Check the news.
As for the Hell of Christian faith: Anyone who doubts Hell’s existence should try this simple test. Turn out the lights some moonless night and listen alone to the late Heathcote Williams’s brilliant reading of Dante’s Inferno.
It’s a little too vivid for comfort. In the sunlight of a warm September morning, leathery demons in a pit of descending torments, no matter how ingeniously described, can seem ludicrous. We live in the Age of Science after all, with its well fed confidence and disdain for the superstitious. The “real,” we’re told, is what we can measure and prove – this, despite the conveniently blind assumption that reality conforms to the limits of our senses and the kind of material data they can collect.
But in the dark, with the eyes turned inward on the landscape of the soul, the terrain of the real reality – the things that actually matter in the course of our days, and the choices and consequences that shape us – can be very clear. As Dante wrote,
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself in a dark wilderness,
For I had wandered from the straight and true.
Dante follows his guide, the poet Virgil, into a Hell that’s alarmingly persuasive and perversely right, absent the noise of the modern world. In a nation now drunk with hatreds and resentment, it’s useful for a reader to dwell awhile on the Inferno’s Canto Eight, where the River Styx, in an endless flow of excrement and filth, holds the souls of those damned because of their anger. The wrathful thrash the surface, biting and attacking each other; the sullen drown below, swallowing their own muck.
The idea of the afterlife as a “place” is deeply embedded in the human imagination. And understandably so: We live in a physical world with mappable geography. Our bodies teach us pleasure and pain. So we tend to picture Hell as a lake of fire; or an extremely shabby Las Vegas where the drinks are miserly, the dancers ugly, and no one ever wins; or the Inferno’s final and lowest circle – a ferociously cold pit of ice.
The fiction of C.S. Lewis – especially The Great Divorce and The Screwtape Letters, but also That Hideous Strength – captures something of what Hell might be like. Or instead, it might have a sardonic twist: eternal boredom. In The Twilight Zone episode “A Nice Place to Visit,” a small-time gambler, desperately in debt but addicted to the adrenaline of risk, dies and wakes up in a fabulous casino. It’s loaded with beautiful women, and every comfort and convenience. But he can never leave and worse, he can never lose. In The Night Gallery’s “Hell’s Bells,” a cynical, hard-partying rocker dies and slides down the chute to damnation. Hell’s massive “fire door” opens on a cozy sitting room, a comfortable sofa – and an elderly couple eager to show him their vacation slideshow from Hawaii. Forever.
All of these images can be implausible, frightening, or amusing by turns. All may contain a grain of truth. But they miss the heart of what Hell would finally be, whatever form it takes, and why its suffering would be so fierce.
Hell would be the utter absence of love: a radical severing of the soul from the God who is Love himself, the source of our meaning and identity. Dante drew his inspiration for the structure of the Divine Comedy from Augustine, who described our “weight” as our love. Real love, unselfish love, is a fire: sacrificial, generous, ever-expanding; a blaze that lifts the soul upward toward God. This is why the lowest depth in the Inferno is not a furnace but a lake of ice, kept eternally frozen by the sin of pride – the arctic, willful, unrepentant flapping of Satan’s great wings.
Yet a question poses itself: Why, for us poor humans with lifespans barely a drop in the ocean of eternity, would Hell’s separation be permanent? For finite beings, the prospect of eternal punishment, whatever that might mean, seems hideously unfair. But it’s entirely fair. God doesn’t inflict Hell. The damned freely prefer it.
The damned, by their actions and choices, become creatures unable to have it otherwise; creatures who cannot bear Heaven, cannot want Heaven, and could never fit there. If we are free – and our freedom is central to our special dignity; it sets us apart from all other creatures – God cannot force us to be what we’ve freely chosen not to be. God’s mercy is infinite. But it requires the sinner’s honesty, humility, and repentance. These the obstinate sinner will not give. Thus “mercy” would simply be an alibi for injustice.
C.S. Lewis once wrote that while Heaven is “an acquired taste,” a taste acquired over time through a certain course of life, it was nonetheless made for men and women. Hell was never intended for the human soul. And what enters Hell is no longer fully human. It’s a cinder of human remains burned out by rage, frustration, loneliness and devouring self-love; just as a white dwarf star is no longer the fullness of a star, but its collapsed, self-consuming shell – the shriveled memory of a star, but with a crushing mass and a ferocious gravity that allow nothing to escape its appetite but the faintest light.
Dante ended his Divine Comedy with one of the most powerful and beautiful lines in Western literature, describing God as “the Love that moves the sun and other stars.” I suppose the lesson here is simply this. Whatever the fury and turmoil of our times might be, it’s who we love, what we love, and how well we love that determines our destination. So we need to choose. And the wise choose well.
*Image: Dante and Virgil in the ninth circle of the Inferno by Gustave Doré, 1861 [Musée de Brou, Bourg-en-Bresse, France]