The Invention of Hell
I rather suspect that some long long long time ago, in the dim mists of antiquity, somewhere in Mesopotamia, an ordinary fellow anonymous to history, sat in front of his television set watching spineless politicians argue about non-issues while real needs multiplied in the streets of Ur, and he turned to his wife, and he said, “There ought to be place where souls like that could cool their heels for a millennium or more before the gods let them enter Sheol.”
Whether these folks were Jewish or Babylonian or Assyrian I haven’t a clue. But the scholars tell me that when the exiled tribes from Judaea first went into their long exile, they didn’t have hell (or heaven either) in their theologies, but when they emerged from exile, they did. And I’m pretty sure I know why they or their neighbors invented it. There just ought to be a place (someplace!!!) where justice finally is served with a hot side of chips.
Karl Barth, the Patron Saint of a particular crew of Reformed theologians, offered the idea that the creed requires that we believe in hell, not that we believe anyone is in it. And most sophisticated Christian theologians today find the whole idea embarrassing at best. As an ordained Presbyterian pastor, I am not required to believe everything the creeds say, but to be guided by them. And as an old ordained Presbyterian pastor who serves the best church in the best city anywhere and whose designation in ministry will soon be HR (“honorably” – or otherwise – “retired”), my tongue has found it increasingly difficult to edit out what my brain thinks.
I think we are wiser, on the whole, to leave hell to the poets rather than entrust it to the theologians. The theologians either run from it in Enlightened terror or embrace it with vengeful satisfaction. They tend to vaporize it or absolutize it. And they have no sense of humor about it at all.
Dante understood why we invented hell. It’s the best place to assign the crooked politicians and bent coppers, the rapacious cheats and liars and voluptuous gluttons who have taken advantage of the kindness and gullibility of friends and strangers, those who have indulged in every sin of the flesh and the spirit (covetousness, pride, meanness, envy, hatred, and so forth) while themselves damning in their self-righteousness those who are merely a little soiled, a little sore, weak, broken, or lost. He put in hell those beyond the reach of earthly justice, those who worked the systems for their own gain, and grubbed at power while manipulating or slaughtering any threats to their privileges.
Those of you who have read Dante’s “Divine Comedy” even get the joke*; Dante’s hell is inhabited by the most interesting people with the most interesting stories; it is stocked full of Dante’s personal enemies. Dante’s hell is also a place of grace, where the merely unrighteous and unlucky are sorted out from the truly vile who finally get their comeuppance.
It probably isn’t spiritually healthy to develop our own lists of the folks we think ought to be in hell. But it is tempting. And I know I’m in real danger at that point when I’ve already taken off my shoe and am preparing to launch it into the Sony in our den.
Maybe I’ve just come to the place in my own Theo-poetical mind where I seriously doubt the existence of hell, but wish like everything it had a hefty population. Or maybe I just wish we had that eternal truancy hall called Purgatory our Roman Catholic friends so sensibly invented.
My old friend Lewie Donelson, a biblical scholar now retired, once told me that his idea of hell would be an eternity of the kind of “ice-breaker” games and exercises some people inflict on their fellow workers and friends. I suppose we all have our own ideas of hell, and many of us can imagine inhabiting them.
Billy Collins, a contemporary poet, has written a poem titled “Hell” along this line:
I have a feeling that it is much worse
than shopping for a mattress at a mall.
of greater duration without question,
and there is no random pitchforking here,
no licking flames to fear,
only this cavernous store with its maze of bedding.
Yet wandering past the jovial kings,
the more sensible queens,
and the cheerless singles
no scarlet sheet will ever cover,
I am thinking of a passage from the Inferno,
which I could fully bring to mind
and recite in English or even Italian
if the salesman who has been following us —
a crumpled pack of Newports
visible in the pocket of his short sleeve shirt —
would stop insisting for a moment
that we test this one, then this softer one,
which we do by lying down side by side,
arms rigid, figures on a tomb,
powerless to imagine what it would be like
to sleep or love this way
under the punishing rows of fluorescent lights,
which Dante might have included
had he been able to lie on his back between us here today.
Perhaps, ultimately, the reason we invented hell was that we wanted there to be a safe place where the sign could be hung, reading, “Abandon all hope you who enter here,” a nether region far away, so that this sign wouldn’t have to be hung over this earthly existence of ours.
*And, yes, classics teachers, I do know that comedy in Italian isn’t a funny story.