How the Idea of Hell Has Shaped the Way We Think

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For centuries, we’ve given lavish attention to the specifics of punishment, and left Heaven woefully under-sketched.

By Vinson Cunningham

Hell is an old room in the house of the human imagination, and the ancients loved to offer the tour.
Illustration by Cleon Peterson

When I was a kid of ten or eleven years old, newly returned to New York after a few years living in Chicago, I started accompanying my mother to a church in Harlem, in a shallow, sunlit upper room just south of 125th Street. Every Sunday, service began with a procession. The Hammond organ would start up, and the ministers, carrying their Bibles, trailed by the pastor, would file in in a loose line, singing a song. It went:

This is the Lord’s church, and Jesus is Lord!
This is the church that’s been established on his Word.
This is the church that love is building; the gates of Hell shall not prevail!
This is the Lord’s church, and Jesus is Lord!

It was meant to be a happy song—you could tell by its confident insistence on Christ’s kingship, by the shuffling major key in which it was played, and by the smiles and falsetto ad-libs it elicited from the crowd. But, either there in the sanctuary or later, lying in bed, I sometimes fixated on the bit about the gates of Hell. My father had died recently, and I’d begun wondering where he might be. I’d been assured that he was in Heaven, but I could tell, even then, that he hadn’t been a saint. Sometimes I pictured him enveloped in light, dissolving into the never-ending worship around the throne of God. Other times, helped along by the accounts of my Jesuit schoolteachers, I imagined him waiting, otiose and slightly bored—restless, as he had often seemed to be in life—in the long, cosmic queue of Purgatory. Also possible, I had to concede, was the Bad Place, which, until then, I’d thought of mostly as the un-air-conditioned underside to Heaven.

Here, though, was a different idea. Hell, according to the logic of the song, wasn’t only a place beneath my feet for the lesser of the dead but a force ruling a large portion of the world around me, gathering troops and waging battle against the good. More immediately distressing than the prospect of going there was the idea that it could be headed in my direction, determined to overtake me even before my death. “Satan has desired to have you,” my new pastor sometimes preached, quoting Jesus’ words to the apostle Peter, “that he may sift you as wheat.” Had Hell already occupied me, before I’d even known about the war?

The further from childhood I get, the fewer people I meet who worry about—or even believe in—what Scott G. Bruce, the editor of a new and quite terrifying compilation, “The Penguin Book of Hell,” calls the “punitive afterlife.” But the Hell here on earth—the one that the preachers promised would lose in the end—hasn’t gone anywhere. You might even notice a slight uptick, these days, in its invocation. As a metaphor for global warming, hellfire is almost too on the nose. There are also the grim jokes about how, during our most recent and most wretched Presidential election, we all surely died and boarded the first elevator downstairs, where we are now in permanent residence. (Search Twitter for the phrase “We are literally in Hell” and let the scenarios wash over you.) It’s not only the liberals and the environmentally concerned who are prone to invoking Hell to convey the current state of things. When Donald Trump, during his downbeat Inaugural Address, conjured an “American carnage” that left “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation,” and “crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential,” what was he describing but a national apocalypse, a Hades in Chicago and at the border? Our ancestors developed their ideas of Hell by drawing on the pains and the deprivations that they knew on earth. Those imaginings shaped our understanding of life before death, too. They still do.

The afterlife is an old room in the house of the human imagination, and the ancients loved to offer the tour. Homer has Odysseus sail through the underworld in search of a way back home, to Ithaca. (As Bruce reminds us in one of his helpful introductory notes, the underworld, according to the cosmological geography of the Odyssey, is “not deep beneath the earth, but on a dark and distant shore.”) “The dead and gone came swarming up around me, each asking about the grief that touched him most,” Odysseus says. Some of the dead, such as Orion, “that huge hunter,” who keeps up his chase on the shadow world’s fields, undergo fates that seem like dim epilogues of their lives. Others suffer extravagantly. Sisyphus can’t get his boulder to keep to the high ground. Vultures peck at the rapist Tityus’ guts. Tantalus stands in a pool of water that flees when he stoops for a drink, and he takes shade under trees whose fruits shy away when he tries to grab a bite. An uncanny mirroring happens when Odysseus encounters Hercules, yesteryear’s great hero, who, in keeping with his half-divine nature, has been split in two after death: the ghost of his mortal side is stuck in the underworld, while “the man himself” lives in bliss on Mt. Olympus. Like an over-the-hill older brother recounting his athletic exploits, Hercules remembers his first turn through the pit. Comparing Odysseus’ deathly journey to his own famous labors, he asks, wearily, “You too?”

The Hades drawn by Homer, and, later, by Virgil, in the Aeneid, is not quite Hell as understood in the post-medieval Christian tradition, but it is one of its ancestors. While all of the dead go to Hades, there are tortures specially designed and individually designated for those who acted badly while alive. (Of course, as in everything Greek and Roman, there’s an unanswered question of agency: just who has done the sorting, and how do we know that this judge has been just?) The “Book of Hell” is determinedly Western and Christian in emphasis: Bruce regards Hades, together with Gehenna—where kings of Judah were said to sacrifice children by fire—and Sheol, the place of darkness awaiting all of us according to the Hebrew Bible, as the forerunners of Christianity’s fire and brimstone. He briefly acknowledges the older and vaguer pagan visions found in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia; Jahannam, Islam’s place of punishment, doesn’t appear in the book at all.

Within this chosen lineage, the meeting between Odysseus and Hercules coaxes a trope into view. From antiquity forward, our stories about Hell often feature some prematurely damned hero—Orpheus or Aeneas, the three Hebrew boys in the furnace or Jesus during his three days dead, the innocent prisoner or the untried detainee—passing through the state of hopelessness, then coming back, blinking, into the light. There’s something practical about this from a storytelling perspective: how better to draw readers or listeners into a godforsaken realm than through the eyes of someone just like them—lost, maybe, but not yet totally toast? (A recent application, and, possibly, a subversion, of this template is the sitcom “The Good Place,” which follows four very flawed individuals—archetypical stand-ins for lots of people you probably know—as they tour a false Heaven, and then the entire cosmos, in a widening rebellion against an overly stringent afterlife.) There is something philosophical in the pattern, too—the idea that the extremities of earthly experience inevitably draw us toward the higher themes of justice, balance, retribution, mercy, and punishment.

The great poetic example of the blurriness between the everyday and the ever after is Dante’s Inferno, which begins with the narrator “midway upon the journey of our life,” having wandered away from the life of God and into a “forest dark.” That wood, full of untamed animals and fears set loose, leads the unwitting pilgrim to Virgil, who acts as his guide through the ensuing ordeal, and whose Aeneid, itself a recapitulation of the Odyssey, acts as a pagan forerunner to the Inferno. This first canto of the poem, regrettably absent from the “Book of Hell,” reads as a kind of psychological-metaphysical map, marking the strange route along which one person’s private trouble leads both outward and downward, toward the trouble of the rest of the world. In the end, Dante’s strayings help him back onto straight street, but not before he looks, literally, into the eyes of the Devil, who is trapped beneath a layer of ice:

The emperor of this kingdom of gloom
Came up out of the ice at the mid-point of his chest…

O, what a marvel it appeared to me,
When I saw three faces on his head!
The one in front was a brilliant red;

There were two others that joined with this one
Above the middle part of either shoulder
And they merged together at the crest of his hair…

Underneath each face sprouted two mighty wings,
All six proportioned for a bird of great size;
I never saw sails of the sea so large.

The masterstroke of this scene in the deepest circle of Hell is in Dante’s depiction of each of the Devil’s awful mouths: in the foremost (the big red one) is Judas, Jesus’ betrayer; in the others are Cassius and Brutus, who worked together to do in Caesar. Pathetic, and almost moving, when you think about it: the worst sinners imaginable, each doomed to everlasting mastication, are guys undone by the successes of their famous friends. Insecurity is a tomb; these are the kinds of midlife crises from which few people recover. “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” is as applicable to certain poisonous habits of mind as to the gates of Hell. One leads, inexorably, to the other.

The View of the Yellow Vests, from the Ground

Dante, writing in the early fourteenth century, drew on a bounty of hellish material, from Greek, Roman, and, of course, Christian literature, which is rife with horrible visions of Hell. Bruce includes an excerpt from the Apocalypse of Paul, an apocryphal third-century text that narrates a Revelation-style reverie experienced by Paul of Tarsus. An angel bids the evangelist to come and view the dwelling place of the sinners; he sees a “river of fire,” in which there are “men and women sunk up to their knees, and other men up to their navels, and . . . others up to their lips, and others up to their hair.” Their varying scorch marks indicate levels of depravity: those all the way immersed “were those who conspired with one another, plotting evil against their neighbor.” Bruce also excerpts the parable in the Gospel of Luke about a rich man and a poor man. Both die, and the beggar goes to Heaven, “carried by angels to the bosom of Abraham,” while the rich man is damned to burn. Suffering, he cries out for help. The cry—which, along with the myth of Tantalus, is echoed in Coleridge’s famous line “Water, water, every where, / Nor any drop to drink”—is chilling: “Father Abraham, have mercy on me and send Lazarus to touch the tip of his finger in water to cool my tongue, for I am suffering in this flame.”

Reading these various prophecies—in particular, reëncountering Dante’s peculiar cycle, from his inner life to universal laws and then, through the unbearable torment of others, back to his inner life—returned me to a very different and much more recent chronicle of spiritual experience, not included in the Penguin anthology. The Catholic activist and writer Dorothy Day, in her autobiography, “The Long Loneliness,” recounts an episode from her leftist, pre-conversion youth: she participated in a protest, in front of the White House, against the poor treatment of imprisoned suffragettes. The picketing led to the arrest of Day and several fellow-activists, and together the group resolved to go on a hunger strike until they were released and their demands had been met. After six days, exhausted and increasingly hopeless, Day slipped out of normal consciousness and into a protracted reverie of worldwide despair. Her mind shuttled away from her vacant stomach and visited every other despairing incarcerated soul. “I lost all feeling of my own identity,” she writes:

I reflected on the desolation of poverty, of destitution, of sickness and sin. That I would be free after thirty days meant nothing to me. I would never be free again, never free when I knew that behind bars all over the world there were women and men, young girls and boys, suffering constraint, punishment, isolation and hardship for crimes of which all of us were guilty. . . . Why were prostitutes prosecuted in some cases and in others respected and fawned on? People sold themselves for jobs, for the pay check, and if they only received a high enough price, they were honored. Why were some caught, not others? . . . What was good and evil? . . . Never would I recover from this wound, this ugly knowledge I had gained of what men were capable in their treatment of each other.

Day doesn’t explicitly associate this meditation with Hell, but her newly deepened association with the poor, and with other people on the periphery of society, has the effect of Dante’s journey through the Inferno: it sets her on the path toward the light. The vision is also, perhaps more harrowingly, characteristic of how the idea of Hell has shaped perceptions of our own time. Torturous places such as the Gulag, the gas chamber, death row, and the detainment site are often comprehended, and depicted, as new iterations of perdition. The tendency predates the twentieth century; several American slave narratives could have served as provocative additions to the “Book of Hell.” The collection winds toward the present with a section called “Hell of Our Own Making,” which includes the journalist Vasily Grossman’s firsthand account of the concentration camp at Treblinka and an essay by an incarcerated man named William Blake, who killed a court official while trying to escape a court date for a drug charge. “Yes, it is all true,” Grossman writes. “The last hope, the last wild hope that it was all just a terrible dream, has gone.” Blake writes about his time in the Special Housing Unit—less euphemistically, solitary confinement. (The essay first appeared in an anthology of such pieces called “Hell Is a Very Small Place.”) Blake’s vision is almost as bleak as Grossman’s: “Dying couldn’t take but a short time if you or the state were to kill me; in SHU I have died a thousand internal deaths.”

Belief in an old-fashioned, everlasting Hell hasn’t gone away. Just ask the pastor at most local churches, or the subway preacher with his brimstone-heavy pamphlets. But Hell has long been assailed as one of Christianity’s cruder means of maintaining control. And some spiritual leaders, intent on presenting a less vengeful God, have attempted to soften or, in some cases, to abolish Hell—mostly to the anger and the anxiety of their co-religionists. Earlier this year, Pope Francis had one of his periodic chats with Eugenio Scalfari, the ninety-four-year-old atheist Italian journalist. Scalfari, who takes no notes during his dialogues with the Holy Father, came away from the session with a blockbuster quote: “A Hell doesn’t exist,” Francis supposedly said, and wayward souls are “annihilated”—poof!—instead of languishing forever. The Vatican denied that the Pope had said any such thing, but it didn’t seem entirely out of character. The great theme of Francis’s pontificate is his emphasis on mercy over judgment. More to the point, he has already made it his business to clarify that Hell, properly understood, is less a place than a state—namely, the state of remoteness from the love of God, an inevitable downside of the gift of free will. Here he echoes C. S. Lewis, who considered Hell a choice. “The doors of hell,” Lewis wrote, “are locked on the inside.”

Scalfari’s report was followed by a wave of criticism from Catholics, which felt strange, disproportionately intense. What modern believer wouldn’t want to cast off this old, sadistic barrier to faith in a loving God? What kind of deity draws such a hard line between his friends and his enemies, and holds an eternal grudge? Surely the loss of Hell—even the idea of such a loss—should come as a bit of a relief.

St. Thomas Aquinas argued the opposite, half a century before Dante got to work. In the “Summa Theologica,” his grand synthesis of Aristotelian philosophy and Christian teaching, he defended the doctrine of Hell and insisted that we should think of it as a benefit, not a bug. Not only does Hell exist, Aquinas reasoned, but those blessed souls who make it to Heaven must be able, by some miracle of cosmic surveillance—the worst and longest season of “Big Brother”—to see and delight in the fate of Hell’s inhabitants. Because God’s punishments are unimpeachably correct, the lower regions must serve as part of the heavenly vista—the top-floor view of all that’s right and just. “In order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render greater thanks to God for it, they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned,” Aquinas writes.

Awful, I know. But think of our own justice system, and also of the various means by which we now claim access to the missteps of our fellow-citizens—tax liens, criminal records, mug shots, bad status updates screenshotted or automatically archived. Think of the camera in the courtroom. Think, too, of those Americans for whom even the mildest criticism of the police constitutes a kind of heresy. It might be helpful to regard them as secular Thomists, who, displaying a certain imaginative immiseration, think of a free and ordinary life in the way that their ancestors once thought of perfect blessedness in Heaven. The reward wouldn’t be so sweet—or, perhaps, worth having at all—if the process that assured it were shown to be a sham.

A few years ago, a minister who used to preach and prophesy at my church—which, by then, had moved from the little room south of 125th Street to a former Elks Lodge and community theatre a handful of blocks north—started posting on Facebook about how his study of the Bible had helped him conclude that nobody will be damned. He’d studied the Hebrew and the Aramaic and the Greek in which the Writ was written, and had concluded that the words most often translated as “hell” referred to a more general afterlife, or, at worst, to the daily, inward suffering that accompanies a willful persistence in wrongdoing. In John’s Gospel, Jesus promises that in his death and, later, in his exaltation, he will “draw all men unto me”—everybody, from the most perfect to the absolute worst, their rapes, massacres, and enslavements notwithstanding. The sacrifice on the Cross was redemption enough for the entire world.

The minister was looking for a response, and it arrived quickly. The angriest interlocutors debated him, paragraph for sulfurous paragraph, studded with scriptural reference, for days on end, in comment sections that unfurled beneath his status updates like long scrolls carrying the names of the dead, wherever the hell they’d gone. Some confronted him after service on Sundays. Others unfollowed him, in every sense of that word, and went on with their lives. Soon, he’d left their church and started one of his own, where he proclaimed his lenient gospel, pouring out pity and anger for those Christians whose so-called God was a petty torturer, until his little congregation petered out. Assured salvation couldn’t keep people in pews, it turned out. The whole episode, in its intensity and its focus on the stakes of textual interpretation, was reminiscent of Lucas Hnath’s recent play “The Christians,” about a pastor who comes out against Hell and sparks not relief but an exegetical nightmare. “The Lord is telling me that you are going against His Word,” someone blurts out during service.

That preacher wasn’t alone, in his own time or in history. Origen, the scholar and Church Father, born late in the second century A.D., tended to believe that, in the end, all would be spared. (His more famous successor, Augustine of Hippo, fiercely opposed the idea, and he won the long-term doctrinal battle.) Almost two thousand years later, the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar hedged the matter ever so slightly, arguing, in the aptly titled book “Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved,” that, while we can’t be certain that Hell is empty, or at least very lightly populated—like a sweltering suburb, subject to infernal sprawl—it might be appropriate to hope, or even suspect, that it is. More recently, the bishop and gospel singer Carlton Pearson, whose acclaim in Pentecostal and evangelical circles brought him into acquaintance with Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, proclaimed that he no longer believed in everlasting separation from God. The genocide in Rwanda, he said, had left him unable to fathom that all those innocent, murdered non-Christians would burn. Pearson was roundly denounced and shunned, as thoroughly excommunicated as any Protestant can be. Now, as a kind of guru-entrepreneur, he calls himself a Metacostal, preaching “expanded consciousness, radically inclusive love, and Self-Actualization.” There’s a movie about him on Netflix, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, which portrays him as a hero battling a blinkered, punitive church.

I admire the Universalists, but only to a point. I still worry more about the hell within than the one that might, or might not, offer me a place to stay later on. (I’ve been sifted a time or two.) One of my nightmares is to end up like Milton’s Satan—whose absence from the “Book of Hell” is Bruce’s one egregious mistake. In “Paradise Lost,” Satan shows up in Eden, in search of Adam and Eve, certain that by force of will he can ease the pain of his damnation, making of Hell a suitable home. But, surrounded by the loveliness of the new creation, he feels his internal awfulness all the more: “Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell; / And in the lowest deep a lower deep / Still threat’ning to devour me opens wide, / To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heav’n.” He and Hell belong to each other; where he goes, torture goes, too.

Mostly, though, I come back to Dorothy Day’s questions: Why are some people caught and not others? Why do the “least of these” keep catching hell while the richest and most powerful slide through life unaccosted and unaccountable, leaving God knows what in their wake? There’s a cruel paradox at work: the more secular our representations of Hell become, the more the poor and rejected and otherwise undesirable tend to populate it. The moral meaning’s gone wrong, it seems. However grotesque, the child-detainment centers at the U.S.-Mexico border are not Hell but the reason for a Hell to exist, so that those responsible for them can one day get their deserts. Karma within the confines of a life span sounds great but looks false: so often, the wicked seem to be doing just fine. For all the barbarism of Hell as it is traditionally taught—its ludicrous time frame, its unfair and somewhat bigoted admissions policy—at least some of the right people turn up in it. What recourse is there, real or just hoped for, without it? Our most energetic recent social movements—Occupy, #MeToo, Black Lives Matter—have retribution in mind. Bad bankers, sexual aggressors, killer cops: let’s see them finally get their due. But satisfaction arrives slowly, if at all. The bad guys are back onstage, back at their desks, back on the beat.

Those movements sometimes seem to clash, in spirit, with another growing concern: prison abolitionism, which might be thought of as a kind of secular universalism. That movement’s strongest moral argument is that the conflation of justice and punishment merely adds more pain to the cruelty already at work in the world. Those of us who believe in an objective morality but wince at the idea of damnation should probably take a harder look at imprisonment, especially life sentences and sequestrations suffered by people like William Blake. Could we imagine a new justice, characterized more by mercy than by the threat of the pit? “The call for prison abolition urges us to imagine and strive for a very different social landscape,” the academic and activist Angela Davis, one of the movement’s most prominent theorists and spokespersons, has said. To redirect our creativity and train it toward Heaven—and, by extension, our notions of the good life on Earth—would require a kind of revolution in our thinking. As the “Book of Hell” illustrates, again and again, we have afforded lavish attention to the specifics of punishment and left Heaven woefully undersketched. Perhaps the sublime is so far beyond our comprehension as to leave us inarticulate, incapable of rendering its details. Or maybe we’re just daunted by the implications. It might be time to heed the prophet Isaiah and set the captives free.

Hell is so much easier to picture. The recent U.N. report on the climate forecasts, with devastating frankness, worldwide catastrophe, absent a sudden upsurge of yet undetectable stewardship and coöperation. Meanwhile, Trump’s E.P.A. has dismantled an expert panel on air pollution. This is, of course, a disaster. Nobody has a right to feel very optimistic about the outcome, and there’s a vast unfairness at work: even the most ardent recyclers and carbon tiptoers—not to mention those without a wide range of options when it comes to what and how they consume—will feel the burn. But, here, as almost nowhere else in the visible world, the lines of cause and effect, neglect and decay, sin and punishment, are plain. You sow the coal and reap the whirlwind. Heat the air, and let the icebergs roll on righteously, like a mighty stream. First comes the flood, then comes the fire. It matters, very much, what you do. ♦
This article appears in the print edition of the January 21, 2019, issue, with the headline “The Bad Place.”

Vinson Cunningham joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 2016.

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