How the idea of hell has shaped the way we think


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

Source: The New Yorker

By Vinson Cunningham

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

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.

Read further

Suggested reading

Hell is Meant for Purification and is not Permanent

Afterlife A Dream-State or A Virtual Reality?

Death, Dying and the Afterlife in the Quran

If the Atheists and the Christians Debate, Islam Wins!


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