How the Idea of Hell Has Shaped the Way We Think

190121_r33593Source: The New Yorker


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.

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