The Smiling Crocodile: Reflections on Hell

Somebody asked me the other day whether I believed in Hell, inviting me to write about it. An unusually direct question; a bear-trap even and an attempt to answer feels a little bit like sticking one’s head voluntarily between the jaws of Lewis Carroll’s smiling crocodile. I know people whom, I imagine, run with the whole lake of fire scenario, where the flesh consumed regenerates spontaneously to be roasted anew, for eternity. I can only surmise this to be the case since they tend to hold fundamentalist views about other contentious issues of faith. On the other hand, my humanist, atheist and non-theist friends presumably all hold to a spectrum of ideas none of which involve the existence of the entity that is “me” surviving the flames of the crematorium, perhaps tittering quietly behind their hands that thinking about such medieval nonsense is even worthy of the time spent in our comfortably postmodern world. As it happens, and those who know me well will be aware that I do spend quite some time reflecting on such things, my belief system extends beyond the brief candle that is consciousness. Fortunately (or not) I am not alone and people have argued unceasingly about these ideas, for example Swedenborg’s Manichean view of Hell was challenged by William Blake who wrote of the marriage of Heaven and Hell in the early 1790s. So, here’s a first thought. Do I believe in Hell – Dante’s Inferno –  including all the fiery unquenchableness of it all? No, I don’t, since to do so is to believe in a god for whom justice trumps mercy and the permanently sadistic vindictiveness of such a state is not consistent with the actions of an all-forgiving deity. Good enough for Islam’s ‘jahannam’, perhaps, but not for me. The doctrine of hell is one that people write undergraduate essays about and has evolved just like every other doctrine, over time. John Calvin was an expert at putting the frighteners on his hearers even more than the Catholics who sold indulgences. He wrote this in 1559. “As language cannot describe the severity of the divine vengeance on the reprobate, their pains and torments are figured to us by corporeal things, such as darkness, wailing and gnashing of teeth, inextinguishable fire, the ever-gnawing worm.” He goes on to describe in blood-curdling detail the consequences of separation from God.  Hearers of Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon preached in Connecticut in 1741 unequivocally entitled ‘Sinners in the hands of an angry God’ apparently clung to the pews for dear life lest the indignation of God sweep them pell-mell into the abyss. I was once asked to reflect on the competing positions of Aquinas and Augustine whether the corporeal body consigned to the Pit suffers eternal anguish or not, an essay that took me rather a long time to write.

The medievals were encouraged to believe that Gehenna was somehow located deep underground, accessed by fiery pits, but I suggest that rather than a spatial location, a place of divinely-imposed torment, perhaps hell is an existential state – the internal condition of the individual in denial of salvific reality and in rejection of any concept of a redemptive relationship. This implies two things, either the resident of Hell believes that redemption exists but he has declined to accept it, or that he does not believe in the existence of redemptive grace at all.

Furthermore, I think hell is subject to kairos, not chronos. It is not just a future state but one which had a beginning and continues in the here and now and beyond. It is the continuation into the hereafter of a present condition of heart and mind, one whose trajectory is anti-relationship, anti-reality which rejects the assumption that the existential reality which we currently enjoy is a prefiguration of something better. C.S. Lewis makes the point that those in hell will have always been there; that hell reaches back to taint all the steps that have led to it, conversely heaven reaches back to redeem all that has gone before.

So, how should we describe ‘hell’? In C S Lewis’ great metaphysical story, “The Great Divorce”, (all here as a pdf), he suggests that by comparison Heaven is a state of greater, more concrete reality. We leave grey, rainy streets with their legions of grumblers and travel to the heavenly country which we discover to be too solid, too real, for the wisps of smoke, the ephemeral shades of the unredeemed to inhabit – they would be pierced by its grass as if by knives and crushed by its raindrops as if by boulders. To be able to live there permanently and make the long journey to the mountains they need to be transformed, become more solid, more real.

Thus, by contrast, hell is a place or condition where one is less real, one’s personality, ability to choose, any joy and all hope is lost. We almost literally disappear in a puff of smoke.

This of course is completely unsatisfactory since it fails to remember mercy which in order to be genuine, must be visible. Aquinas argues that we will rejoice in the justice of God displayed in the cries of the damned. I respectfully disagree.

Finally, had I wanted to insert images of Hell, there are plenty to choose from. However, the image I have chosen is metaphorical – the moon is at the same time in shadow and in the full light of the sun. Let him that has wisdom…

The Forgetfulness of Hummingbirds

Gustave Doré, illustrations for The Divine Comedy. The Fates drink from the river of forgetfulness.

Retired people are supposed to keep mentally alert. It stops us frittering whatever time we have left away as our brain wanders off unbidden into some kind of intellectual no-man’s-land from which there is no return. Some do Sudoku, others crosswords, and some go for long walks with other like-minded people, identifying flora and fauna. In my case, no, thank you, none of the above. I occasionally attempt to solve calculus problems in my head but I don’t really think that counts.

The Internet is a marvellous thing – organic, growing, addictive. It contains about ninety seven percent absolute rubbish – with a hat tip to ‘The Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency’ – a small portion of quite useful material and a minuscule droplet of pure gold. Cats on skateboards fall into none of these categories, neither do pictures of my grandchildren, for whom special circumstances apply.

When I was a boy, I read, stripping the school library bare. From Hesse to Lawrence to Shakespeare – there was a skeleton left of things even I didn’t want to read, otherwise, the place had been systematically plundered. As an adult, I collected books, filling shelves and more shelves with fiction, biography and whatever else caught my eye.

It’s not just interesting but absolutely frightening to observe that the young do not read. Really read. Sit in a corner or under the piano with a book. Holding information for more than a handspan of time, undistracted. Instead, their eyes rarely lifting from the Orwellian screen, they flit from paragraph to paragraph like hummingbirds, attention wandering from one topic to the next, pond-skating on a surface like licking an ice cream cone, bouncing along from one tiny dopamine high to the next. It may be permanently affecting their brain chemistry.

I’m doing a course online, which is hard enough since I have no background in the material so it’s a bit like trying to learn group theory when you haven’t been taught how to add up.  All of the foregoing arose from thinking about a lecture I’d been watching this morning; the easy bit of my course.  The required reading for it reminded me that if I actually want to learn something well enough to reflect intelligently about it, I can’t just skip the hard bits, the bits I don’t like because I can’t immediately understand them. Instead, I have to spend time engaging all my faculties – for me – in silence, reading and re-reading the text so understanding crystallises long enough to think and form conclusions.

There are no easy answers. Successful people have long realised that the Internet is the opiate of the people, the river of oblivion, the Lethe of forgetfulness and most people retain very little from all the clicking and jumping around, instead doing themselves few psychological favours. I have told myself that I am going to buy a few more real books, paper ones, not downloads, that I can flip the pages on, turn a corner down as a bookmark and remind myself of my youth. I think that might be one small way to help keep the craziness and oblivion at bay.


Unbearably Light Relief

It’s getting stupid and claustrophobic out there. I blame Brexit; more specifically the total dog’s breakfast all those on both sides of the House are making of it, thus follows hereinafter ( is this right?) a little light relief.

It has always been a delight to shuffle through the Sunday papers, nodding benignly at the things I agreed with and gnashing my teeth at the things I didn’t. The Kuwait Times was often a source of endless merriment as bootleggers knelt in supplication before their confiscated wares, mostly still in possession of a functional pair of hands. But, it is the Turkey of Mr Erdogan that is the source of amusement today, much excitement to be had as his Government sends its people straight back to the Middle Ages. No passing ‘Go’ and no collecting 200 lira.
The latest thing to be banned by Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s excitingly forward-looking administration is the theory of evolution. Children will no longer be taught it. One Turkish newspaper announced that primary school pupils have been given books depicting Charles Darwin as “a big-nosed Jew who enjoyed the company of monkeys”. A pro-Erdogan columnist gives evolution a twist: Darwin was partly right he explained, but had things the wrong way around. Evolution is true, he says, but monkeys are descended from Jews who were being punished for their sins. It’s all there in the Qu’ran, apparently.

Nice to see that bigotry is alive and well all over the place, especially in regard to persons whose sexual preference is not the same as either my own or 90% of the rest of the population. Two evangelical preachers won an appeal this week against a conviction for being horrible to homosexuals in Bristol; the judge had decided that their going round the streets reading blood-curdling passages from Leviticus through a megaphone fell within the law’s definition of free expression of their faith.

Finally, there are Westminster whispers that my personal crush kid, Mozza, aka Jacob Rees-Mogg, the only eighteenth century Tory still in existence might be putting himself up for the Party leadership, thus ensuring a woman, his nanny, becomes deputy PM. He’d know when to use ‘hereinafter’.