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…

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