Tuesday, 15 January 2013

A Helluva Place



The Christmas double issue of the Economist was hellish.  There is nothing unusual in that, you may conclude; this publication is usually hellish in one way or another.  Abandon hope all you who read here!  Actually it was hellishly good, or at least there was a hellishly good article on hell (Into everlasting fire), helpful accompanied at the end with a traveller’s Rough Guide.

There was no by-line, so I do not know who to thank.  Perhaps it was a collective effort by Economist imps, specialists in Pandemonium.  Well, specialists in getting things wrong.  Yes, indeed, this is the paper that brought us Egypt’s Mohammed Morsi by appointment!  Oh, never mind the hell of Egypt under the Brothers; let’s get back to hell.

Hell has a history, a somewhat cyclical one.  Those ancient Greek and Roman sages were rather contemptuous of the whole idea.  Cicero said that not even old women believed it anymore and Seneca thought it was a fable for underage boys.  It was Christianity that revived the hothouse, adding a touch of fire and a dash of brimstone, a sort of fork pronging the terrorised into belief.   

Now hell is other people, Jean Paul Sartre said, a wholly understandable observation to those of us who have been trapped in the London Underground in the summer, or supermarket checkouts, or department store sales.  Hell is being made to sit and watch comedians and celebrity specials on Channel Four! 

Those of us who have travelled in America’s Southern Bible Belt will know that hell for some people really is hell, not a metaphor but an actual place, with the fire, the forks and the forkers.  “Hell is real”, periodic billboards announce. 

Those of a less certain frame of mind than Baptist fundamentalists are not quite so sure.  The Vatican limply defines hell simply as a state of absence from the love of God.  Not so the Catholic Encyclopaedia, which is rather given to the old time religion: it’s good enough for them.  Apparently only atheists and Epicureans do not believe in hell! 

Hell, as the Economist says, was for hundreds of years the most fearful place in the human imagination.  It is also the most absurd, as Cicero and Seneca recognised.  Humanity has been adept at devising all sorts of frightfulness over time, massacre, degradation, suffering and torture in every imaginable degree, even a few that are not imaginable.   It really is the most awful cheek to attribute the ultimate frightfulness to God! 



The traditional view of hell, as a place of everlasting torment, was clearly created in our image not God’s.  How on earth, or how in hell, the dilemma goes, can a loving God inflict everlasting and gruesome torment on his errant creatures with no possible hope of redemption?  The worst thing of all is that hell, according to some theological interpretations, was already in existence before the creation of humanity, a sort of everlasting Auschwitz ready to receive cattle trucks full of those unwanted by heaven.   In Auschwitz death at least brought release.  In hell there is no release. 

Much of our image of hell is drawn not from the Bible but from the poets, two poets in particular – the Catholic Dante and the Protestant Milton.  In the Divine Comedy Dante describes a hell of nine circles.  But hell is a place of many more mansions than that.  In Burmese Buddhism there are – wait for it – no fewer than 40,040, one for each particular sin, sins like chicken selling and eating sweets with rice.  My goodness, eating sweets with rice – the horror!, the horror!  Pregnant women really do need to be mindful of those cravings. 

And so it went on, the burning, the screaming, the flaying, the eating alive by demons, all the excruciating tortures that the human imagination could devise, at least it went on until the seventeenth century when it vanished in a puff of rational smoke. Rene Descartes, who thought therefore he was, thought that the soul was immaterial and thus beyond pain.  Now we turn full circle, all the way back to Cicero, who wrote that “It is but our own fraud which frightens us; it is our own evil thoughts that madden us.”

Hell is not other people, you see; hell is oneself.  “I sent my soul through the infinite”, Omar Khayyam, declares, “some message of that afterlife to spell, and by and by my soul returned to me, saying ‘I myself am heaven and hell’”  This is a view echoed in Milton’s epic Paradise Lost, where Satan, recast as the first and greatest rebel in history, says “Which way I flie is Hell: my self am Hell/The mind is in its own place, and in itself/Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.” 

So you’ve always wanted a holiday that never ends?  Hell, as the Rough Guide says, is your first resort and your last.  Oh, don’t bother with the sun cream.  The jabs, moreover, are helpfully provided by our on site representatives.  You are guaranteed a helluva time. 




16 comments:

  1. I've been to Hell, and got the T-shirt:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hell,_Grand_Cayman

    Then I went to the turtle farm and Stingray City.

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    1. I'll make that visit myself one day. :-)

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  2. My sister 'Hel' 'Goddess of the underworld' runs the place, so no problem!

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  3. The concept of 'Burning in Hell' has for centuries been used as a means of control by fear, a concept which is steadily losing popularity with freethinking people everywhere. Bahhh! Bahhh! Bahhh!

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  4. The Texas State legislature has passed a bill in effect that future federal gun control laws will not apply in Texas, the State of Oregon has similar proposals in progress and undoubtedly other states will follow suit. States Rights issues.

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    1. Can they do that? I was under the impression that Federal law trumped that of the States, an issue decided by the Civil War.

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    2. Something else for me to look into.

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  5. If the bottom picture is what awaits me in Hell then sign me up. In the mean time I can dwell on the rather attractive Anna the Imp one you have on your site. I note you have invoked the name of Epicurus it is as Epikuros that I am known on Discus when I make comments to blogs that use that system. I am an atheist and from what little I know about Greek philosophers is that if Epicurus teachings had become more established than that of Aristotle's then today deists would be very much in the minority. Perhaps then the billions that have died in the name of one religion or another would not have done so. However being human if we do not kill each other over religion we will always find another reason and usually anyone will do.

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    1. I'll keep a special place for you. :-)

      The truth is, as you clearly understand, Antisthenes, is that this is hell and we are the devils in it. This is not an original observation. Schopenhauer said as much.

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    2. Good old Schopenhauer!

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  6. I am currently about half-way through a superb book called Islam & the Divine Comedy showing how Dante's great poem could not possibly have been influenced by Christian concepts of the afterlife but was in fact based on accounts and commentaries of the Islamic idea of Hell and Paradise, particularly the accounts of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ's Night Journey and the esoteric and mystical 12-volume magnum opus the Futûhât al-Makkiyya [The Meccan Revelations] of Ibn al-'Arabi who is known in Europe as Doctor Maximus.

    The Islamic Hell is not everlasting but Paradise is. Hell and Paradise occupy the same space. Muhammad ﷺ once said that the expanse of Paradise is spread out upon the entire creation of Allah. He was asked as to where, then, Hell would be and he replied that it occupied the same space but that people did not know it! What an incredible and time-defying understanding of dimensions at a time when people could not have conceived of such a thing and Judgement Day has been described as a continual court in session.

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    1. Rehan, I've just this moment added that book to my Amazon basket. The Jewish and Christian texts here are a lot less specific than the Islamic. It seems obvious when one thinks about it. Now I'm annoyed that it did not occur to me before!

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