Friday, January 04, 2013

This is Hell

Over Christmas, the Economist did a fairly even-handed job presenting the vagaries of the doctrine of Hell, not just among Christians, but Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims as well. Soon after, the comments section at the bottom of the page sprouted experts of every shape, size, and persuasion: persons who had no use for any of this nonsense, persons who took issue with the Economist's exegetical strategies, persons who were more inclined to think of hell as a state of mind, etc., etc., etc. For a place, should it exist, that no living person could ever return from, people were surprisingly well-informed.

Precisely where Hell is, there seems to be the rub. A lot of the conversation about whether or not Hell exists labours under the burden of a proof of its location. On this topic, we are still living with a medieval hangover. The colourful description provided by Dante's Inferno of its seven levels progressively increasing wickedness excites our imagination. (It is, after all, where the cool people are at.) So does its literal, physical quality: as Heaven is above our heads, presumably just beyond the clouds that obscured our Lord from the eyes of his disciples when he ascended to the right hand of the Father, Hell is beneath beneath our feet. But this kind of accounting for Hell's existence ought to have gone the way of the dodo once the heliocentric Copernican explanation of the nature of celestial motions replaced an older geocentric model. If you can no longer justly regard the center of the earth to be the absolute center of the universe, moral and physical directions can no longer be plotted against one another. So you also have no business also maintaining Hell has a geographical location.

The other possibility, one which seems to me to be slightly more respectable, is that Hell is ultimately a state of mind or an infectious disease that feeds on your fear. Note that this second possibility also locates Hell in a specific place: in the mind of a person with a tenuous grip on solid, substantive reality. Dante is largely spared ridicule here because he didn't know any better. The modern preacher of hell-fire and brimstone, however, ought to know better, ought to subject all claims to knowledge to empirical verification, ought not abuse their positions of authority by playing on the fears of simple-minded folk. This second possibility contains within it a moral objection to the idea of Hell. The brief flash in last year's cultural pan that was Rob Bell's book Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived epitomizes a self-satisfied, middle-class retreat from the idea of moral order that sees the value in coercion and restraint in the name of a moral order that must only enable personal freedoms. After all this time, we have been labouring under an illustion: there is no Hell. Bell has been called courageous for publishing his views. If I think his account slightly more intellectually respectable, though, that has nothing to do with Bell's own attempts at the harrowing of Hell. It's an affront to courage to call the critique an idea courageous, I believe, especially when book sales are brisk, and royalties flood in.

But even the Economist, in the end, cannot not speak of Hell as if it were anything more than an antiquary curiosity. There seems a collective mental block that prevents us from drawing obvious implications from the hoary idea. Hell has to do with incarceration, imprisonment, punishment. We still  hold people accountable for their actions, do we not? Granted our halls of justice, courtrooms, and judge's chambers do not always seem just in their decisions. The idea of Hell, as distasteful as it may seem, is actually the idea of perfectly equitable system of justice, imperfectly realized in the human process of meting out judgment. God's sovereign sway over the whole of the cosmos is reflected in the limited purview of human government.

Where is Hell? Prison and other places of incarceration. The local courthouse is its gaping maw.

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