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On Hell

A symposium.


Eternal punishment is a daunting subject, and at The Lamp it often creeps into our minds. And, we imagine, into the minds of most other people as well, at least in some form. But while Hell may be perplexing, it is almost always intriguing. Even those who do not believe in God or Heaven often find it possible to believe in Hell. So we asked a wide variety of public figures simply to explain what the concept means to them. We were surprised at the number of responses we received, and we’ve printed many of them below. They include submissions from a bishop, one of the architects of the Iraq War, the host of the top-rated cable news show, a communist podcaster, writers, professors, monks, and many others. While they vary in tone and temper, taken as a whole, they shine light on the ways in which we think about what is without a doubt the most dreaded outcome of a life poorly lived.

Edmund Waldstein

I think that Dante was right to put the following inscription above the gates of Hell:

Giustizia mosse il mio alto fattore;
fecemi la divina podestate,
la somma sapïenza e ’l primo amore.

Hell is an expression of the divine justice, the divine power, and the divine love. It is because God loves us that He gives us justice, and it is because He is all powerful that He can give us eternal and perfect justice. The love that moves the sun and other stars is the same love that justly punishes those who turn away from the love.

William Kristol

I’ve always liked Mark Twain’s “Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company.”

Tucker Carlson

I have no thoughts on Hell, only instincts. I’m an Episcopalian. That’s too deep for us. But increasingly I believe in it.

Vergil Texas

It’s overrated.

Peter Hitchens

The trouble with Hell is that it will be unexpected. The wicked do not know that they are wicked, and that includes me. Amid all the usual horrors of judgment in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel version, by far the most disturbing is the man in utter despair, being dragged downwards by demons. His despair is all the worse because he plainly had no idea that this was going to be his fate. How many of us really know ourselves for what we are and have been? Most attempts at self-examination fail because it may take years to recognize the true character of your own past actions, or even to remember that you did them. Just as I have finally accepted, and become contrite over, the horrible nature of an event in, say, 1967, I begin to recall a misdeed in 2018 that I had until now not fully understood to be as ghastly as it was. Worse, I remember things which had entirely slipped my mind. In trying to pray for my enemies, I eventually had to include those to whom I had done harm, realizing in a belated flash that these were probably the most important enemies I have.

The confession at the Lord’s Supper in the 1662 Prayer Book states that the remembrance of our sins is “grievous unto us” and “the burden of them is intolerable.” This is of course true. And it becomes more so, not less so, the more you consider it. I know the arguments about grace and salvation by faith alone, and see their point. But I am haunted by the mysterious, beautiful, terrifying Epistle of James, which manages to sound extraordinarily like the words of Christ himself, and which asks, “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith and have not works? Can faith save him?” In which case, which way will the scales tip? I think we are smaller and meaner than we like to think, or at least I am smaller and meaner than I like to think, and that most of us actually do need the thought of Hell—whatever it is, we may be sure it is no pleasant destination—to obtain the free pardon we hope for.

Eve Tushnet

I don’t know much about Hell and I’m glad of it. I’m grateful that our Church tells us that certain people are in Heaven but gives us no anti-canonizations, no un-litanies of the damned. Adam and Eve are in Heaven, but whether their son Cain wanders still, or has at last found rest, we have not yet been told.

I’m a journalist, which is the opposite of a theologian. But if journalism is basically just noticing things, one thing I think I’ve noticed is how easily we forget that God is Love. We think of love as a kind of instrument God wields, rather than the nature of His Being. If God is Love, then in Heaven we love more, and to love more and better is always to live closer to Heaven. Hell isn’t the prison you wind up in if you love against the rules, but a place of lovelessness, lightlessness, hatred, and sloth: a place without prayer, because it’s a place without trust.

Maybe the foundational moment in American literature is the moment in Huckleberry Finn when Huck, having been taught that God will punish him for rescuing his beloved friend Jim from slavery, rebels and says, “All right, then, I’ll go to Hell.” Huck believes that he’s choosing Hell by choosing love. If we want the children of the Church to trust that God is Love, we will have to examine and repent of all the ways we’ve taught them that love will send you to Hell.

Rémi Brague

Whenever I yield to my idiosyncratic blend of deadpan humor, tongue-in-the-cheek, and utter seriousness in theological matters, I am tempted to say that Hell is the most beautiful of all Christian ideas (I would refrain from calling it a full-fledged dogma, since it is not in the Creed). Provided we are a bit more careful about defining it as “eternal punishment.” Eternity is something we have no, and can’t have any, precise idea of. We should certainly avoid to conceive it as an infinite duration, for many reasons and especially because the lack of proportion between sins committed by finite beings in finite periods of time and the infinite punishment meted on them would be and should be felt as shockingly unjust. If, on the other hand, we keep the traditional image of eternity as being an instant which does not flow away (the nunc stans of Boethius), we can understand that, with our death, we sort of freeze as the person which we used to be, together with the basic orientation we gave our life. Hence, Hell, and for that matter Paradise, are neither punishment nor reward, but rather the finishing touch given to the logic which shaped our life and arose from the very inside of our choices. A friend of mine told me once: “What is dreadful in life is that you always get what you really want.” In the last resort, we never are frustrated. The snag being that, if we chose the evil and lived accordingly, then we’ll get it.

The beauty of the dogma lies in the fact that God respects the choices made by His creatures. Although His will is to share His life with everybody without any exception, He submits to the freedom which He endowed them with and which is His own image in them. God doesn’t hate the damned. On the contrary, He keeps pouring His love upon them. But, if this love is joy for the blessed who accept to receive it, this very love is for whomever wants to say “no” to it a burning fire. In some icons, the blaze which devours the damned is represented as arising from Christ’s own glory. Hell and its fire are Love.

This freedom to say yes or no is what the Deuteronomy suggests when the holy writer puts us before the choice between what he calls “life” and “death” and urges us to choose life. As a youngster, I remember my reading the verse, quoted in an article written by a rabbi, reacting with a shrug of the shoulders and telling myself: “Choose life, that Hobson’s choice! Who would choose death?” Well, I was naïve. It looks like our own culture has been doing precisely that for some time. As for me, am I that sure that the logic of my life unswervingly keeps leading towards its own real flourishing? Am I sure that I don’t put up with shallow goods, with “stale, flat and unprofitable” pleasures? Am I sure that I never missed an opportunity to do good and avoid evil?

To be sure, I never killed anybody. But were I ever put in front of the possibility? I never cheated upon my wife. But did an attractive woman ever try to seduce me? The question is not about the seriousness, or lack of it, of a blunder, but about blundering itself. There is a beautiful passage in a pagan philosopher, Epictetus. One of his students makes a howler in a scholarly exercise in logic and is chided for that. The student angrily argues: “calm down, I didn’t murder my father!” Answers the teacher: “You were not given the opportunity of killing him. You were given the opportunity to give the right answer in logic and you failed. Who tells me that, if you had the opportunity of a parricide, you would have done the right thing?” I always set my face like a flint against each and every temptation which I never felt. So do you, probably.

This brings me to the question of the possible denizens of Hell. We commonly think of them using the third person: are there many of them, did they deserve it, were they that bad, etc. As long as we do that, we miss the point. Hence the provisional character of what I have been telling you up to now. We don’t sit on a balcony, watching. Tua res agitur, we are at stake. Or, more precisely, I am. One remembers Chesterton’s pithy words in the letter to the editor of a newspaper who had sent a circular letter inquiring, What’s wrong with the world?: “Dear sir, I am.” Where other people are concerned, even the worst criminals, I always can find some excuse: unhappy childhood, bad examples, or, for more sophisticated sophists: reptilian brains, complexes acquired in nursery, etc. But for me, who knows myself from the inside, I can’t conceive of any excuse. To be sure, we are allowed to hope that, at present, Hell is empty. But each of us has to ask whether he could not possibly be a pretty good candidate, hence the first damned ever in the history of mankind.

Theodore Dalrymple

There is an asymmetry, at least in my mind, between Heaven and Hell. While I have difficulty in imagining eternal bliss, for bliss needs something to contrast itself with to know itself as bliss, I can easily imagine a hundred, a thousand, forms of perpetual misery, which does not need a contrast to know itself as such. Hells can be individualized, at least the subtler kind of hells. Of course, Hell could be as depicted in Hieronymus Bosch, with people perpetually poked, prodded, and pushed into eternally boiling oil or undiminishing flames by horrible gloating monsters with red eyes and black wings. But there are subtler hells which require time and inescapability to exert their hellish effect.

One could almost say, ‘Tell me what your hell is, I will tell you who you are.’ When I go into a house in which there are books, I look, sometimes surreptitiously, to see what they are. They are revealing at the very least of the owner’s taste and interests, which are important aspects of his character. Community of tastes and interests, though not identity of them, is an important promoter of sympathy beyond what due to every human qua human. The same might be said of conceptions of personal hells as of books on shelves. I do not know whether anyone has ever conducted a survey of conceptions of such hells, but they would be revealing. By comparison, a survey of personal heavens would probably be dull. I suspect that, in these materialist or hedonist times, many people would describe something like a perpetual Caribbean cruise on a calm sea, with fine weather and five meals a day. With regard to Heaven, I always recall Keats’s lines in his “Ode to Melancholy”:

Ay, in the very temple of Delight,
Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine….

and this is surely in accord with common experience, that moments of ecstasy are soon followed by a decline which causes sadness in itself.

Any survey of ideas of Hell, or hells, should ask respondents for their first thoughts, like alleged free association in psychoanalysis (I will not go into the question of whether such a thing is really possible, especially during or after psychoanalysis). First thoughts on such matters are often the deepest, telling us what people really think rather than what they think they ought to think. What, then, you might ask, are the author’s ideas of Hell, or hells? As I grow older, I become a little more like Roderick Usher, that is to say more intolerant of the constant sensory stimulation of modern life, a life without silence, without time or space for contemplation.

In my personal hell, or one of my personal hells (for I have many), there would be large liquid crystal screens, each showing something different but nothing of any interest to me, constantly flashing, there would be the endless inane commentary on basketball games with all its ersatz excitement and jokiness (even a few seconds of which seems an eternity to me). Of course, the commentary is not the only possibility for auditory hell: eternal rock or rap music would serve as well, the kind of music that makes you (or perhaps I should say makes me) long for a power cut. As Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., put it, ‘No worst, there is none.’ Because there is no worst, the concept of hell (or Hell), like Whitman, contains multitudes. Just as the ways of self-destruction are infinite, so we have a thousand ways to make life intolerable, and often do so.

John J. Miller

Hell is your favorite baseball team in last place.

Maureen Mullarkey

Dante, Hell’s topographer, imagined its location and architecture with such specificity that Botticelli could map it in painstaking detail two centuries later. By now, images that stirred Savonarola’s audience to fear of sin have dwindled to plot devices in pulp thrillers and horror movies. Of all impossible thoughts, Hell is the most unthinkable for us moderns. Displaced by myths of progress, the concept survives largely as a cultural heirloom, a curio. A place where the worm does not die and the ever-burning wrath of God never goes out strikes us as preposterous. And yet . . . Whatever the word describes—a bleak galaxy outside the Hubble radius? a state of being?—I believe in Hell.

No, not that realm of horned devils with cloven feet and pitchfork tails. The shelf life of hellscapes in medieval prayer books expired. Warnings on parchment, illuminated goads to repentance, subsided into Art. We are safe from them there. Nevertheless, realities do not wither because symbols that represent them have hit their sell-by date. Evil maintains its hold. Sin endures. Even now we have our demons. Possession, more diffuse and subtle than it used to appear, still exists. Only our language and thought-forms have changed. Hell’s throngs do more than prowl. They are the pivots on which the contemporary world turns.

Tempted like no generation before us, we confuse material and technological progress with spiritual progress. We are led into the abyss by the piping of unholy world-improvers and planet-savers. Sinister philanthropists and oligarchs, consumed by their own obsessions, snare us into believing we have come of age. Under their spell yap legions of cub hellhounds—press secretaries, publicists, media imps—flashing bargains as seductive as any devised by Mephistopheles.

Fifty years ago, in The New Demons, Jacques Ellul identified modernity’s infernal drives: power, wealth, scientism, technological overreach, and spurs to unrestricted sexuality. Bedeviled agents sacralize the state and its ambitions. They position themselves outside established restraints, dissolving traditional bonds, mores, and obligations with humanitarian, even Christian, language. We meet the ranking demons in each day’s news. You know their names and works. And just like viruses, demons need a host to survive. They cannot thrive and reproduce without one. Like undetected viral particles ready to spring into action, demons incubate inside us, biding time.

Hell is not outside of ourselves. We carry it within and ferry it about. Its system of infection, mutation, and spread—once called Original Sin—is what Henri de Lubac meant when he wrote: “Hell is the work of man, of the man who refuses to give himself [to God] and puts himself in bondage.”

Thomas Crean

Saint Thomas Aquinas once observed that there is a native conviction in all who have the use of reason that happiness is the reward of virtue. If this is so, there must be a like conviction for all who have the use of reason that unhappiness is the reward of vice. This is probably why children find it easy to accept the existence of both Heaven and Hell. On a personal note, I cannot remember when I first heard about either of these two most final destinations, which suggests to me that it must have been when I was very young. If Richard Dawkins were right that teaching children to believe in Hell is a form of abuse, then I should expect the experience to have left some kind of trauma within me, but I am not aware of any. The simple intuitions of childhood, I suspect, come later to be disturbed and covered by the consciousness of sin. Chesterton, as usual, put it well: “Children are innocent and love justice; while most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy.”

J.D. Flynn

I don’t know what Hell is like, and I hope to Hell I’ll never find out. When I was a child, I spent a lot of time thinking about the fires of Gehenna. Like a lot of Sunday school kids, I was taught to believe Gehenna was a kind of trash dump outside Jerusalem. I imagined it was something like the recycling center where my dad and I took cans and bottles on Saturday mornings—which really did seem like a bad place to hunker down for eternity. There was a lot of broken glass around, gruff men with stinking cigars, and mean-looking cats hiding in the shadows. The parking lot food truck had on offer only warm sodas and over-steamed hot dogs. I didn’t want to be damned to that place, let alone have to wail and gnash my teeth there; I’d learned in Sunday School that was required activity in the land of unquenchable fire.

Later I found out that Gehenna wasn’t a landfill; it was a valley where child sacrifice was made in the time of the prophet Jeremiah. The reality of Gehenna was far worse than what I had imagined. Make of that what you will. I don’t buy that Hell is other people, or the modern metaphors that conflate damnation and purgation. In my worst moments, I take self-righteous satisfaction imagining my nemeses in a Dantean ice pit, poked and prodded in sensitive orifices by insensitive demons—but I’m sure that’s not quite what Hell is, either.

Really, we only see Hell as through a glass, dimly. Heaven too. We think about these things in mostly metaphor or poetry, drawn from the experience of our own lives. And the realities far exceed our analogies. The Catechism just tells me that hell is a “state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed.” It’s not exactly poetic; its terror is laid bare only clinically. “Definitive self-exclusion.” The agony of self-exclusion. Over there is the eternal banquet, and here is something else. Something I’ve chosen. Something I can’t yet conceive of.

To be honest, I can’t pretend to understand even the mystery of God’s just judgment. I wake up sometimes wondering how the loving God allows anyone to sit on the outside of his Kingdom. I don’t cotton to Gregory the Great’s idea that the damned suffer so that the blessed might better appreciate their salvation. Still, I do trust the Church about this; I accept there is an “eternal separation from God,” attained by unrepented mortal sin, even while I pray it won’t befall anyone I’ve ever loved.

These days, I prefer to focus on the eternal beatitude of Heaven, rather than that incomprehensible suffering of damnation. My point of reference is the Mass—and my children are there, and my wife, and my parents, all of us in prayer, all of us transfixed on the Creator of all things, on the image of an invisible God. I can picture all that. I know what it sounds like. I know what it might feel like. And I know that I want it, in a way that feels deeper than most of what I want. I want it, even if I don’t yet understand it—even if my images of the beatific vision will prove themselves woefully insufficient. Even if when I close my eyes and imagine the angelic Ophanim depicted in Revelation, the closest I come is a flying spaghetti monster, his colander covered in unblinking eyes. I do hope I’m right about that one, by the way. I’d like to see it.

Scott D. Moriengello

“Mogwai Fear Satan” is my favorite song from my favorite noise rock band. I don’t think that any of the members of Mogwai, a Glaswegian quartet, go to church or reject Satan and all of his empty promises. But for sixteen minutes, the listener witnesses a glorious order. The dynamics shift from pianissimo to fortissimo and back. The drumbeat speeds and slows. The guitars come in and out. And a melody from a flute dances over the noise. I am not one to talk about mystical experiences, but the times I’ve seen Mogwai perform this song live have made me feel whole and warm and understood in a way that few other artistic experiences have. I was connected to my fellow audience members—strangers all—in a way that I wouldn’t have been if we were all sharing the same space waiting for an airplane.

If Mogwai were to fear Satan, the song would doubtless serve some apotropaic function. For Satan fears nothing more than order and beauty and love, which are three different ways to describe God. As a professor, I have the opposite worry about Dante’s Commedia. Only Dante could make Hell seem, at least superficially, ordered and beautiful and lovely. Only Dante could make Hell seem appealing.

Milton might have portrayed Satan more sympathetically, but no one portrays Satan more powerfully—and worthy of fear—than Dante does. Dante’s Satan is the “emperor of the woeful kingdom” (Lo ’mperador del doloroso regno) and “fit to be the source of every sorrow” (ben dee da lui procedure ogne lutto). According to Dante, Satan resides with Judas, Brutus, and Cassius, three men who betrayed their benefactors. Satan’s kingdom is a disordered parody of Christ’s. Whereas the love of God in Christ brings together the beloved community, Satan’s indifference (for the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference) tears asunder even the love for those who love us most. Each member of this unholy trinity put love of himself before love of others. Each preferred brief temporal gain to the eternal emptying that is God’s love.

This is why the center of Dante’s Hell is frozen. As Dante enters the ninth and final circle of hell, he becomes faint and frozen (gelato e fioco). Satan rises from the ice below his breast (da mezzo ’l petto uscia fuor de la glaccia). You don’t need to remember the laws of thermodynamics to know that stillness is cold. And you don’t need to remember Acts to know the best description of love is fire.

The genius of Dante’s poem is not that he makes Hell appealing. A close reading shows that he doesn’t. The genius of the poem is that Dante can make the unintelligible intelligible enough for us to serve as a warning. Throughout the poem, the pilgrim subjects himself to the torments the damned suffer. As he and Virgil go farther and farther into Hell, their communication becomes more and more strained. Dante becomes less and less himself such that in the ninth circle, he is neither dead nor alive. He asks the reader to imagine what he had become because at that moment, he can’t describe it himself.

The fear of Satan is precisely the fear that we lose ourselves to ourselves. It’s the fear that the order and love and intelligibility and warmth of our lives will dissolve into disordered, unintelligible, cold indifference. It’s the fear, ultimately, that we will refuse God’s love.

Balthasar thought deeply about Dante and Hell and God’s love. In Love Alone Is Credible, Balthasar argues that one “can speak of hell only in relation to myself, precisely because I can never imagine the possible damnation of another as more likely than my own.” When I teach this book, this line stops students in their tracks. They are quite comfortable with the idea that others are in Hell, but the idea that they could end up in or even be in Hell now confounds them. Here Balthasar’s theological point matches Dante’s literary one. “Just as God so loved the world that he completely handed over his Son for its sake, so too the one whom God has loved will want to save himself only in conjunction with those who have been created with him, and he will not reject the share of penitential suffering that has been given him for the sake of the whole.” Dante’s pilgrimage and ours must be a pilgrimage of suffering with, in the hope that the suffering of all might end. As Balthasar notes, “The Christian encounters Christ in his neighbor . . . and only in this way does the encounter correspond to the incarnate and suffering love of the one who calls himself ‘Son of God.’” Christ’s full emptying requires the harrowing of Hell. And Christ’s resurrection truly opens the possibility of Hell for the first time. Once we recognize love’s standard can we contemplate how we measure up to it. The order of love requires that we go to the edge of order and intelligibility and indifference. Everyone can do this because of the work of the Son.

Balthasar believes that Christian love requires that we hope that all human beings are saved. Dante believes that some humans have rejected God’s love and are damned. I don’t want to paper over these differences, nor do I want to adjudicate between them. Both certainly believe that Hell is a possibility for themselves, and both see Hell as an eternal matter.

Hell is a question of eternity because love is a question of eternity. Agape, the love that God is, abides. Balthasar says somewhere that all Christians should read Kierkegaard, but all Christians must pass beyond him. I’ll give the Dane the last word, though, because Kierkegaard’s focus on the individual’s ability to love lines up with Dante and Balthasar’s focus on the individual’s ability to fall short of love. Kierkegaard’s Works of Love is one of the most profound meditations on Christian love in the canon, and it provides us with a mirror image of Dante’s Hell.

Too often we think of love as the third piece in a relationship between two people. Kierkegaard, however, reminds us, “The earnestness of Christianity immediately concentrates the attentiveness of the eternal upon the single individual, upon each individual of the pair.” We shouldn’t encounter another person and then love that person. We must love at all times and then through that love encounter others. We need to remain faithful to love at all times, for love abides. But for us to abide with love, we must continually act lovingly. Our faithfulness ought not depend on the beloved’s returning our love. This, alas, is the eternal mistake Dante’s damned have made. Their loves began in the temporal and remained there. They ignored the eternal. The possibility of making such a choice ought to cause us all to fear Satan.

Grace offers us a taste of the eternal, a reminder that God’s love enables us to live the eternal now. Loving as Christ loves opens us to see how things truly are: we see that the world is charged with the grandeur of God. The world is ordered and intelligible. Thanks to this love, we experience the eternal when we taste the Eucharist, when we smell a newborn baby, when we see Giotto’s Madonna and Child, when we hold our friends and loved ones, even when we hear a flute melody play over pitch-perfect guitar distortion. We ought to fear Hell, we ought to fear Satan, but we must continually strive to live out that perfect love that casts out fear.

Dana Gioia

Like any city, Hell has neighborhoods
Where the like-minded congregate.

Like any city, Hell has avenues
Where silent strangers circulate.

Like any city, Hell has leadership
Where rows of dead men legislate.

Like any city, Hell has history,
Old evils to commemorate.

Like any city, Hell has hidden laws
For demons like to regulate.

An efficient and eternal city-state,
Which darkness will perpetuate.

John Milbank

Whatever Hell may be, we know, as Arthur Rimbaud reminded us, that it is down below. It is the underground into which the fallen leaves rot and seep after Autumn: a compost of descended souls, as Dante suggests in the second canto of the Inferno. A winter without consolation and yet that season into which the mortally sinful are eager to rush: the fear of the damned is outdone by their eagerness to fulfill divine justice by crossing Charon’s river. So even in their case, the natural desire for the supernatural overbears sin, in what can only be a kind of perverse delight. As the detached depictions of their sufferings by the damned in the later cantos go on to suggest, only naïveté would imagine that infinite suffering is ever painful in our mundane sense. For just because it is infinite and perfect it is rapturously desired and can only be perfect as self-canceling.

Thus, throughout the Commedia, we are endlessly reminded that the absolute good of being (as Saint Thomas also mentions) is sustained even in Hell, or rather sustained there most of all, as residing when all else has been contaminated. And the esoteric vertical echoes of the equivalent cantos in the three parts of this epic of supernatural tourism seem covertly to suggest a spiritual transition for all souls between the three spheres, which Dante himself navigates.

Perhaps I am following post-Swedenborg nineteenth-century Romantic delusions in suggesting this. But the thought is hard to banish and in any case not hermeneutically inadmissible, if reprehensibly anachronistic. Along the same lines of reflection, it might seem as if Hell is hyperbolically energetic, full of the ultimate frenzy of embraced self-punishment as the self-destruction of a subjectivity corrupted down to its very roots and not merely somewhat spoiled. A frenzy of absolute refusal and self-refusal impossible to distinguish from the most extreme creative drive to establish “something else” and to purge and renew ourselves.

Thus, Hell for William Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell was at once an infernal printing press, churning out repetitions of bound impotence and obedient convention, and yet also a forge of imaginative energies, of bodily force upon which reason can alone ride, as though upon a chariot. This will to create and to transform anew is divine and is only suppressed by demiurgic powers operating with dubious angelic assistance from a false empyrean.

Hell in its positivity is in this view an enclave of trapped but essential forces and virtues that a full redemption must liberate, as for Charles Baudelaire. And all our virtue is like that: it is always the honour of thieves, the fidelity of whores, and the obedience of brigands. That is the case, because at the outer rims of everyday good behavior lies seizure, betrayal, and corruption. This is exactly why a kenotic descent into the infernal, with its certainty of contamination, unless one is the God-Man, is unavoidable if we are to set free and redeem others beside ourselves.

But at the same time, in its essence Hell is utterly sterile, as Swedenborg suggested. A crucial part of divine order, but only as a shadow, only as the reverse confirmation that eternal strength is goodness. Of itself it is nothing and it is only conjured into being by that negation of negation which is ultimately salvific self-condemnation. So long as that continues and we do not finally give up on guilt (in recognition that sin is of itself nothing and therefore was never really done by us) then Hell is eternal. Indeed, there is no Hell that is not eternal torment.

It goes without saying, nevertheless, that eternal torment is illusion, just as sin is illusion. This is why, as Péguy said, that if no one can be saved from Hell, then no one can be saved from sin. Either every sin and its consequences are perpetual or there is ultimately no Hell. And in the presence of God, of course, there is no such condition: how could there possibly be if God is both good and omnipotent and omnipresent? No debate is needed. Hell as eternal is therefore not an eternal state but a terrible anti-place which one visits only for a season. No soul will ever remain there longer than did Dante, or Swedenborg or Rimbaud.

Yet is there perhaps no Hell and no Heaven either? For Baudelaire, both the diabolism of modern urban life and its trapped, deliciously corrupted beauty were negative proofs of Catholic truth. But for Rimbaud its torments could only be abandoned by embracing modern banality, abandoning also the Christian past, the lure of the mystical East, symbolist substitutions for religion and the narcotic compensations of the derangement of the sensual. All of this seemed to the young man awakening not just from his adolescence, but from its genius, to be a nightmare of fascination that finally torments.

Instead, he will embrace the ordinary in a spirit of charity. Yet he wonders if charity can really delight or be real outside the spell of magic, art, and religion, just as he now realizes that art after the death of religion is a rather pathetic sham. Will only commerce and science be left, and are not themselves the shelled residue of Incarnation, of the divine embrace of physical nature as such, unique to the West?

The conclusion of Une Saison en Enfer raises doubts as to whether, in leaving the shadow of Hell behind, along with the original of Heaven, Hell has been banished after all. Ominously, Rimbaud concludes that he is now purely left to himself as “free to possess the truth in one soul and one body,” having experienced “the hell of women” through his experience of homosexual love. Yet earlier in the poem the demonic has been identified by refusal of women, their friendship, ordinary happiness, and domesticity alongside the call to “reinvent love.”

Today, it may well seem that the “everyday” without myth or religion has not escaped adolescent intoxicated substitutes for them after all, but become entirely fused with them. Everyone seeks in isolation to “reinvent love” in ever more fluid ways and nearly everyone is now “pierced” and has “cut grooves” all over their bodies, tattooing themselves to become “as hideous as a Mongol,” as Rimbaud had fantasized in his poetic phase, when he imagined that he had relapsed into preChristian, Gaulish barbarism. In this epoch of his life, his lover Paul Verlaine had heard him as the “infernal Groom” “turn infamy into glory, cruelty into charm,” and heard him desire to go “quite mad with rage.”

We all seem to be on the verge of “hurling ourselves through the streets screaming.” The denial of Hell as the shadow of Heaven only engendered the “absolutely modern” for a while. But now we realize that inescapable Hell (now and in perpetuity) is the fantasy of a “pure nature,” which is what a corrupted Christianity has invented and then left behind as a residue, once the divine union with human nature has mutated, beyond a generalized Nestorianism, into a nature left inexplicably on its own, without supernatural origin, guidance, and culmination.

Now, instead, the denial of Hell is bringing us Hell on Earth and an obliteration of the truth that Hell is but a shadow, as if the sun itself had been blotted out, as in Byron’s apocalyptic poem “Darkness,” when “the stars / Did wander darkling in the eternal space,” leaving humans terrified of “Each other’s aspects” when they can be glimpsed by artificial light. If we do not realize that Hell is a real place, though visited only for a season, then it is here to stay until the end of our world.

Edward Feser

Suppose you are a heavy smoker with breathing problems and your doctor reassures you that many such people survive into old age, and leaves it at that. Or suppose a forest fire is raging toward the small town you live in, and upon calling the fire department for advice you are calmly told only that losing a house to fire is rare. If you die of lung cancer, it would hardly be reasonable for your doctor to shrug and emphasize that what he said is true and that he never denied that heavy smoking is dangerous. If you lose your house, it would hardly be reasonable for the fire department to point out that it never actually denied that your town was in danger.

These examples illustrate how it is sometimes not enough merely to avoid saying what is false. Sometimes it is no less important positively to affirm what is true, or to put greater emphasis on some truths rather than others. Yes, many heavy smokers survive into old age, but what you needed to hear from your doctor is that many do not, and that heavy smoking dramatically increases the likelihood that they will not. Yes, in the abstract losing a house to fire is rare, but what you needed to hear is that your house in particular was in grave danger and immediate protective action was imperative.

The way many orthodox Catholics today approach the doctrine of Hell is comparable in its irresponsibility to that of my imagined doctor and fire department. I emphasize “orthodox” because I’m not talking about Catholics who take the heretical universalist position that the salvation of all is ensured. I’m talking about those who are keen to be faithful to the teaching of Scripture, tradition, and the Magisterium of the Church. They seem to think that as long as they avoid saying something that outright contradicts the traditional teaching, then they have done their duty. This is as delusional as thinking that a doctor does his duty as long as he does not actually assert that smoking is healthy or that the fire department has done its duty as long as it doesn’t tell you the lie that your house is safe.

Here’s an example of what I mean. In the Gospels, Christ repeatedly warns of damnation. For example, when asked whether few would be saved, he answers quite unambiguously: “Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.” In Matthew he warns that “the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.” Other similarly harrowing passages could be quoted. But on a Sunday when such a passage was among the lectionary readings, I once heard a parish priest use it as a pretext for expounding the soothing Balthasarian message that we can have hope for the salvation of all. To be sure, he did not explicitly contradict Catholic teaching or Christ’s words. But he nevertheless sent a message exactly contrary to Christ’s. Our Lord’s point was to warn: Be very careful; you could wind up in Hell. The pastor, in commenting on the passage, reassured his congregation: Don’t worry; you probably won’t end up in Hell. This kind of thing is very common.

I am not denying that there are important qualifications to be made when presenting the doctrine of Hell. For example, it is not revealed to us how many will be damned, and even the most wicked person can find repentance at the last minute. The trouble is that too many churchmen and theologians teach only these qualifications and not the doctrine itself. And the doctrine is there because we need to hear it. It is not there to give us an opportunity to exercise lawyerly dexterity at finding loopholes and clever workarounds.

Bishop Daniel Flores

Hell and the judgment that would send me away may in the end be the same thing, or at least a perpetual moment and state with little distance between them. To be shown what really was the case in a single instant, and what could have been erased had mercy and its prior grace not been evaded for reasons I at the time chose not to see for what they were, obstinate loves horribly misplaced. In a moment I see it, and all the attendant shame that comes when no answer can be given other than to say it was so, an Amen spoken over the past tense, uttered to my own self misspent.

To see it as Augustine says, the way it was, but having missed the chance of which he spoke, to settle on the way to court. The chances missed to plead guilty then, when the Master walked at my side, and he and I had time to attend to every twisted limb. Guilty as charged, I should have said, while on the way. He was there, I knew it, but not so well so as to do what the occasional glimpse of a pierced hand might, under better circumstances, have moved me to do. What am I saying? Under better circumstances? The habit of excuse still wiggles and curls, like what’s left of a beheaded snake.

He walked with me, He did, close as my shadow, sometimes outside but then, by a trick of the light, drawing in. He was in all the shifting spaces and angles that made up my every living day. Let the shame and fear burn now, you said, so that time can open up a place for the milder mercy that fixes while it breaks. But no. Yes, I saw you. But no, I didn’t really. I didn’t want to. He wanted a repentance that would quicken my step, a moving forward, toward him with at least a stumbling, selfless act of brilliant dying. I helped a grouchy old lady get back into her locked apartment one day. It was cold; she’d lost her key. I know, He said, I remember that. But you let it slide and nothing more came of it, until it died.

Hell, not unlike the frozen lake, but lived in a perpetual moment of burning lament, knowing that the cold sea of regret cannot of itself towards repentance break. It’s too cerebral for that.

You are just, Sir. I did not want to see, which is why you see me here now. A place, yes, but more a truth I knew but decided not to need so didn’t heed. I decided then the truth of me; and all the grouchy ladies, poor and barely a threaded sweater to warm their thinning arms, the ones I never saw or meant to see, I see them now. They’re at the Gate; they recognize me, sadly, as one of those who passed them by, and I’ve no place to go now but away from them, like I always did, into the hole that my merciless soul its time on digging spent.

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