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Visions of hell

January 11, 2013


“HELL,” wrote Jean-Paul Sartre in his play No Exit, “is other people”. But Satan, in Milton’s Paradise Lost, utters this anguished cry: “Which way I flie is Hell; my self am Hell.”

He goes on: “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.”

Both quotes are drawn from the recent Christmas edition of The Economist; this is my favourite end of the year read, containing as it does an eclectic collection of long articles on a variety of subjects. One such piece, ‘Into Everlasting Fire’, examines the evolution of the concept of hell across time and in different faiths.

I remember reading Dante’s Divine Comedy in my late teens. The classic work contains probably the most gruesome and vivid description of hell in literature. The section titled ‘The Inferno’ gives a detailed account of the nine circles of hell, ranging from the outer circle for unbaptised babies to the innermost one where Satan is frozen up till his neck.

There was no concept of hell in early Judaism, and it only made an appearance due to Hellenic influence. But even then the Jewish gehenna is more of a purgatory where souls are cleansed; whatever their deeds in life, they don’t stay in this waiting room for more than 12 months.

In medieval Christianity, the Vatican authorised the sale of ‘indulgences’ that helped to offset the buyer’s sins after he died. This device raised a lot of money for the Church, but was subject to much abuse as the rich used it as a licence to sin. In fact, this was one of the major aberrations that Martin Luther wanted to cleanse Christianity of. Having read of this practice at university, I was delighted to learn recently that it is still possible to buy indulgences online.

In a sense, this is not unlike our custom of asking the local mosque to send a group of students to recite from the Holy Book. We hope that after a relative’s death, this will help the dear departed to clear up some of his or her sins. We have all seen these young aspiring clerics racing through the sacred verses at funerals.

Note also the similarity between the Jewish gehenna and our jahannum. The latter, of course, is quite detailed in its description of everlasting torments, while in the New Testament the former is a reference to a rubbish dump that is always on fire and where the bodies of criminals are thrown.

Greek mythology contains many blood-curdling accounts of what happens to those who have offended the gods in this life. But most souls are placed in an indeterminate state where their days are spent in shadows and dark dreams. Ultimately they fade away. Hades, the god of the underworld, governs this part of creation, and his servant, Cerberus, the terrifying multi-headed dog, guards the way across the river Archon. Charon ferries souls from the world of the living, provided a gold coin is placed on the lips of the dead body.

Both Buddhism and Hinduism contain robust accounts of hell. Indeed, divine retribution in one form or another is the staple of most religions. It probably makes human suffering in this life more bearable if we can visualise the rich and powerful being subjected to everlasting torment.

Many of us have joked about preferring hell to heaven as the more interesting people will be there. In truth, it’s hard to imagine the likes of Sartre, Brigitte Bardot and Albert Camus — to name only a few I’d like to spend eternity with — being sent to heaven. So personally, I’ll settle for the demons and the hellfire if I am spared endless mealy-mouthed piety.

On a more serious note, I often used to wonder when I was young why a compassionate deity would inflict eternal pain on beings created in their maker’s image. The Anglican Church has resolved this dilemma by accepting that the Christian hell is metaphorical and not a real place. Other faiths downplay eternal damnation in these sceptical times.

After all, a lack faith should automatically doom the non-believer to perdition. And yet, in the recent census in England and Wales, only 59 per cent of the population declared themselves followers of any religion. This figure has declined from 72 per cent in the last census. So should the other 41 per cent go to hell after they die? It would certainly make for overcrowding …

Incidentally, out of the 59 per cent who declared they subscribed to a faith, many thousands put down Jedi Knights in the religion column. If they go over to the Dark Side in this life, will they be condemned to serve the evil Sith Lord forever?

Some fundamentalist Christians in the United States run ‘hell houses’ to introduce teenagers to the tortures of the damned. These contain sights and sounds from an imaginary hell intended to scare the young into believing in the real thing, thereby — in theory at least — bringing them closer to the faith. At one famous Buddhist temple I have visited in Sri Lanka, images of demons and the damned are painted on the walls. This, again, is intended to frighten those of feeble belief into accepting the gospel without questioning it.

The location of hell differs from faith to faith. The general consensus is that it is deep underground, near the hottest part of the earth’s core. Some speculate that as the sun generates the most intense heat known to us, that’s where hell is. For the Greeks, underground rivers like the Styx provided the entrance to hell. But wherever it is, it’s not a very pleasant place.

Reward and punishment are woven into the fabric of most religions: be good and go to heaven; sin, and it’s off to hell you go. In this Manichean view, there is little room for morality and ethics for their own sake. Our maker clearly views us as too weak and fallible to do good simply because it’s the right thing.

And while many around the world have discarded the notion of a literal hell, others believe in hellfire and brimstone. My personal vision of hell is being locked up with crowds of shoppers in a mall in Dubai for all eternity.

The writer is the author of Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West.