Magazine article The Spectator

Hell Is What People Are and What They Build for Themselves

Magazine article The Spectator

Hell Is What People Are and What They Build for Themselves

Article excerpt

The report on Hell by evangelical members of various Churches concludes that it does exist but does not make clear what the place will be like. The curious thing about Hell is that most people, if questioned, say they don't believe in it, yet they use the terms `Hell' or `hellish' every day of their lives for every kind of descriptive purpose. And they associate Hell with fire, though again, if questioned, they would dismiss hell-fire as childish nonsense. These are deep waters, Watson. At times, some of us positively want Hell, with all its associations of physical horror, to exist, so that people who have done us dreadful injury can be consigned to it. Victims emerging from a courtroom in which an aggressor has been convicted for murder often say, `I hope he rots in Hell.' It is as though the concept of Hell is in some way necessary to humanity, our frailties being what they are.

The first Hell in people's minds may have actually existed. To the south of Jerusalem was the valley abominated by the Jews as the place where child sacrifices to the pagan God Moloch had once occurred. This fearsome place began to be used, in the time of Joshua, as a garbage dump, so that the fires of Moloch were replaced by perpetually smouldering pyres of rubbish, including the filth of the city and the bones of unknown dead. The place was shunned by all but the most menial municipal workers, but its fires could be seen at night by the inhabitants, who spun tales about their purpose to their children. These stories were mingled with wilder travellers' tales of other real places further east, where seepages of crude oil from the vast underground reservoirs between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers caught fire from time to time and burned savagely for years on end. This supplied the notion that Hell was a vast underground lake of fire.

I doubt if we will ever finally divorce the idea of eternal punishment from incineration, though it was pointed out by Coleridge, who wrote with striking force on the subject of Hell, that the crudity and improbability of the perpetual-fire image was one reason why so many intelligent people rejected the idea of Hell altogether. Coleridge not only believed in Hell but argued, plausibly in my view, that it is a necessary consequence of free will. He wrote, `Man cannot be a moral human being without having had the choice of good and evil, and he cannot choose good without being able to choose evil.' If, he continued, man deliberately chose evil, he was unfit for the presence of God. So the doctrine of Heaven necessarily implied the existence of an alternative.

Coleridge's conviction that Hell could and did exist was strengthened by his own horrible experience of opium addiction. The worst moments of his physical, mental and spiritual pains had, he thought, given him a glimpse of what such unimaginable punishment might be like. He wrote to his publisher, Joseph Cottle, in 1814:

I feel with an intensity unfathomable by words, my utter nothingness, impotence and worthlessness, in and for myself - I have learned what a sin is against an infinite imperishable Being, such as is the Soul of Man - I have had more than a glimpse of what is meant by Death and utter Darkness and the Worm that dieth not - and that all the Hell of the Reprobate is no more inconsistent with the Love of God, than the Blindness of one who has occasioned loathsome and guilty Diseases to eat out his eyes, is inconsistent with the Light of the Sun.

As Coleridge had an ultra-powerful poetic imagination, as well as the knowledge gained from the hellish experiences he had undergone as an opium addict, he grasped that the reality of Hell was more likely to resemble, perhaps in some still more fearful form, the interminable pangs of the addict - made up of acute but unidentifiable physical suffering, compounded by guilt, remorse and sheer terror - than the mechanical and repetitive torments described by Christian moralists. …

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