Religion on the Level: #5
What is the Use of Hell?
Tonight I am going to give you Hell. Now it's probably the height of
narcissism when a speaker starts quoting his own books, but that is how I
want to start this evening. I wrote a wee book fourteen years ago, now out
of print, and one of the chapters was on 'Fear'. When I was searching for a
quotation for tonight that I remembered using in the book, I had a look at
that chapter again and decided that the opening paragraph would be a good
place to start tonight's proceedings. Here it is:
On a wet Sunday one summer I went to church in
Salisbury. The church, a beautifully light and airy
building, was medieval, but the service, a family
Eucharist, was pleasantly modern like thousands
of others held up and down the country at the same
hour. The whole tone of the service, while not exactly
stirring, was gently Anglican. There was no sense of
captivating awe or overwhelming emotion of any sort.
Everything was decent and orderly, nothing to set the
And high above this quiet activity soared the chancel
arch, and over the arch was a medieval doom painting.
While we exchanged the kiss of peace with good-
natured self-consciousness, demons with long forked
tails were thrusting tormented souls into hell.
I returned to that painting repeatedly as the service
proceeded and the incongruity of it all struck me with
considerable force. There was clearly little or no
relationship between what was happening below and
what was happening above. Once there would have
been a solid connection between what was done or
said in that church and the gruesome painting that
dominated the entrance to the sanctuary. 
Then I went on to point out that the fires of hell were once
regularly stoked in Christian pulpits, and proceeded to the quotation that
I had gone in search of for tonight. It comes from a sermon James Joyce
had heard in his youth, preached by a Jesuit, in which the torments of
hell were meticulously described, as follows:
'The torment of fire is the greatest torment to which
the tyrant has ever subjected his fellow creatures.
Place your finger for a moment in the flame of a
candle and you will feel the pain of fire. But our
earthly fire was created by God for the benefit of
man, to maintain in him the spark of life and to help
in the useful arts, whereas the fire of hell is of another
quality and was created by God to torture and punish
the unrepentant sinner.
Our earthly fire consumes more or less rapidly
according as the object which it attacks is more or
less combustible, so that human ingenuity has even
succeeded in inventing chemical preparations to check
and frustrate its action. But the sulphurous brimstone
which burns in hell is a substance which is specially
designed to burn for ever and ever with unspeakable
Moreover, our earthly fire destroys at the same
time as it burns, so that the more intense it is the
shorter its duration; but the fire in hell has this property,
that it preserves that which burns, and, though it rages
with incredible intensity, it rages for ever.
Our earthly fire again, no matter how fierce or
widespread it may be, is always of a limited extent;
but the lake of fire in hell is boundless, shoreless and
bottomless. And this terrible fire will not afflict the
bodies of the damned only from without, but each lost
soul will be a hell unto itself, the boundless fire raging
in its very vitals.
O, how terrible is the lot of those wretched beings!
The blood seethes and boils in the veins, the brains are
boiling in the skull, the heart in the breast is glowing and
bursting, the bowels a red-hot mass of burning pulp, the
tender eyes flaming like molten balls'. 
You can imagine the effect of a sermon like that on a
congregation of adolescent boys. It was meant to build an overwhelming
fear into them, as the great preventive against sin.
An Oxford don was reported to have warned his audience of young men
against the sins of the flesh by crying out, 'Why risk your eternal soul
for the sake of a pleasure, which, I am reliably informed, lasts less than
ninety seconds?' Even if you believe that masturbation and fornication are
sinful I think you will agree that there is a gross disproportion between
the offence and the punishment.
It is fairly obvious that hellfire preaching was meant to act as a
preventive against sin but there was another even uglier side to it than
that. This was brought out by Nietzsche in one of his withering asides
against Christianity. Describing the Christian vision of heaven he writes:
For what is it that constitutes the bliss of this Paradise?
We might even guess, but it is better to have it expressly
described for us by an authority not to be underestimated
in such matters, Thomas Aquinas, the great teacher and
saint: "The blessed kingdom of heaven," he says, meek
as a lamb, "will see the punishments of the damned, in
order that their bliss be that much greater". 
So hell is both punishment and pleasure. It is torment for the damned
who endure it, but bliss for the redeemed who observe it. How can we
account for the emergence and development of this, the most diseased of
the great Christian themes? Let me offer a few suggestions.
In my last lecture I talked about that element of the Bible called
'apocalyptic'. Apocalyptic was about the intervention of God at the end of
the world and the vindication of God's poor and righteous ones. I pointed
out the apocalyptic usually begins as the religion of the oppressed.
If you are an impoverished peasant, taxed into destitution by the
callous rulers whose greed starves your own children, a burning resentment
is bound to rise within you, and a passionate longing for justice. You
want to overturn the system that so cruelly oppresses you and your loved
ones, but you want more than that.
Justice demands that those who have trampled upon your humanity should
be punished for what they have done to you. So one of the marks of the
great schemes of apocalyptic longing is the condemnation and punishment of
those who have exploited the poor in this life.
The Letter to James expresses it in this way:
A word to you who are rich. Weep and wail over
the miserable fate overtaking you: your riches have
rotted away; your fine clothes are moth-eaten; your
silver and gold have corroded, and their corrosion
will be evidence against you and consume your flesh
like fire. You have piled up wealth in an age that is
near its close. The wages you never paid to the men
who mowed your fields are crying aloud against you,
and the outcry of the reapers has reached the ears of
the Lord of Hosts. You have lived on the land in wanton
luxury, gorging yourselves - and that on the day appointed
for your slaughter. (5.1-4)
There is a compelling moral logic in it all but it is intriguing that,
in the West, it took the direction it did. In the East it developed
differently. In the East the moral logic that requires the satisfaction of
justice went in the direction of the doctrine of
karma. What we sow, we shall reap in our own future destiny. Every act
has a consequence that determines the agent's status in the great
transmigration of souls.
The Eastern solution to the problem seems to lack the voyeuristic
ugliness of the developed doctrine of hell in the West, but there may well
be a certain quiet satisfaction to be had from knowing that the
overweening tyrant who has made this life such a trial for you may have
the tables turned on him during his next go-round.
There is also the fact that the doctrine of karma was a very
effective way of justifying the inequities of the cast system because any
challenge to its injustice could always be met by the claim that, in the
long circles of time, it would all eventually be justified.
Now, I am not suggesting that at some stage in moral evolution a
consortium of spiritual leaders got together and invented the myth of hell
in the West and karma in the East to act as a deterrent against
human wickedness on the one hand, or as an explanation for human injustice
on the other. But I do believe there has to be a solid connection between
a frustrated sense of moral outrage, particularly in apocalyptic
movements, and the evolution of these doctrines.