Religion on the Level: #5
What is the Use of Hell? (Continued)
The wicked ought to be punished, but rarely are in this life, so they
will have to be punished in the next because righteousness must be
vindicated. It is the thought of the millennia of unrequited suffering that
is the strongest emotional element in the logic of damnation. Morally
speaking, however, this is light years way from the terroristic use of the
threat of hell to deter young boys from sexual experimentation so that it
disfigures later development of the doctrine. 'Surely', the original logic
must have reasoned, 'if there is anything for us beyond death, a righteous
God must require the wicked to pay for their evil deeds in this life and
repent of them'.
Repentance, that change of mind that owns the truth about itself,
requires some sort of response on our part, some sort of reparation. A
good contemporary example of this powerfully felt conviction is provided
by programmes that bring offenders together with their victims. Often, the
encounter leads offenders to a change of awareness about their conduct and
a recognition of the victim as a person. Repentance means a change of
attitude, a turning towards and an owning of the truth about oneself.
But what if the repentance has not happened in this life? Is there
another chance beyond death, supposing that anything awaits us beyond
death? The absolute systems say a definite 'no' to that. That is why
death-bed repentance features so strongly in history. It is cutting it
fine to leave it until the moment of death, which is why the old Prayer
Book litany prayed fervently against dying 'suddenly and unprepared'.
However, there was an interesting development in Roman Catholic
theology that modified the rigour of this answer. One of the fascinating
things about Catholic theology is the way it invents rather unpleasant
doctrines because of its passion for logic and law, and then gradually
admits to itself that it has probably gone too far for frail humans. So it
proceeds to construct ameliorating exceptions to the general rule, into
which it manages to fit most people; or it develops the offensive concept
in different directions to give it a saving versatility.
This is what happened in the case of hell. It was later followed by the
concept of purgatory where the soul confronted what evil it had committed
in life and went through a refining fire that purged and purified it so
that it could at last enter the presence of God.
It is true that hell was still the verdict for what were classified as
mortal sins while purgatory was for venial sins; but casuistry did allow a
bit of leeway even here and concepts like invincible ignorance were useful
ways of getting people off the hook.
There are obviously several human applications of this rather grisly
theme in Christian theology. The main one has to be the need to take
personal responsibility for our own actions, especially for the pain and
damage we have inflicted on others. The important thing to notice here is
not any forensic or legal logic: we are not talking about punishment to
satisfy the law's demands. That may have its place but it is not what I am
focusing on at the moment.
It is important to ourselves to accept responsibility for our actions
and to acknowledge the effect they have had on others because knowing the
truth about ourselves is fundamental to our spiritual and moral
development. On of the saddest misuses of a life is to go through it
without really getting to know it. Plato said the unexamined life was not
worth living. To get through life without any discernible increase in
self-knowledge is a terrible waste because it is a refusal to look
attentively at the reality that is closest at hand, our own self.
That is why all the great systems of spiritual discipline emphasise the
importance of self-examination and confession. If we are to grow as humans
we need to know what we are up against within ourselves, need to
understand the reality of our condition, our weaknesses and our strengths,
our failures, as well as the things we have done well.
Unfortunately human males in particular have developed among themselves
cultures of honour and shame in which losing face or owning up to weakness
is not done. That is why it can be particularly difficult to bring them to
deep self-awareness, which may be one reason why institutional religion
has manufactured brutal spiritual mechanisms such as hell in order to
blast through the carapace of male insensitivity. Unfortunately, their
effect has often been to coarsen rather than refine the process of true
But let me return to the concept of hell itself. The idea, as expressed
in the sermon from Joyce or countless others we could quote, is so gross
that something deep and archetypal must be going on below the overt need
to control human waywardness by literally scaring the hell out of them.
Why did the concept develop in the way it did, with its list of demons
commissioned to lure unwary souls into their clutches?
One of the theologians who gave some thought to this was Paul Tillich.
He believed that the idea of the demonic was the mythical expression of an
important human reality, namely, the structural and inescapable power of
There is a kind of mind (kindly, liberal, humanist) that either refuses
to, or is incapable of, confronting the intractability of this kind of
evil. It sees only 'individual acts of evil, dependent on the free
decisions of the conscious personality', says Tillich. It believes 'in the
possibility of inducing the great majority of individuals to follow the
demands of an integrated personal and social life by education,
persuasion, and adequate institutions', he goes on.
This kindly belief in progress and human perfectibility was destroyed
by the horrible wars and purges of this century as well as by our
explorations into the depths of our own psyches. The great analysts of
humanity's sick soul (Freud, Jung, Adler) explored and recorded their
encounters with destructive forces deep within us that unpredictably
determined the energies of individuals and whole groups.
It was as though their encounter with the unconscious forces within us
were providing them with a preview of the great horrors that were to erupt
on the conscious surface of history. The wars and persecutions of this
century, as well as some of its most exciting intellectual discoveries,
have forced us to confront two almost ungovernable sources of evil which
Tillich called demonic.
One is the hidden continent within our own nature which we call the
unconscious; and the other is the herd instinct, the collective dimension of
humanity which can take over or possess our individuality. These demonic
forces, together or separately, create structures of evil that are beyond
the influence of normal powers of good will. They promote individual and
social tragedy of the sort that we have witnessed throughout this century
and which we continue to observe helplessly in our own time.
Our impotence in the face of this kind of structured evil, our
recognition that the institutions we create have a collective dynamic that
often overrides the ethics of the individual, and our experience of the
brutal reality of the group mind, all persuade us that there are systems
of evil that are superhuman in their power and impervious to human
rationality. That is why it is so difficult to find a way of explaining
those great forces that does not fall back on supernatural language.
The best analogy I can think of comes from the weather systems that
make life in the United States dangerously unpredictable. The great
hurricanes and twisters that wreak such damage in the United States could
easily lead the uneducated mind to supernatural conclusions. Science,
however, knows about the collision of weather systems that generates these
spectacular forces, and can even predict them.
The myth of the demonic is a way of expressing the eruptions and
collisions of evil and suffering that so disfigure our history. If it is
hell we are thinking of then we have confronted it in our own century in a
series of monstrous evils that might have been scripted by Dante. And none
was worse or more archetypal than the holocaust, the destruction of six
million Jews in the death camps of Europe. It was as if the hell of
Christian imagination had finally erupted into history and established
itself in our midst.