So what exactly is hell and where do our ideas about it come from? Here is a guide from A to Z:
A is for Augustine, saint, theologian and theorist of original sin, who first codified the rigour of hell, in 413: 'That hell, that lake of fire and brimstone, shall be real, and the fire corporeal, burning both men and devils, the one in flesh and the other in air . . . Christ has spoken it.'
B is for Brimstone. The Book of Revelations tells us that there will be a lake of fire and brimstone available for the unsaved for all eternity. Brimstone is sulphur, which also had medicinal purposes, as shown by Henry VII's poet laureate, Skelton, in 1523: 'The blast of the byrnstone blew away his brayne.'
C is for Calvin, who drew out the full, rigorous implications of predestination in the 16th century. Augustine had taught that the elect were chosen for salvation before they were born. He drew back from the conclusion that the damned must also have been chosen before birth. Calvin did not. As the 1647 Westminster Confession put it, God had decreed, before the world or time, that some would be saved - 'others he did appoint for eternal condemnation, according to the counsel of his most free, most just, and holy will'.
D is for Dante, whose Divine Comedy set out the cartography of an afterworld which precisely harmonised and balanced all the evils of this one with goods of its own. In hell, justice was done, as it had not been on Earth, and Dante had no doubt that this was right.
But D is also for Dostoyevsky, whose Ivan Karamazov best expresses the 19th- and 20th-century doubts about the moral propriety of hell: 'It's not worth the tears of that one tortured child . . . because the tears are unatoned for . . . How are you going to atone for them? By being avenged? But what do I care for avenging them? What do I care for a hell for oppressors? What good can hell do, since these children have already been tortured?'
E is for Eternity which, the 20th century understood, could be a torment without the aid of little men with pitchforks. In a story by G E M Skues, one of the century's greatest fly fishermen, a man thinks he is in heaven when he dies and finds himself on the bank of a perfect river, repeatedly making a perfect cast and catching a trout. Only when he asks to rest and is told that he must catch the perfect trout over and over again, does he understand that he is really in hell.
F is for Faustus who sold his soul to the devil because he thought he had the better of the bargain. In Christopher Marlowe's play (1604) Mephistopheles answers Faustus's question about the location of hell:
Within the bowels of these elements
Where we are tortured and remaine forever
Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed,
In one self place, but where we are is hell
And where hell is, there must we ever be.
And, to be short, when all the world dissolves,
And every creature shall be purified,
All places shall be hell that is not heaven 'I think hell's a fable,' Faustus replies. Mephistopheles says: 'Aye, think so still, till experience change your mind.'
G is for Gehenna a word which has come down to us meaning hell, but was a place name - the Jerusalem municipal rubbish dump - in Jesus's time. It was said to be on a site where once there had been a temple of Moloch, the Phoenician deity in whose honour infants were roasted alive.
H is for Huis clos, the play (1944) in which Jean-Paul Sartre developed his theory that 'hell is other people'. This idea that human beings can create their own hells without any assistance from external, supernatural forces characterises much 20th-century literature. 'Hell is oneself,' wrote T S Eliot. 'I myself am hell,' wrote Robert Lowell.
I is for Indulgences, which could be purchased from priests to save souls from Purgatory (qv) as late as 1967.
J is for James Joyce who, in Portrait of the Artist, gives an example of the almost pornographic relish with which an old-fashioned Jesuit preacher would describe hell. 'All the filth of the world, all the offal and scum of the world shall run there as to a vast reeking sewer . . . Each lost soul will be a hell unto itself, the boundless fire raging in its very vitals . . . The blood seethes and boils in the veins, the brains are boiling in the skull, the heart in the breast glowing and bursting, the bowels a redhot mass of burning pulp, the tender eyes flaming like molten balls . . .'
K is for Kafka. As the 20th century stopped believing in hell, it started to create replicas and the greatest designer of these was Franz Kafka. In The Castle and The Trial, young men find themselves trapped for an eternity inside lethal bureaucracies. But Kafka's hells have no moral purpose. That is their modernity. In Dante, every punishment was carefully fitted to the sin; in Kafka, the hero can never find out why he is being persecuted.
L is for Limbo. This was the solution advanced by the kinder medieval saints for the problem of pagans and other unbelievers who died too young to have the opportunity of being brought to Christ. But the sterner theologians, such as Augustine, believed that all the unbaptised would be tortured since they partook of Original Sin, even if innocent of personal guilt.
M is for Milton, who gives the most vivid account of the history of hell in Paradise Lost (1667). Satan is guilty of the sin of pride in a passage of poignant ambiguity to the 20th-century mind:
Is this the region, this the Soil, the Clime,
said then the lost Arch-Angel, this the seat
That we must change for Heav'n, this mournful gloom
for that Celestial light? . . .
. . . Here at least
We shall be free; th'almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in hell, than serve in heav'n.
N is for Nothingness, which was what those who feared hell really hoped for. Faustus, as he awaited Mephistopheles, yearned for it: 'All beasts are happy, for when they die / Their souls are soon dissolved in elements / But mine must live still to be plagued in hell.' Nowadays almost all mainstream Christians believe that nothingness is what awaits the unrepentant sinner at last judgement.
O is for Origen c250 to 325, who argued that all creation, even the devil, might be saved in the end. This horrified most of the early fathers of the Church. St Jerome said: 'Origen teaches that after many ages and one restoration of all things, Gabriel will be in the same state as the devil, Paul as Caiaphas, and virgins as prostitutes.'
P is for Purgatory which is a time-limited version of hell where, Catholics believe, the souls of the mildly wicked are purified, painfully, while they await their reward in heaven. This doctrine, once denounced by Protestants, who argued that the elect are freed from sin through faith in Christ, and therefore go straight to heaven at death, came into renewed fashion after the First World War. The historian, David Edwards, observed that 'in the mind of the average English Christian . . . it became incredible that the good God would sentence many of his children to everlasting punishment when they had already suffered so much through no fault of their own; Flanders was hell enough'.
P is also for John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, who argued last year: 'Dwindling belief in redemption and damnation has led to loss of fear of the eternal consequences of goodness and badness. It has had a profound effect on personal morality - especially on criminality.'
Q is the Holy Quran (Koran), the Muslim holy book whose hell is reserved for unbelievers: 'As for those on the left hand (wretched shall be those on the left hand]) they shall dwell amidst scorching winds and seething water: in the shade of pitch-black smoke, neither cool nor refreshing. For they have lived in comfort and persisted in heinous sin . . .'
R is for the Revelation of St John the Divine, an account of the end of the world, which contains much of the popular imagery of hell: 'the fearful, the unbelieving, and the abominable, and mur derers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone.'
R is also for Bertrand Russell who, in his Sceptical Essays, best expresses the 20th-century humanist view: 'The infliction of cruelty with a good conscience is a delight to moralists. That is why they invented hell.'
S is for Sheol, the Hebrew underworld. The Old Testament Jews were not very interested in immortality and few believed in life after death. Sheol was a dark and comfortless place, but quite without tortures. You were there because you were dead, not because you had been good or bad.
T is for Torment, which makes hell what it is. As Thomas Heywood wrote in 1635: 'In hell is grief, pain, anguish and annoy / All threatening death, yet nothing can destroy / There's Ejulation, clamour, weeping, wailing, / Cries, Yells, Howls, Gnashes, Curses (never failing) / Sighs and suspires, Woe and unpitied moans.'
U is for the Underworld which was not hell. In Greek and Roman mythology, what tortured the dead was simply being dead and feeble, no longer able to impose their wills on the world. They twittered like bats, and lapped up the blood which thoughtful travellers brought them.
V is for Virgil, Dante's guide round the inferno. The Middle Ages saw Virgil as the model of the virtuous pagan, a man who would surely have been a good Christian if only he had had the chance. In Virgil's Aeniad, Aeneas travelled down into the underworld to ask the shades questions as to his future prospects.
W is for John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, who in the 1660s was boasting of his readiness to go to hell. He had 'outswilled Bacchus' . . . and 'swived more whore more ways than Sodom's walls'.
X is for Ximenes, the Spanish inquisitor, who burnt people alive to preserve them from worse in the afterlife, and became a Cardinal Archbishop.
Y is for the Yawning gates, which waited for almost everyone: 'Spaces of fire, and all the yawn of hell,' wrote Keats in 1821.
Z is for Zoroaster, the founder of a Persian faith, who first had the idea of sinners burning in the afterlife, 400 years before Jesus.
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