So Hell is a real place after all. Thank heavens for that

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The Independent Online

Thank God for that: Hell, it turns out, is a real place after all. An organisation by the name of the Evangelical Alliance has published The Nature of Hell, a 150-page document that seeks to restore some kind of vivid dignity to the infernal regions, and to rescue them from the vapid hegemony of the Church of England, which likes to think of Hell as a sort of dull correctional facility without access privileges to the Almighty Warder.

Those of us who were cradle Catholics, who - in the words of Anthony Burgess - had Hell injected in their veins from the day they were born, will know the folly of trying to dilute its power. For the youthful imagination, it was a wonderful thing to contemplate - so hard-core, so black, so final, so utterly uncompromising.

According to the Evangelical Alliance, Hell is "a place of torment populated by the Devil and his hordes". Excellent. After years of being told that Hell is only a state of mind; that it's a metaphysical construct; that it's not a domain of permanent roasting flames but is, in fact, "the fire within us" that burns us with remorse; that it's just a metaphor for the absence of God; that it's a place of "annihilation" rather than torment; that (according to the Pope) it's a not a place of punishment but of volitional self-exclusion - after all these attempts to turn the Stygian torture chamber into some vague conceptual fog, it's nice to get the X-rated version once again.

You think back, with a shiver, to James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which features the most frightening, detailed, comprehensive picture of Hell ever written (though Joyce borrowed many of the details from a 19th-century Italian religious work). That's where you learn the dimensions of Hell, its ghastly, smoky, smelly, overcrowded, scorching horror:

"Hell is a strait and dark and foul-smelling prison, an abode of demons and lost souls, filled with fire and smoke... By reason of the great number of the damned, the prisoners are heaped together in their awful prison, the walls of which are said to be four thousand miles thick; and the damned are so utterly bound and helpless that they are not able to remove from the eye a worm that gnaws it."

You get the picture. Elaborating the frightfulness of Hell taxed the finest imaginations of pre-Renaissance Europe, from Dante to Hieronymous Bosch. It goes on doing so, with ever more sophisticated refinements. To Sartre, Hell was other people. To Evelyn Waugh, it was being forced to read the complete works of Charles Dickens over and over again for the rest of your life. To Flann O'Brien, it was being stuck in a nightmare cycle of policemen, lost bicycles and quantum mechanics. As a result, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that, in its initial conception, Hell was simply a necropolis - a place full of dead people. It was the Christian fathers of the first century AD who decided that it should be a place where the dead lived on in agony, subjected to terrible punishment for all eternity. And that's the central significance of Hell - it's the unimaginable realm of God's revenge on man.

For the post-religious (or whatever lapsed believers like myself are called these days), this was always a stumbling block. Hell, they said, was a place created by "the justice of an offended God" to punish people for the sins they committed on earth. It was for the whole of time, for ever and ever. It was a non-negotiable sentence with no chance of an appeal. You couldn't get it commuted from eternity to, say, 20 years by good works. And you could find yourself consigned to this dismaying prison sentence, not for starting an unjust war or stabbing someone to death, but for having sex with your girlfriend. The God that presided over this totalitarian regime was supposed to be a benign and forgiving old party - but how could you square this talk about his divine love with this elaborately forged Ministry of Pain?

Which is why, even as they're trying to insist on the real-life nature of Hell, the evangelicals are pussyfooting around with the idea of eternity. The reverend Dr David Hilborn, editor of The Nature of Hell, claims reassuringly that if you go to Hell, you might be rescued by a whim of the loving Christ, and there will be hierarchies of suffering and length of sentence, depending on whether you're Adolf Hitler or Jeffrey Archer.

No, no, no, no you cry with every decibel of your former Catholic zealotry. That's not the point. Hell is the worst thing in the world precisely because it's so implacable, so beyond reason and justice and mercy. Any religious thinker who brings reasonableness and relativity into a discussion of Hell is missing the point.

Don't get me wrong. I don't believe in the place, any more than I believe in Heaven or, come to that, God. But the image of Hell I picked up at three or four, the vivid picture of the darkened fires of Pandaemonium, has stayed with me all my life and probably governed whatever moral sense I possess. The human mind needs absolutes of good and bad as it grows up; and Hell is as absolute as it gets.

So hands off our Hades. We need the awesome security of those four-thousand- mile thick walls.