Here I am right at the height of the holidays, and I’m thinking about hell.
A few months ago I started re-reading Dante’s Inferno. I got about a third through and it wasn’t clicking very well, I felt I must be missing something. So I paused, did a little reading about the book instead of the book itself, but then other things intervened.
Then I was writing near the end of my book and got to the logical place to say something about hell, so here’s what I wrote:
Those of us who are made in His image but are contingent beings, coming into existence through the agency of our parents, are not-God. By virtue of our “not-God-ness” we stand in opposition to the judge of our souls because it is our nature to do so. We thus make God our enemy and He is right to remove us from the family of beings bearing His image, the image stamped on us in the form of love, shared consciousness, moral agency, and an understanding of truth, beauty, and goodness as ideals we are to make it our business to pursue.
This removal is to hell. In our culture people laugh off the idea of hell, but only because it is poorly understood. It’s not necessarily a place, because we’re talking about a spiritual reality outside the constraints of physical things. We choose hell when we repudiate God as the Absolute, and the means of reconciliation He provides. We have moral agency, which means we have responsibility for what we do. Just as we have the ability to choose a proper relationship to God, we have the ability to reject Him. God does not send us to hell, but He does remove His presence if that’s what we want, and the result is hell. All the good things about this life are from God, and all the bad things are what exist in the shadows, places kept from Him and therefore not irradiated by Him. If we reject the light, all is shadow. As always, we choose, and God honors our choice.
Even if it is our choice, we could look on this as harsh, perhaps unfair, even. To make this conclusion, though, we have to mentally set aside the positive features of our humanity, the very God’s-image attributes referred to here. We have to imagine ourselves as animals, without the moral imperatives and truth orientation, and consciousness individually and socially, and the experience of transcendence in the face of beauty, including the awesomeness of the ordered creation we are privileged to delve into with the rationality and intellectual scope given us as image-bearers of God. If we’re to have no consequence for our choice to repudiate God and these gifts, then “fairness” would dictate we don’t have those benefits, either.
It is in the nature of the gifts themselves that they come with the price tag of moral responsibility. We can’t repudiate the lows but accept the highs. You might say we didn’t choose to be image-bearers, and thus did not choose to have the moral awareness along with the moral responsibility that goes with that estate. True enough, but neither do tigers choose their tiger-ness, nor lilies their lily-ness. Before I exist, there is no “me” to do the choosing. We’re here. We are what we are. What are we going to do with it? Embrace the wholeness and the specialness to which we are called? Or remain deluded in our ignorance and petulance, descending to nihilism in this life and hell in the next?
This thinking has been bracing for me, which is why I share it. Merry Christmas, btw.
Then a few days ago I was reading a daily blog I get and it links to a poem, sometimes, and this time the poem was by Dana Goia, whose stuff I sometimes like, called The Underworld. It’s about the tedium of hell, which makes me think of Hannah Arendt’s theme on the holocaust: “the banality of evil.”
How timely, then, that on Friday I got my ultra-lib New York Review of Books, and opened it to find a review of The Penguin Book of Hell. The review is titled — you might almost have guessed it — Damn It All. The NYRB being what it is, the reviewer expects us to understand hell is only a religious construct, in the same way religion is itself thought to be only a social construct, believed literally only in benighted times past or among clueless rubes in the present.
So why a book on the subject, and then this review? Stephen Greenblatt, the reviewer, states as fact that “[i]n matters of faith, the boundary between make-believe and reality is porous.” This point of view runs through his entire review, because he has an “inability to enter into a metaphysical system ruled by an omnipotent creator whose endless love is shadowed by endless rage.”
What an interesting way to put it. He starts with himself as decider of ultimate truth. Then he applies his own moral judgment without questioning the source of his moral judgment. He regards his own moral judgment as ultimately authoritative, even as against a putative God. And then he ascribes to the Author of love “endless rage” because we reject His love. Greenblatt finds God offensive — a weird phrase to write – but his disapproval does not negate God’s very existence.