Hell’s Bells was a phrase with which a friend of my late mother-in-law in Charleston, Missouri used to punctuate most of her stories, especially when she got irritated or excited. I am not really sure what she meant but I always loved the way she said it with her Southeast Missourian twang.
When John Donne wrote his poem Meditation XII or what most people recognize as No Man is an Island in 1621, one of his most oft quoted lines was For Whom the Bell Tolls. Of course, he was not writing of Hell but was referring to the universal clarion call of death. It could also refer to the eschatology that attends all of our deaths.
For the past half-century, most currents of thought in the West have mitigated, not only against a Hell but also its cause—sin! If there were no sin, then no all-loving and merciful God could condemn His creatures to the flames for eternity!
The Christmas issue, a few years ago, of the British publication, The Economist published a cover story on Hell. For centuries Hell has been the most fearful place in the human imagination. It is also the most absurd. To the Economist, Hell is just a medieval relic that went out with ducking stools and witchcraft.
Philosophically, Jean-Paul Sartre believed Hell is other people.
There may be some truth to that in that some people can often make life a hell on earth. Theologically, even the Vatican now defines Hell as a state of exile from the love of God. The devils and pitchforks, the brimstone clouds and wailing souls, have seemingly been retired to dusty vaults of pious irrelevance.
For some, Hell still fits the description given in the fifth spiritual exercise of St Ignatius Loyola, in which the Jesuit novice, now as in the past, prays for an intimate sense of the pain that the damned suffer: to feel the fire, hear the lamentations, smell the brimstone, taste the tears.
For fundamentalists and traditionalists, new and old Hell is a torture-place for the damned in which they are flayed or eaten alive, disemboweled or impaled on stakes, either for incalculable ages or actually forever. Yet, the fire of Hell was—is—no ordinary fire. First, it needed no fuel, and second, it did not consume what it burned. Hell-fire, though it could melt both stars and mountains, did not eat away the damned, for that would have ended their torments; it simply raged and hurt.
C.S. Lewis’s book, The Great Divorce, is a work of theological fantasy, in which he reflects on the Christian conception of Heavenand Hell. Lewis’ title refers to The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, a book by English poet, William Blake, written in the period of radical foment and political conflict immediately after the French Revolution.
Blake’s title is an ironic reference to Emanuel Swedenborg‘s theological work, Heaven and Hell, published in Latin 33 years earlier. Swedenborg’s conventional moral structures and his Manichean view of good and evil led Blake to express a deliberately depolarized and unified vision of the cosmos in which the material world and physical desire are equally part of the divine order, hence, a marriage of heaven and hell.
Unlike that of Milton or Dante, Blake’s conception of Hell begins not as a place of punishment, but as a source of unrepressed, somewhat Dionysian energy, opposed to the authoritarian and regulated perception of Heaven. In the most memorable part of the book, Blake reveals the Proverbs of Hell that display a very different kind of wisdom from the Biblical Proverbs.
The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.
When we first moved to St. Louis in 1969, a newly ordained Jesuit friend from New York was visiting his transplanted family in Kirkwood. Those few hours we visited was one of the most remarkable in my early memories of St. Louis. He told me all the standard Jesuit stories that in his first two weeks he had heard every sin in the book, except suicide in the Confessional.
He also told me that as Catholics we have to believe there is a Hell but we do not have to believe that anyone is in it, except Lucifer and his band of rogue angels. Years later, my understanding of salvation was seriously expanded while reading Father Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s marvelous book, Dare we hope that all Men are saved. We still had to admit the possibility that some humans could go to Hell.
Hell, real or imagined is a scary place. It has probably the one fear that has caused me the most anxiety during my life. It has led me to be self-manipulating and controlling with regard to my life’s vagaries rather trust my will to God’s infinite mercy and grace. As I grow older, my love for God intensifies and my ability to trust His will has noticeably increased. Sometimes I wonder how He could tolerate so many billions of his flawed creation to lose Him for all eternity.
Purgatory, for me, has become the more logical and creditable of all the Church’s teachings on morality, sin and forgiveness when taken in connection with its teachings on original sin. To see God, imperfect man must be purified…but maybe not by a punishing fire but an enlightening and merciful love. I have come to believe that this temporary state is not one of pure physical punishment but one of a loving guidance that challenges the soul to see the errors of his or her lives.
In Lewis’ Divorce the narrator inexplicably finds himself in a grim and joyless city, the grey town, which is either Hell or Purgatory depending on how long one stays there. He eventually finds a bus for those who desire an excursion to some other place, which eventually turns out to be the foothills of heaven.
Several years ago, I tried writing a play on Purgatory, which I called For the Love of Dickens. I chose a New York City subway train for my first version. The saved were required to ride the city’s vast system, reading the Great Books about life, love and so on. While I did create some interesting characters, the main character was, to put it frankly, boring.
During one of my regular massages a few years ago it dawned on me that if she could literally push the pain out of my back and lower extremities with her heavenly touch, why could not an angelic therapist do the same for the residue of sin, guilt, weakness and imperfection? The result was my play Gaby’s People.
After many public readings, Gaby’s still had not found a happy venue. As a result of some sage advice from the director On-Site Theater Group, my play, now called The Changing Room, after some structural changes will make yet another attempt to theatrically explore the need for personal change.
WILLIAM A. BORST has taught at virtually all levels of education from elementary school through university, published commentaries in many local and national publications, and hosted a weekly talk show on WGNU radio for 22 years. Having recently served as editor of the Mindszenty Report, Dr. Borst is the author of two prominent books: Liberalism: Fatal Consequences (1999) and The Scorpion and the Frog: A Natural Conspiracy (2005). He holds a PhD in American History from St. Louis University.