Hell is Empty

Hell is Empty

I could have entitled this essay, Deliver us from evil, the last words of entreaty in the Our Father. In a recent essay in the Wall Street Journal entitled, Your Periodic Reminder that Evil is Real, renowned journalist Lance Morrow wrote many people do not believe evil is real. They are wrong. Evil is real, with a spooky, inscrutable life of its own.

Morrow cautions us that like pornography which may be difficult for us to define but we know it when we see it, the torture, rape, murder and mutilation of Israeli men, women and small children could not hide what a pronounced evil it was. Only twisted ideologues and fanatics saw it as something noble. Even President Joe Biden, who has some fuzzy views on morality, could say it was an unadulterated evil. History reminds us with names and dates, such as 1939Treblinka, 1941, Nanking, Biafra9/11, the Belgian Congo, Rwanda and countless other concrete examples of man’s inhumanity to man.

All of this has made me think of Halloween, a national participatory celebration that I have never liked. Growing up in Queens, New York in the fifties, my mother never let me go trick or treating. She paid me $1.50 to stay home, which I gladly did. When I was about 13 years of age, I remember walking the block-and-a-half to my friend’s house in the dark on Halloween. About half way, a group of bigger boys literally creamed me with a can of Burma Shave. When I arrived at Gerry’s house, he thought I was some sort of perverted ghost. 

While on the surface, Halloween seems tame, there are several anecdotal incidents that show its dark side. While in college, I read of a woman in Worcester, Massachusetts who put a rat poison spread on the crackers she handed out and someone else who put razor blades in apples so as to maim the mouths of young children.  

I am not certain of what my mother’s motives were but in retrospect, it must have had something to do with the day’s uncertain relationship with the Catholic Church and its reliance on witches, demons and devils. All of these costumed symbols evoke a sense of lurking evil. 

Halloween’s meaning derives from the ancient Celtics’ celebration of their new year. The Celtic Druids regarded it as the time when the souls of the dead could mingle with the living. The Druids also believe that during the eve of what is All Saints Day, demons, evil spirits and witches roamed the earth with joy to greet the arrival of their season long nights and the early dark of the winter months. The demons had their fun with the poor mortals that night by frightening and even playing tricks on them. Humans could appease them with spicy foods and sugary treats.

There are many Biblical verses that condemn evil spirits and all kinds of devilish activities. Yet the Church has never come out and condemned the intrinsic nature of Halloween. Instead the Church, as it has tried with Modernism, used these holidays to bring paganism and Christianity together. They reasoned that this would make it easier for local populations to convert to the state religion. This idea reminds me of Troy which let a certain wooden horse into their midst in honor of their gods. That did not work well for them at all.

Though I would never wear a costume, I must confess that when my three children were young, I took them around our large neighborhood in St. Louis. For years, we all thoroughly enjoyed the annual tradition without incident. While our experiences and their costumes were all benign, I have noticed a questionable trend in the last few decades. 

It appears that Halloween has gone back to its pagan roots, with a modern twist. I have been to costume shops that spring up in the malls at this time. In many ways the adults have taken over the event from their kids. Costume parties are on many adult schedules. Many costumes are of devils, demons and some spicy outfits for women that they could never wear in public such as French maids and devils in red tights with a sexy, long tail.

There are also many costumes that mock the Catholic faith. Some include a fat Jesus, an adult unholy priest, a similar one for nuns, a bad habit nun, a sinful sister and a holy hammered drinking book. All these appear sacrilegious at best and Satanic at worst. 

When I drive down Georgia scenic side roads, all I see is skeletons. In one neighborhood, virtually every mail box has one sitting on top of it. I do not think one could deny that this celebration has always been inordinately associated with death, demons and the devil. Apparently I am not alone. WSJ editor Barton Swaim opined on this in his essay, Down with Halloween’s Ironic Death Cult. He believes that it has changed a good deal since the seventies. He sees the night as a kind of industrial cartoon death cult.

Maybe this change is a reflection of what is going on in this country. Evil spirits, demons and maybe even the Devil himself seem very alluring and attractive. For many it is just a defiance of a god they do not believe in. Evil can be very seductive. As Benjamin Franklin wrote vice knows she is ugly, so she puts on a mask.

Swaim also says that today’s Halloween is the perfect holiday for the secular world of affluent and sophisticates…who believe the supernatural isn’t real…Evil isn’t a lurking spiritual force but the consequences of bad societal arrangements or an underfunded educational system. Humans are not responsible. This is nothing more than a warmed-over atheism that energized the French Revolution over 230 years ago. 

Philosophers, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, have denied that evil exists in the human heart. In doing so he changed the history of the world for the worse. He accomplished this by promoting the ideas that man was essentially good and evil emerged from institutions. This is a non sequitur that contradicts itself since humans establish institutions, lead and use them.  

I remember a song title that spoke of Love is all around us. Given our cultural history since 1960, I am surprised no one has composed a song Evil is all around us. Netflix has been airing a number of films on evil or with the devil in its title. There has also been a palpable interest in exorcism and demonic possession. The Pope’s Exorcist was a very well-made movie, based on a true story. It was adapted from the books, An Exorcist Tells His Story and An Exorcist: More Stories, by Father Gabriele Amorth. 

In Paradise Lost, Milton quotes the Devil as saying, Tis better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven. This is reminiscent of the Wagner leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who said a week before his assassination that he and his Wagner mercenaries would all go there because they will be the best in hell. I also think of community organizer, the late Saul Alinsky who dedicated his Rules for Radicals to Lucifer, the first radical known to man.

In a recent entertainment section in the New York Times, they reviewed a new play All the Devils are Here. Patrick Page’s title completed the Shakespearean verse from The Tempest, which I used in my title, Hell is Empty. Page’s subtitle is How Shakespeare Invented the Villain. While his main focus is on Shylock, he finds similarities in all the Bard’s villains, the Macbeths, Iago, Hamlet’s uncle Claudius and Malvolio, from his comedy Twelfth Night who is more narcist than villain. His name means ill will in Italian, which characterizes him as disagreeable more than evil. 

Many scholars believe that the Shakespearean quote from the Tempest has a profound meaning. It highlights the idea that evil exists not only in the supernatural realm of Hell but it has also found a home within the human heart. As a result evil exists in the world with goodness and purity as its arch enemies. Our so-called Culture War is precisely a fight against the forces of evil. Most of our leaders are indifferent to it or align with the progressive side, which is devoid of any identifiable moral structure. 

Page reinforces this idea by putting his hand over his heart and saying, Where there is evil, it lies within. This is one of the universal truths that Shakespeare had taught in many of his plays. We are all capable of the worst kind of evil. Our world is full of ideologues who justify the worst kind of mayhem to promote the good ends that drive their passions. Hamas has fast become synonymous with evil. 

Centuries ago, philosopher David Hume wrote that since the loss of Eden man is the twisted timber of humanity. This is essentially what Morrow meant when he wrote: evil is an objective fact in the world, and yet it prospers and nourishes itself on the passionate and even tribal, subjectivities of human nature.

Does this explain why so many people are drawn to the dark side of life? Horror films and movies of the most depraved kinds of murders, tortures and mayhem imaginable, draw crowds of film-goers while a G rating is the kiss of death at the box office. Sin attracts and goodness seems to bore. I remember a cartoon years ago with someone preferring Hell over Heaven because he thought the former would have more interesting people.

Several studies praised an immersion in evil because the knowledge observed could help us understand and recognize it when we encountered in our own lives. On the surface that sounds like a reasonable conclusion. But if one applied this to pornography, I am convinced an exposure to that would be likened to learning about the dangers of alcohol by getting drunk every night. Before one knew it, he would be addicted. I think the same is true of evil.  

As philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote of Adolf Eickmann and his fellow Nazis, they had been so accustomed to murdering Jews that they had created an atmosphere where the banality of evil, hardened their hearts and souls to what they were doing. She had grappled with the question, can one do evil things and not become evil?  While covering Eickmann’s trial for The New Yorker in 1961, she had found the Nazi an ordinary, rather bland bureaucrat, who in her words, was neither perverted nor sadistic but rather terrifyingly normal. He had acted without any motive or emotion, other than his ambition for his career rather than hatred for the Jews.

In other words, he performed evil deeds, without evil or even idealistic motives. Arendt connected this fact to his thoughtlessness or what she described as a disengagement from the reality of his evil acts. When conscience dies the moral compass goes haywire. As Dostoyevsky wrote in his Brothers Karamazovif God does not exist, then anything is permitted. Many Mafia hitmen regard their murders as just business. Like Shakespeare’s Angello from Measure for Measure Eickman was a man without conscience.

Shakespeare also wrote in Julius Caesar: The evil men do lives after them while the good is oft interred with their bones. This is essentially true of parents who abuse their children. The evil can permeate their souls so deeply that even exorcism may not save them. It perverts their minds and coats their free will in a kind of determinism that can wreak havoc on innocent people. Stories of abused children who become serial killers, is another of the many layers of good and evil.

All of this rests on the declining moral vision, which has created a toxic culture that has poisoned the well of right and wrong. I remember my first day of college orientation at Holy Cross in September of 1961. English Professor Edward Callahan told us to look at the students on both sides of us. In four years, one of you will be gone. Today, if he were sticking to the same script, I think he would have to change his forecast to one of you will be mentally ill.

Many studies conclude that there is an intimate relationship between mental illness and violence on the general public. I believe that evil and maybe even demonic possessions must be added to the mix. Conscience must either die, such as in the case of Eickmann or become possessed in the claws of an evil spirit. 

The mentally ill are on a different level but they still can commit unmitigated evil acts. Whether it has been alcohol, drugs of all kinds, cruel parenting or whatever psychiatrists can dream up, people who are not at peace in their hearts, will often fill with rage and strike at those nearest them, such as spouses, children, pedestrians, other drivers on the highways and so on.   

All the devils are here, may be literally true. There is a Hell and there is a Devil, who has many disciples. You will find all of them, where there is an existential vacuum, such as that described in Auschwitz survivor, Dr. Viktor Frankl’s classic, Man’s Search for Meaning. There is an old adage that nature abhors a vacuum. I think it plausible that many of these evil acolytes take up residence in the empty souls of these people. Our country abounds with Satanists, such as the Satanic Temple in Indiana, doing the will of Lucifer, so why not a legion of the Devil’s Disciples, coincidentally the title of a book by Anthony Reid, about Hitler’s cabinet of sociopathic killers.

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Written by
William Borst