The Fire and Brimstone Next Time

We deal with the reality of evil by thinking of ways that sinners are punished

Naraka, Hades, Gehenna, Inferno. Hell’s names are legion as we try to make sense of the overpowering reality of evil.  So, too, in its Western Christian incarnation, are its memorable features: “the quarrelling, devilish personalities, and the demonic cast of thousands…the horrid instruments of torture and the never-quenched fire,” as Marq de Villiers writes in his latest book, Hell and Damnation: A Sinner’s Guide to Eternal Torment.

Atheists might argue that such antiquated visions are well behind us, but evidence suggests otherwise. In a 2004 Gallup poll of Americans, for example, seventy percent of respondents said they believed God would punish sinners in the afterlife. Such statistics tell us much about the lingering power of hell as an idea. Because whatever specific punishments Gallup’s cast of believers had in mind, there’s a good chance many were inspired by the features de Villiers touches...