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 upon.

He argues these apparitions are well worth exploring from a secular standpoint. For if one brings together the contrasting visions of hell propounded in different times and places, then their sheer profusion must give any believer reason to pause: “To put it plainly,” says de Villiers, “the multiple (and conflicting) depictions of the inferno and the paradiso…are folktales, no more; as such, they are on a par with spiritualism, Ouija boards, hauntings, hobgoblins, and the rest.” And interestingly, he is not the only writer engaged in such a project at the moment, with American historian Scott G. Bruce publishing a compendium of hellish visions, The Penguin Book of Hell, in recent months. This suggests that publishers, at least, see a persistent zeitgeist out there.

De Villiers has made a name for himself as a writer willing to range far and wide in specialized areas, especially in history and science, to produce compelling works characterized by a keen eye, voluminous research, and a knack for storytelling. His 1999 Water, for example, won the Governor General’s Award. This latest project is no different. Because of his lack of credentials in the field of comparative religion, he leans heavily on his sources. Besides citing a raft of scholarly tomes, he acknowledges a special debt to Hell-On-Line, a vast online repository of primary texts on the topic of hell collected by medievalist Eileen Gardiner.

Given the sheer volume of information de Villiers imparts, and his wish to stress the logical underpinnings of the various visions of hell he explores, he resorts to an unconventional expository technique. Four themes ground his narrative as he asks the identical questions for each vision he investigates. What kind of place is it? Who’s in charge? What’s its operating plan? And what have self-proclaimed eyewitnesses said about their time there?

The result is a breezy if somewhat impressionistic tour. The non-Western part of his account highlights the surprisingly agnostic perspective provided by Shintoism, the astonishingly complex underworlds prevalent in Buddhism, and the intricate realms of Hinduism’s own versions of Naraka. The Western elements include the journey of souls in ancient Egypt; Sheol and Gehenna in Judaism; Hades in the classical age; and the world of the dead in Zoroastrianism. All these shadowy afterworlds set the stage for his main focus—the hell of Western Christendom.

De Villiers points out that Christian hell is in some ways exceptional, given its stress on torture, especially the perpetual kind. While the torment of deservingly wicked souls is found in some other versions of hell, no other religious tradition applies this feature with the same unremitting intensity as does traditional Christianity. Even allied faiths such as Islam differ in how hell is viewed, with Islamic scholars believing that the duration of a sinner’s punishment is calibrated to fit the sin.

“Torture is a Western idea,” de Villiers observes, “and even in the West the doctrine of perpetual torment was only propounded by the Lateran Council [convoked by Pope Innocent III] in 1215.”  Generations of theologians and mystics, as well as poets and playwrights, provide the backdrop for this evolution, which continued for centuries after the Lateran Council. De Villiers is especially intrigued by the contributions of the Benedictine monk Marcus (writer of the boldly imaginative tract The Vision of Tundale) and the mystic Teresa of Avila, and he makes a powerful case that these frequently overlooked writers deserve as much credit, if not more, than better-known figures such as Dante and Milton in fabricating the distinctive aspects of Christian hell.

Tundale, for example, is escorted by an angel to a mammoth viewing pit where he is given the chance to set eyes on the devil in person—an encounter memorably described in the Middle English poetic version of Vision:

He was bothe grett and strong
And of an hundryt cubytes long.
Twenty cubytes was he brad,
And ten of thyknes was he mad.
And when he gaput, or when he gonus,
A thowsand sowlys he
swoluwys attonus.

Compared with Vision’s vivid tone of authenticity, the literary hijinks of Dante’s Inferno seem, at least to de Villiers, to be a rather lacklustre piece of myth-making. What does distinguish the Divina Commedia is Dante’s willingness to assign imaginative punishments to various sinners whom he identifies by name. “This was new,” de Villiers notes, “many early visions of hell recounted the sufferings there, but hardly ever named the sinners directly, particularly the author’s contemporaries.”

He admits to being underwhelmed by Dante’s Inferno, viewing it as a rather lacklustre piece of myth-making. In contrast, he sees Milton as deserving praise for at least one major innovation—turning Lucifer, as hell’s main overseer, into a genuine tragic hero.

If anything, the conception of hell we find in the pages of Paradise Lost is something of a zenith in de Villiers’s view, with the traditional hell we’re familiar with today being more or less complete by the time Milton’s poem was published. Since then, there has been a slow but perceptible shift away from the high drama of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, with more and more attention paid to Satan himself. In summarizing this shift, de Villiers notes, “It wasn’t that the devil had disappeared. It was just that he would be smoother now, more urbane, able to capture men’s minds via trickery and persuasion and not by frightening the hell out of them.” It is as if Satan removed himself from the realms of fire and brimstone and is now to be found in a sleekly furnished office.

De Villiers believes further evolution in our notions of hell is likely. In his epilogue, he suggests we are already moving back to conceptions of the afterlife that prevailed in prehistoric times. In early animist societies, for example, there was rarely a hell at all. Rather, the greatest punishment a dead soul could experience was being forgotten by the  living.

But there is no guarantee de Villiers’ prediction will come true. For many of us, the need to make sense of evil is too great to lay aside the versions of hell each of us has concocted for ourselves. And who is to say that such a stratagem doesn’t serve a beneficial function, not just psychologically for us as individuals but for society as a whole? If we do cling to our private visions, however, then we need some awareness of how arbitrary such chosen myths must be. Seen in this light, Hell and Damnation succeeds in making us think carefully about our own beliefs, while representing one more intriguing milestone in de Villiers’s varied writerly  career.