Tag Archives: Hell

Strange Worlds

The Bible can lead you astray sometimes. Don’t worry, it’s unintentional, I’m sure. It has less to do with the Bible itself than with the way it was compiled. Any book written over centuries by different people is bound to show some inconsistencies. Unfortunately some of those inconsistencies are about things people really want to know. What happens when you die, for instance. Pretty important to get that one straight. The Bible has shifting views about that, and those views led to ideas such as Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, and reincarnation. Wait, what? Reincarnation? Isn’t that an eastern religion thing? That’s what I always thought. Then I read the provocative Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism by J. H. Chajes. This started for me, as things often do, with a scary movie.

Some time back I watched The Possession. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it regards a Jewish exorcism—based on a true story, it says, but aren’t they all? Now demons exist in the Hebrew Bible, but the monster in this movie wasn’t exactly a demon. It was a dybbuk. Sharing the Gentile liability, I wasn’t aware of what a dybbuk was. A religion professor in the movie tried to explain it, but I had to read a book. Between Worlds seemed the best place to start. What a fascinating book this is! Anyone who’s interested in the history of exorcism, whether Christian or Jewish (and perhaps even Muslim) will find abundant information here. Jewish exorcism? Much of it depends on how one understands the concept of “soul.” It also depends on who’s doing the possessing. A dybbuk is a displaced human soul from someone deceased. If it can’t get into Gehinnom (which Jesus mentions a time or two) it reincarnates into an available body, often sharing it with the resident soul.

From there things only get more unusual. For those of us who know about exorcism from the movie (you know the one I mean) or even from Chick tracts, the idea that a human soul (which can be good or bad, depending) can possess someone is unexpected. The fact that reincarnation developed from the same Bible that gave us Heaven and Hell is equally surprising. I suspect it’s because the Good Book doesn’t give a clear picture of what comes hereafter. The Hebrew Bible has Sheol, and the New Testament adds Heaven, Gehenna, Hell, and the underpinnings of Purgatory—a buyer’s market for the afterlife. With that being the case I suppose it’s to be expected that some spirits prefer to move from house to house. To learn what’s available Chajes is an excellent choice.

Popular Eternity

EntertainingJudgmentPopular culture, it seems to me, mediates reality. The media of various descriptions teach us what to think, and even if there is a religiously “orthodox” answer to questions, we will weigh it in the scales against what larger society says. This becomes clear in Greg Garrett’s Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination. Garrett, a scholar of religion and popular culture, turns his attention to death in this book. More precisely, what happens after death. The usual suspects of ghosts, vampires, and zombies are here, but also the realms of Heaven, Hell, and for the Catholics in the house, Purgatory. All of these are seen through the various lenses of movies, television, song, comic books, regular books, and games. It’s fair to say that we’re a culture obsessed with death. But then again, what culture isn’t? It may be just that it comes across more charming when there’s a buck to be made at it.

What I found interesting is that although the Bible has little to say about Heaven or Hell (and nothing at all about Purgatory), each of these realms has developed a canonical script. Hell is hot and fiery, Heaven is cool and cloudy. Purgatory is gloomy, but beyond that comes in mild, medium, and hot varieties. We know these things from various teachings of our respective religions. In popular media, however, the script has been changing. We now have mild unpleasantness passing for Hell, if it lasts forever. Nobody needs to get burned. Heaven, meanwhile, can be just okay. It’s certainly better than the other place. Or the other two. We’ve overused our superlatives and have been left feeling like we’re on antidepressants.

Polls continue to tell us that many, if not most, Americans believe in literal Heavens and Hells. A point Garrett raises, however, is they may not mean by that what their clergy assert to be the case. Since near death experiences are controversial, nobody can say that they’ve actually been to either place, or the third. The exception to this rule is those who work in fiction—in whatever form. Since we can see their visions of the afterlife so clearly they have become the arbiters of eternity, with or without any religious training. In this day of marketplace religion and nones, Heaven and Hell seem to have become secular. The church may have introduced the ideas (actually, they seem to go back to the Zoroastrians, but I’m thinking of American culture) but the media have taken them over. We may be secular, but we still die. Entertaining Judgment might give you an idea of what to expect, depending on whose vision you buy.

Religious Melancholy

DamnedNationI’d never come across the term “religious melancholics” before, but somehow it seemed to suit me. Perhaps that goes without saying as I’m reading Damned Nation, by Kathryn Gin Lum. While sitting on a bus. We’re sitting in traffic and the guy sitting next to me has obviously just finished a cigarette before climbing aboard. Having grown up as the victim of second-hand smoke for my first two decades in life, I’m thinking about Hell as well as reading about it. You see, Gin Lum’s descriptive subtitle is Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction. The fact that Hell’s alive and well, despite some evangelicals’ attempts at annihilating it, suggests that it’s best to keep informed on the topic. This book’s mostly historical, however, reporting how Americans interpreted Hell in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

As with most histories, I find the earliest material the most interesting. Gin Lum tends to focus, naturally, on preachers at this period since they are the ones most likely to talk about eternity. The thing that struck me the most was the number of people she describes who, after contemplating (a primarily Calvinist vision of) Hell, attempted suicide. I tend to think of suicide as a contemporary problem, but obviously it has been a steady human practice since our species first learned that you don’t have to wait for someone else to help you slough off this mortal coil. It is troubling, however, that it was a “doctrine” barely found in the Bible that led people—most of whom later became preachers—to try to kill themselves. It also seemed a touch odd that evangelicals in those earlier days of our nation didn’t find it troubling that those leading the flock had almost sent themselves to perdition. These early days of literal Hell believing were most interesting indeed.

The phrase “religious melancholics” comes from the resistance. There were those—generally skeptics, doctors, psychologists, and the like—who felt that the preaching of hellfire and brimstone took a toll on the healthy psyche, particularly of the young. As one of those who grew up attending revivals where Hell was a featured guest, I know that my life has been a prolonged attempt to avoid said eternal lake of fire. Even when I rationally learned that there is no three-tiered universe in which it still fit, and that the idea was cobbled together from a variety of religions into the ultimate scary place, Hell still manages to haunt me. Does it keep me moral? I don’t suppose that to be the case, since I have tended to believe people are basically good. Don’t bother trying to convince me logically that Hell doesn’t physically exist. I know that already. It’s the mental one that I’m trying to avoid. And that can be a full-time job for a religious melancholic brought up on a diet of overcooked theology.

Freezes Over

A good metaphor gone bad can do a lot of damage. Like a loose cannon. Hell is a bad neighborhood for metaphors. Taken literally Hell can be hell. So it is that many evangelical Christians are abandoning the concept. Jumping ship on the Manichean outlook that has policed bad behavior for two millennia now. A recent article on National Geographic by Mark Strauss discusses why many leading conservatives are now casting Hell into the pit and looking for ways to make God look better. Like many metaphors, Hell best resides in a world of black and white. A dualistic world where there are no shades of gray (certainly less than fifty of them). A world where any behavior can be understood as good or bad, forward or retrograde, never neutral. You’re either for us or against us. There’s no Switzerland in this geography. That’s precisely why so many people want to keep Hell on a leash.

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Hell probably never would’ve become such a motivator for good had Jesus not mentioned it. Prior to its encounter with Zoroastrian beliefs, Judaism held that the dead quietly resided in Sheol, a dreary place, true, but hardly fiery real estate. You worked out justice here on earth because that was the only chance you had. The dead were sleepier than early morning commuters and they received neither rewards or punishments. It was a much more egalitarian view of things. The dualistic Zoroastrians saw paradise and torment as a great image to explain evil in the world. The sorting takes place after this life is over. Jesus used such language as well, and the image became canonical.

Evangelicals are now starting to think through the implications of all this. A God with the kinds of anger issues that condemn people literally forever might be problematic. Sure, we may get angry at our enemies, but only the most truly heartless person has no pity on their suffering. What does it say about God if his anger lasts for eternity? Some, therefore, are trying to put the metaphor back into Hell without losing the strict divisions for which the good news crowd is famous. Instead of full-time Hell, perhaps there’s part-time Hell with time for repentance. Or simple annihilation. Metaphors lose their power when they come to be taken literally. Hell is such a loose canon. Doctrine among the doctrinaire is often non-negotiable. Although some may try, as a whole, the fires of Hell can never be extinguished. At least to those who understand figures of speech as statements of fact.

Map to Eternity

One of the most remarkable things about Christianity is its fascination with the end of the world. Far from being the obsession of nineteenth-century dispensationalists alone (the other Mr. Darby), the earnestly anticipated end goes back to Paul of Tarsus, the first known Christian writer. Before even a Gospel was penned, this sect was expecting the end to come any day now. It still is, at least among many sub-sects. My wife, however, recently sent me a story on National Geographic about a map collection from the 1480s that depicts a geography of the apocalypse. If you were wondering where to make that left-hand turn, this book may be for you. One wouldn’t want to drive a German mile into Hell without an indicator signal on.

The story by Greg Miller describes this late Medieval manuscript and its assurance that the world will end in 1651—talk about your great disappointment! The unknown author of the codex feared Islam almost as much as Donald Trump but instead of running for the GOP nomination he wrote a book showing just how the end would take place. Illustrated, of course. Map is territory after all. I grew up reading fundamentalist tracts that did essentially the same thing. The more progressive bits of the propaganda left out the actual dates because an earlier Miller seems to have missed the doomsday boat, along with various and sundry telltale timekeepers. There in front of me I could nevertheless unfold the future and once the European Common Market gets its tenth member—wait, what? Has yet another head of the beast been lopped off?

Maps give more than directions.

Maps give more than directions.

Ironically, early Christianities were anti-materialistic. Money was considered the root of all evil and communism was the ideal. If you doubt me ask Ananias and Sapphira. They thought long-term investment was a bit of a foolish notion—something that I have somewhat naively, if unintentionally, followed my whole professional life. You can’t be vested without three years of servitude after all, and I was expecting the Second Coming after one year. Two, tops. If only I’d had a roadmap. It’s only 1777 German miles from Lübeck to paradise, so maybe I can catch the next doomsday boat and still get there in time.

Mind Your Manna

Foodies have gained a respectable place among the ranks of social critics. Major newspapers and many, many websites tell us how to eat better. Eat healthier, or with more style, or more adventure. Our intricately interconnected world has made obscure ingredients fairly easily found and since we no longer rely on what can grow around here, the enjoyment of food has become a source of quasi-religious meaning for some. What was once a basic biological necessity has become a valued source of culture. We can tell a lot about a person by what they eat.

Like many average people, we shop in the more reasonably priced supermarket near us. We don’t make much money and why pay more for what you can get for less? Over the holiday weekend we bucked the trend and went to Whole Foods as a kind of holiday treat. We had a gift card and we hadn’t been to a Whole Foods since a friend introduced us to the chain in Madison, Wisconsin. We remembered that it was aligned with our ideals: sustainability, simplicity, and the desire to live well. Also, it is very expensive. Like most healthy options in our culture, they’re not really affordable to those of modest means. Still, the store was crowded. To be fair, this is down by Princeton where quite a few well-heeled New Jerseyans reside. The store was welcoming with less crass capitalistic drives to purchase more, but despite its organic feel, it was very much a grocery store like any other. Most familiar brands are missing since what we normally eat is processed to the point of filler, but the hidden foodie in us all appreciates the nutrients nature has co-evolved along with our taste. It seemed like the place for an epiphany.

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Then I spied Burning Bush hot sauce. “Sets the soul afire,” the bottle proclaimed. Quite apart from demonstrating the relevance the Bible still has, this sauce had religious implications. If a hot sauce can hand down commandments, it is a powerful comestible indeed. I have to admit that I’m not a real fan of hot sauces. My taste in foods is pretty simple, if vegetarian. Nevertheless Moses doesn’t stand alone among biblical figures who spice up our food. On a brief layover in Phoenix I spied a whole rack of hot sauce, some bottles suggesting that the heat came from the very nemesis of the burning bush. Hell seems to be another favorite location to be trumpeted by the painful food connoisseur. When we want to claim the extremes, in terms of food, we turn to either Heaven or Hell. William Blake would’ve appreciated this irony. As for me, taking my commandments with mild salsa is just fine. Anything more than this would seem to be a sin.

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Almost Heaven?

HeavenCanWaitLike most kids raised Protestant, I had little idea about the Catholic worldview.  Despite family wishes, I had Catholic friends, and topics such a Purgatory inevitably came up.  (Well, they did if you were me, with my insatiable interest in religion and its trappings.)  Purgatory was a concept both just and unjust at the same time. It seemed only fair to give people who’d made mistakes a chance at Heaven, yet, at the same time, to make them suffer when they already realized that they’d made mistakes seemed like, to put it bluntly, bad parenting.  The key was in the name: Purgatory.  A place to purge the evil.  Melvillian try pots. Given this background, I couldn’t wait to read Diana Walsh Pasulka’s Heaven Can Wait: Purgatory in Catholic Devotional and Popular Culture. The afterlife is the ultimate 64-dollar question. It pays to be informed.

This fascinating study demonstrates that the idea of purgatory has long roots into Christian history. The Bible does mention Heaven and Hell, concepts borrowed from Zoroastrianism, but it doesn’t directly mention Purgatory. For this reason most Protestants reject it out of hand as Popish and superstitious.  Heaven Can Wait, however, explores how the idea grew into an almost inevitable aspect of Catholic theology. Most intriguing to me was the concept that, like Belinda Carlisle’s Heaven, Purgatory is a place on earth. Specifically, in many Medieval minds, in Ireland. There a cave of torments, guarded by monks, on an island in Lough Derg provided those brave enough to enter the chance to purge their sins before death.  In short, those who braved this cave could bypass Hell by suffering in advance.  Heaven on an installment plan, crudely put.  As Walsh Pasulka describes the accounts of Lough Derg, archetypes begin to fly thick and fast, like proverbial bats out of Hell. This single location, sometimes venerated by, sometimes destroyed by the church, was a vortex of torment.

Over time, as the rationalism of the Enlightenment settled in, the idea of a state of being having a physical locality led to changes in the concept of Purgatory.  The kids I knew took it for granted that it existed, and, with tween angst, accepted that that’s probably where they’d end up.  At least for a while.  Protestant that I was, my choices were a bit more stark. If I messed up, as I well knew I did, my torment would be neverending. Heaven Can Wait is a rewarding exploration of how an idea, logical in its original context, survived long after the worldview of the church had begun to change. Indeed, it survives to this very day.  And like most doctrines of the church, it has a way of scaring even the most inoffensive souls straight.