Like every mortal, I often catch myself thinking about death. At times I wonder if I don’t more than most, but there’s no way to know for sure. It’s a frightening idea, and for Christians especially, because Hell always comes into the conversation. Hell is rather a poltergeist sort of terror—we assume it’s the worst thing imaginable because… Well, it’s Hell. I happened to be having one such conversation with a group of friends earlier this week, right in the middle of one of my anxieties about the Afterlife. “I think death is so frightening because it would be so boring. It’s very much a, ‘Well, I suppose that’s all’ sort of thing,” one offered.
I blinked. “I find it rather terrifying, to be honest. I’m not worried in the least about being bored. Hell is always a serious possibility.”
“But maybe Hell is scary because it would be so boring,” another said.
I was taken back to my first year in college where, lazily browsing a bookstore in Georgetown, I picked up Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell. Flipping through, I found it to be totally useless. There were a few good lines—”You will stay a hyena, etc…,” shouts the demon who once crowned me with such pretty poppies—but it seemed to me this Rimbaud wasn’t taking Hell very seriously at all. ‘Yes, well,’ you say, ‘Rimbaud wasn’t exactly Mother Theresa.’ All right. But are Rimbaud and I even talking about the same thing? He sounds like he’d be up there with my university friends, as though the most horrible thing he can really imagine is being bored—having nothing to flaunt, no rules to break, no locked doors to barge through. Which leads me to wonder: can someone be that pathologically afraid of boredom, or do they just have no idea what eternal and unimaginable suffering would be like?
This brought me back another year prior—the year I thought I began to understand what Hell was.
In my final semesters of high school, our English class read Dante’s Inferno half a dozen times for various close readings, essays, etc. And I remember it being absolutely haunting. We’ve all suffered; we can all imagine suffering. We simply can’t imagine eternity—let alone suffering for eternity. And some of the absurdities of Dante’s journeys appeared all the more horrifying: the image of Paolo and Francesca being flung about in a whirlwind while sobbing and recounting their pitiful story to Dante. Our narrator is so sympathetic he faints; there’s no mistaking that the human heart can’t perceive any such torture for any such sin and be satisfied with it. It seems Dante is urging us to trust that God’s justice is done, however incomprehensible it is to the mortal mind.
Around my third or forth reading I picked up a biography of T.S. Eliot, who was already my maître à penser. It was baffling to me that he was so hugely influenced by The Divine Comedy, and yet I couldn’t say it had any such effect on me. Turning the quandary over in my head, it became clear—or, rather, quite foggy—that I couldn’t remember one-tenth of what the book actually said. I could vaguely but quite vividly recall the punishments, as though returning to a nightmare. The next two books in the Comedy are still on my reading list, but I’d like to go back and be able to read the Inferno with enough peace to recall the bulk of it.
Not long afterwards we were assigned Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a book I’ve re-read often for pleasure and one that I remember clearly and fondly. Though anyone who’s read Portrait knows that it, too, has a rather Hellish scene that runs along these lines:
But what is the fury of those dumb beasts compared with the fury of execration which bursts from the parched lips and aching throats of the damned in hell when they behold in their companions in misery those who aided and abetted them in sin, those whose words sowed the first seeds of evil thinking and evil living in their minds, those whose immodest suggestions led them on to sin, those whose eyes tempted and allured them from the path of virtue. They turn upon those accomplices and upbraid them and curse them. But they are helpless and hopeless: it is too late now for repentance.
Having been scared out of his wits, the narrator (based on the young Joyce) briefly resolves to be a perfect young man and join the priesthood. Eventually he loses his obsessively pious faith and decides to pursue God (Whoever That Is) through art. To be an artist, he resolves, is like being a priest: taking mere bread and wine and creating living, breathing, divine flesh and blood. Anyway, Joyce’s treatment of Hell was so relaxed—really, playful—that it wasn’t nearly so disturbing as Dante’s. Portrait leaves the reader with an impression that fire and brimstone are all fairy-tale stuff, which might scare the childish imagination, but stuff the intelligent, mature, creative mind isn’t so troubled by.
Here I was, torn between what I thought was a legitimate Christian fear of damnation, and a desire to follow the great Modern minds away from that seemingly primitive fear. And for a few agonizing months, those two impulses were at a stalemate. So I did what most reasonably traditional Episcopalians would do: I asked C.S. Lewis. Specifically, I picked up The Great Divorce.
There’s huge literary merit to Lewis’s epic treatment of the great divide between the living and the damned. Anyone not interested in the subject matter itself would enjoy the descriptions of the sprawling, drizzly, grey town of Hell and the dense, resplendent wilderness of Heaven. There’s a clever touch of social commentary running throughout. It’s really a perfect example of communicating nuanced ideas through lucid prose.
And, as best I can understand it, the premise is entirely orthodox: if we end up in Hell, it really is because we chose to be there.
If you haven’t read the book, you might react the same way I did when I read the synopsis on the back cover. No one would ever choose eternal suffering. There’s no way Lewis could make such an idea comprehensible.
What follows in the text (spoiler alert) is a series of amusing and thoughtful anecdotes about men and women who really would choose Hell—that is, banishment from Heaven, absence from God, and the deprivation of all those properties they entail.
How it works is this: the Grey Town is full of all the dead souls that aren’t in Heaven. These souls have the opportunity to take a bus ride through the Pearly Gates and, if they’d like, stay there. For those who choose to stay, their time in the Grey Town was purgatory; for those who choose to return, it’s Hell. The narrator is one of a handful of spirits who’ve caught the bus to Heaven. A tragicomedy plays out around each of the ‘Ghosts’, showing where someone might opt for the next bus back to Grey Town instead of settling in Paradise.
For one, there’s Episcopal Ghost: an exemplar for our cozy, modern Progressive Christian who made a name for himself in life by professing that there’s no way to judge truth or falsehood for other men, insisting that the Church must embrace free-thinking skepticism, and refuting the literal concepts of Heaven and Hell. The Episcopal Ghost, when faced with the objective and immediate reality of Truth and Heaven, is so beside himself that he opts to return to Hell, where there’s no one to pull him away from his delusory relativism.
Being an Episcopalian, I’ve met wonderful priests and laymen alike who subscribe to a Progressive Christianity much like the Episcopal Ghost’s; like the narrator, I’ve met one or two who seem more enthusiastic about their openness to ‘other ideas’ than they do about their own Christian faith, also like the Episcopal Ghost. If Modernist heresy is in fact a heresy, I’ve always liked to think that God will be understanding of those who really did try their best to live a life of faith (whatever that ultimately means). Lewis seems to think that way: those who sacrifice Truth for ideology won’t want to be part of Truth when the opportunity presents itself, but those whose heart is trained on Truth will be welcomed even if they didn’t have it quite right in life—as none of us really could anyway. Presumably, when they die they won’t be too far off anyway. In general, Truth isn’t as hard to grasp as the Poststructuralists and Relativists would like it to be.
Another visitor to the Heavenly Realm is the Mother Ghost, a woman who can feel no love for any creature but her deceased son and, in a way, who’s forgotten even about her son as a person. She’s sort of a grief junky, obsessed with the boy she doesn’t have rather than the boy she did. Apparently she’s been mourning perpetually for ten years—neglecting her other children and otherwise torturing them with her ‘ritual of grief’. She’s so adamant that God wouldn’t expect her to love anyone else before she can get along in Heaven that it seems she may well choose to go back to Grey Town without seeing the boy. She’d rather remained obsessed with her lost child from afar than open her heart wider and see him again—which, given that she seems to think love is a good thing to begin with, doesn’t actually sound like love at all.
This is where Lewis says ‘love’ goes bad, and it’s where we can start to see how Paolo and Francesca might prefer to be in Hell than in Heaven. Dante’s punishments, we remember, were exaggerations of the sins committed. With the two lovers, their punishment was to be perpetually swept about in a powerful draft—just as they were ‘swept up’ in their passions in life. Maybe they wouldn’t have elected to be that way as in Lewis’s allegory, but Dante’s example is a poetic extreme: when passion for another individual outlives love, which can never be limited to lust for one’s partner, there’s no place in Heaven for such a person. What would they want to go to a big love-fest for, when they’re all about lust? They wouldn’t have any idea what to do.
We can see traces of Plato here: that souls who die without any Knowledge of the Divine would be repulsed by the brightness of Heaven and flee back to Earth. But I don’t think Lewis is really talking about knowledge so much as a purity of heart. People who haven’t shut God out of their lives, who haven’t closed themselves off completely to Goodness—they’ll be all right. Lewis says it only takes ‘a wee spark’ for the angels to grow into a flame.
I could, grimy, see myself preferring to stay in Grey Town. I like bleak, rainy cityscapes, I like late afternoon, and I like to be mostly left alone. I hope I have it in me to face the sun when the time comes, to be strong enough in heart to love generously. I don’t know. But there are some passions that I could certainly give up: if I knew God didn’t appreciate my taste for gin, or my pipe, I do think I could put them away. I’d rather drink bad wine with God than slurp good gin without Him.
By Lewis’s estimate, that’s what He’s looking for. Even the Catholic Church says non-Christians can be saved under certain circumstances—and, let’s be honest, all Protestants take a sneaky look at what the Catholic Church says is alright from time-to-time, just so we don’t feel too edgy. God wants us to receive His love, and He wants us to love Him. He understands that we’re going to slip up. But He can read our hearts. As the law was made for man—so we can learn the habit of loving Him—and not man for the law, He and He alone knows when we’ve done our best.
Shortly after I graduated high school, my alma mater’s drama guild put on ‘The Laramie Project’, a play based on the tragic story of Matthew Shepherd. One day my phone and email erupted with old classmates saying the Westboro Baptist Church was going to protest the performance because… Well, God Hates Fags. Things seemed to be coming full circle. That is, they were skirting around the edges of Hell.
I don’t know why Fred Phelps did what he did. If I had to guess, I’d say he was, like me: unusually afraid of messing things up with God. Perhaps he thought that if he could make a big show about how not to be damned, that would qualify as love. It’s perverted, but there’ve no doubt been Christians (and Muslims, and Jews, and…) who’ve had interpretations just as nasty.
Whether all of that translated into healthily loving and fearing God isn’t for me to say. His actions weren’t loving by my, and most people’s, reckoning, but we might assume that this is why we’re told not to judge another man’s heart. For example, it would be easy for the Episcopal Ghost to say that identifying sinful behavior, as the Catholic Church does with homosexuality and premarital relations, is judgment, but of course he wouldn’t say it’s wrong to tell someone, ‘No, Fred Phelps doesn’t speak for my God of Love.’ We’d hope it’s not just because Fred Phelps is less-than-Progressive. Judgment should be judgment.
And yet it seems we might have to say that certain behaviors, such as Phelps’s nastiness, are wrong, and yet refrain from judging his heart. Hate the sin and love the sinner. With ‘consensual’ sins that’s getting increasingly easier. It’s impossible to get through life these days without meeting and befriending someone whose lifestyle isn’t sanctioned by the Church, whether they don’t exactly avoid premarital sex or if they gamble heavily. But when their actions are as outwardly destructive as Phelps’s, it gets even harder to avoid judging them.
All I can say is that I’d never wish Dante’s or Joyce’s Hell on anyone. Lewis’s Hell might just be the compassionate option for someone like Phelps. Or maybe he really did think he was doing the right thing, and once he faces God’s Truth, he’ll fall on his knees and be welcomed into Heaven. That’s for God to judge.
Either way, I hope beyond hope that he does rest in peace.
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