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Mark Twain didn’t believe in it, but was afraid he’d go there anyway; sulky Sartre thought it consisted of others. General Sherman equated it with war, and Berthold of Regensburg imagined it a place where the suffering of the damned would continue for as many years as “all the hairs grown on all the beasts that have lived since the beginning of the world.” It’s hell, that place Baudelaire said was easier to be afraid of than to believe in. Alice K. Turner doesn’t believe in it, either, and it’s that skepticism that lends her new book, The History of Hell, the verve of a stock prospectus or auto manual; never has eternal damnation seemed so unthreatening. Without terror, the idea of hell is merely a curio, an outdated intellectual apparatus like phlogiston or the perpetual motion machine, and it would be a feat even for a writer of mesmerizing gifts to craft a worthy account of an unbelieved idea. But for a notion so central to our civilization, and the wellspring of some of the most profound works of art in our tradition, more’s required than the dispassionate ho-hum of a gallery maven, and Turner’s not quite up— down, that is— to the task.
Hell’s not a question of art history, after all. Torment resides in the domain of the psyche, a lesson taught us by the negative example of the Stoics and the investigations of Freud more than two millennia later. Turner’s decision to focus only on how artists have depicted the underworld is a mistake of self-limitation. To ignore the psychological dimension of what can never be more than an idea, at least for those still alive, is like trying to explain the concept of infinity to someone who can’t count or the notion of color to someone who’s blind. While The History of Hell has some pretty plates, and Turner occasionally sifts through the material to adduce a nifty factoid—that the Pharisees, for example, are probably the ancestors of Indian Zoroastrians, called Parsis—she’s ultimately unimpressed with the place.
Too bad for her readers, for it’s damned impressive. Our earliest idea of hell comes from the Land of the Dead described almost 4,000 years ago on clay tablets in the Tigris-Euphrates valley in what is now Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The Mesopotamians, a convenient scholarly grouping that includes the ancient Sumerians of the Tigris, developed a mythology of the otherworld replete with the ideas present in most every culture’s chthonic reckoning—including the river, boat and boatman, gates and guardians—and the great Mesopotamian epic Gilgamesh, unlike so many of the ancient precursors of our literature, is available to us for inspection of earliest civilization’s mythopoeic beliefs. By the time of Periclean Athens, symbols of the underworld like Styx, now known to many Americans only from rock music, were already in place.
Though those aspiring to political correctness often refuse to admit it, as if it were a truth unspeakable, the foundation of our own society is unmistakably Judeo-Christian. It was Christianity that codified our notion of hell and transmitted it from Jerusalem around the globe. There is a remarkable short story that Anatole France, in an anti-clerical mood, published on Christmas Day in 1891, in which a retired Pontius Pilate rehashes his younger days. The name of a crucified miracle-worker comes up; “Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth,” Pilate ponders. “I don’t remember him.” While the story’s publication shocked the church ladies of the time, its irony comes from what we know to have been Christianity’s subsequent triumph. Our largely agnostic city-dwellers, who go with an Indian date for Korean food after an evening of Soviet cinema, are often hard-pressed to accept that Americans out there in the great flyover are in the main a Christian lot. The family values riff sounds dorky to downtown sophisticates like Turner, but a recent Gallup Poll indicates that 60 percent of our countrymen say they believe in hell, a figure up since 1953.
The understandably cynical response from a denizen of America’s murder capital might be that hell’s easier to believe in now because we’re already living in it. But the notion that we’re all in hell is but the flip side of apocatastasis, or universal salvation—the belief that we’re also all on our way to heaven. A matter of great debate in Christianity since the time of Origen (c. 185-c. 254), apocatastasis (also known as universalism) denies that God would banish any of his creatures to eternal suffering. If Christ died for everyone, that includes the angels, and the devil is a fallen angel. Even Satan would be saved.
Universalism is popular in the egalitarian mood of our times, which holds that we must deny that any of us is better than another. But the doctrine’s flaw is one of humanity’s oldest—hubris. By even asserting that we might know the mind of God and his wishes, we accord ourselves a power that does not properly belong to us.
It’s God’s decision whether or not each of us is saved—or condemned to hell. And if the decision goes against us, it will surely make little difference whether we feed three-headed Cerberus with our entrails, soak forever in the river of blood and pus, or breathe the stench of our burning flesh in perpetuity. The real point is that we don’t ever know where we’re going, none of us, and though Turner reminds us that the idea of hell has a long and distinguished history, our minds—ever questioning, never satisfied—carry it with us always into the future.