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 Without terror, the idea of hell is merely a curio, an outdated intellectual apparatus like phlogiston or the perpetual motion machine, and it would be a feat even for a writer of mesmerizing gifts to craft a worthy account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
Hell’s not a question of art history, after all.
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,
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.