When I see a billboard or bumper-sticker that reads “HELL IS REAL,” I usually smile and wonder what, exactly, the person behind it is trying to convey. I also think the same thing when I overhear (or oversee, on Facebook) conversations about how important it is to believe in hell, sin, Satan, and eternal damnation these days. Even the more sophisticated debates and books, on soteriology and Von Balthasaar et al, strike me as being somewhat hard to parse out in terms of the real objective of their terms and arguments.
Personally, I am fascinated and moved by hellish things; I take them all, in one sense, very seriously. If I had more time, I would study them in more depth, but my lack of attention and expertise is certainly not born from a lack of interest or baseline belief. Ever since Dante, senior year of high school, I’ve had a strong appetite for large doses of hell. The problem of evil is a constant curiosity of mine. Sin is an essential aspect of what I consider to be, in trendy terms, the “non-ideal theory” of Christianity. The subtleties in what is a proper portion of fear of the Lord strikes me as being a fundamental aspect of the devout life.
There is nothing boring or irrelevant about hell and its natural kin of themes and topics.
In fact, I am willing to assert that the weakness of the late modern imagination, that seems incapable of contemplating more than a plastic and prosperous heaven, a feathery pillow of over-assuredness and self-actualization, is, perhaps, far worse than the materialist atheism that offers nothing but worms. If I were forced to choose between a prosperity-laced Gospel of self-acceptance and warm fuzzies, too mendicant and timid to let the word ‘hell’ or ‘sin’ slip out, and New Atheism, I’d join the latter before you could say, “Richard Dawkins likes honey.”
So don’t paint me a hell or sin or Satan denier. I’m all for it, so long as we understand a key ingredient of this sort of talk.
Wit is one of the most underrated strengths of the Catholic intellectual and literary tradition today, due in large part to the poor showing of present-day Catholics. The grand paradox that is the mysteries of our faith requires a heavy religious sense of dark humor. To take what is serious seriously, you have to be serious about not being too serious about it all the time. Or something like that. After all, Dante’s Inferno is located within the Divine Comedy.
This is where my discomfort with hell discussions gets tricky. On the one hand, I am not willing to side with the unimaginative and fearful hell deniers who would rather speak about a toothless heaven that leaves me wishing for a hot and hellish salvation; but, on the other hand, these hell affirmers and advertisers, convinced that hell with all the fixings needs to scare the loving Jesus out of people, strike me as being just as disinterested in hell as all the others. The latter are not interested in hell as much as they are interested in a useful and effective means to curb social excess and promote self discipline.
But Puritanism doesn’t have a monopoly on hell and damnation. The Baptists shouldn’t be the only ones who get to play with fire and brimstone sometimes.
I seems to me that these Catholic Calvinists are really trying to leverage an ideological position more than anything, dressed in all sorts of eschatological robes and finery. I don’t think we need to convince people that hell or sin or Satan really is or isn’t real anymore than we need a billboard yelling, “THE TRINITY IS REAL!” What we do need is the sort of talk that shows, and doesn’t just say, what is at stake in these realities.
Even beyond the realities themselves, they are also ever-present in our way of thinking about things that avail themselves when we can use some hellish wit. I sometimes refer to our obsession with schooling as a means to success as “schoolvation,” where we bemoan the fact that some kids and parents don’t seem to believe in the hell of a life unredeemed by the school and the credential. This, I claim, is the same sort of cheap, abusive, and empty metaphysical notion of hell.
I do not know what hell is the same way that I can understand what my left foot looks like, nor can anyone. But just because I don’t have an empirical, material disclosure of hell, doesn’t mean that it, or anything else what is unobservable, isn’t real.
One thing I I do know is that, if salvation is an eternal life insurance policy, then, I’m not so sure that I want it. I belief in the after life, but I am not so sure I should treat it like I do my automobile.
Plus, there are richer — and justly more terrifying — notions of hell than Dante or Milton, too. Augustine’s sense of hell is a separation from the love of God that results in ontological alienation and existential disfiguration (punishments far more grotesques than anything Dante ever described), along with a sense of sin within salvation history that is brimming with wit: felix culpa.
I don’t think that people these days are stupid or dead enough to be satisfied by the impoverished lack of wit on display by a facile heaven or an easy hell. Both are too convenient and promiscuous. Either pretty much everyone is in heaven or the exact converse. Mirror images. What plain and unflavored hubris! What sinful ideas about sin! What a betrayal of the great intellectual and imaginary resources of Judaism, Christianity, and Catholicism! What a sinful lack of hope!
What we mean when we talk about hell should, ultimately, deepen and strengthen our ability to grow in holiness. Anything less than that lofty goal is counterproductive.
The ugly and sterile absence of wit (and general aesthetic taste and verve) cannot be railed against, pure and simple. Perhaps there is something within these uninteresting two sides that is worth laughing at and using as a foil for a something more real than the flaccid realities being trumpeted and meme’ed about.
After all, reality does not need to be fiercely defended. It is either is the case or not, and the defenders and deniers alike do us no favors by making it optional to begin with.
Hell is real, but it is also much, much more than that.
(Looks like, over at The Crescat, Katrina Fernandez also has hell on the mind.)