According to Carl Gustav Jung, hell represents, among every culture, the disturbing aspect of the collective unconscious.
Imagine if there was a place where all the evil people would go to get what they deserved? Imagine this place was filled with pain, torture, hatred and all the things these evil people stood for and imposed on the world. Imagine that there was this leader who embodied all of the things we hate about the world and wanted to wish them away into oblivion, and his very presence gave us all a sense of release. Well, then wouldn’t that make earth, heaven? Hell has been part of pop-culture for quite some time. You can see it in archaic myths dating back to paleolithic times to now erupting on our television screens. Hell is part of the human story, well, the desire for it to be true, is. But what does the desire for Hell tell us about the human project? What does the desire for some horrific dystopia where havoc, disorder and hatred dictate the structure of this particular uninhabitable space. This is what we are going to investigate. Carl Jung said that Hell would give us the inside scoop on the collective unconscious. But, what is the collective unconscious? A blog from the University of Chicago explains it this way:
The term collective consciousness refers to the condition of the subject within the whole of society, and how any given individual comes to view herself as a part of any given group. The term has specifically been used by social theorists/psychoanalysts like Durkheim, Althusser, and Jung to explicate how an autonomous individual comes to identify with a larger group/structure. Definitively, “collective” means “[f]ormed by [a] collection of individual persons or things; constituting a collection; gathered into one; taken as a whole; aggregate, collected” (OED). Likewise, “consciousness,” (a term which is slightly more complex to define with the entirety of its implications) signifies “Joint or mutual knowledge,” “Internal knowledge or conviction; knowledge as to which one has the testimony within oneself; esp. of one’s own innocence, guilt, deficiencies,” and “The state or fact of being mentally conscious or aware of anything” (OED). By combining the two terms, we can surmise that the phrase collective consciousness implies an internal knowing known by all, or a consciousness shared by a plurality of persons. The easiest way to think of the phrase (even with its extremely loaded historical content) is to regard it as being an idea or proclivity that we all share, whoever specifically “we” might entail.
Ultimately, its much like a reservoir of ancient myths and memories we all carry deep in our subconscious. An ethical example of this could be found in the early stories Cain and Abel, Adam and Eve, Enuma Elish and several others that were being passed around at this time. In one sense, all these stories are, are a form of cosmology – wanting to know the origins and the make-up of the world. We still want that today. Philoponus, Galileo, and Stephen Hawking are great examples of someone who carries the ancient Mesopotamian tradition onward. It is important to remember that myths were not meant to be taken literally (as many do today), but that they had a logical consistence to the narrative; they were often attempts to rationalize those events, things, people that were outside their lived everyday experience. In pre-literate societies, myths were a mirror for the groups own ecology. Myths told us about the belief system, ethics and how meaning was constructed for a particular group. In today’s society, it would be like analyzing a can of coke and tracing its origins (from a synthesized drug) to its now current form of commodified enjoyment (i.e., commercials, paraphernalia, clothing, identity and etc.). It represents a culture where we can purchase our enjoyment. It represents globalization (i.e., you can venture to underdeveloped countries and buy coke). There is a whole host of directions we can explore just on the commodity of coke. But, this article is about Hell. So, what does Hell tell us about our culture?
(1) We’re not good at dealing with pain
(2) We created it to justify hatred
(3) We created it so we can escape our responsibility to deal with hell on earth
(4) Our fear of difference
(1) The myth of hell exists because we can’t seem to make sense of the origins of pain (hence why ‘sin’ arrives on the scene, to bridge the gap). We’re not good at dealing with death, old age, or weakness. Watch television commercials. Read the pop-culture top 100 books. We live in a culture of denial, Hell justifies our escapism.
(2) Slavoj Zizek jokingly said to me in an interview: “Maybe San Francisco was created just so Hitchcock could produce Vertigo!” This line of thinking helps us to understand the collective idea of hatred toward something outside of ourselves. If we create an abyss where we can send all of the things we hate, or have collectively agreed should hold the category of ‘evil’. Like thieves, murderers and etc. If this place exists, then rather take responsibility for rehabilitating them, we can simply throw them into a lake of eternal fire where they get there ‘just desserts’. Hell gives us the justification to hate and the laziness of doing nothing about it.
(3) If hell exists and some might go there, then we can blindly go about our lives never having to interact with them or do anything about changing the society we live in. Like Edmund Burke said, “Evil is what happens when good men do nothing”. (Yet, another example of what collective unconscious).
(4) Hell is where all the ‘same’ people go. All the ‘bad’ people. Remember, these people are not inherently wrong – it’s all learned behaviour. So, we fear what we don’t know, so we push it away. I am not saying we need to idly allow evil behaviour, but I am differentiating behaviour and choice from the person, which is readily not done in the justice system today. This rejection of someone who doesn’t fit into the general population is a primal example of what we all go through – we all are taught to be afraid from a young age to fear difference, we were just told to call them monsters. This sits with us all. Grows with us, until we create a narrative and collective unconscious response (the Law; Courts and etc.). Hell is a form of socially constructed spiritual genocide. It scapegoats people that are not commonly liked or accepted within a particular group (ultimately, the notion of salvation promotes this) and makes them into criminals with no other choice.
The myth of hell within society must be responded to, lest we continue the old cycle of creating new cultural myths that justify our scapegoating of difference.