The paradox of pitchforks, a devilish problem

The paradox of pitchforks, a devilish problem March 16, 2011

I want to turn here away from the doctrine of Hell in itself to explore briefly a bit of the folklore that has attached itself to it. Specifically I want to look at the odd notion that Hell exists as a physical location that is also the workplace of hordes of devils and demons. That is, the idea that Hell is a place where such creatures are employed rather than a place where they are punished.

"Capital Sins and Hell," in Florence Cathedral, by Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccari

I refer to this as folklore because it isn’t actually part of any official dogma or doctrine. It is not, to be clear, something that those I’ve been calling Team Hell believe to be true. Their selectively literalist reading of Matthew 25 differs greatly from my own understanding of what that passage is saying, emphasizing Jesus’ reference there to “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” and interpreting that as a didactic teaching about the specific reality of such a place, rather than an emphatic allusion intended to stress the main point of the story (feed the hungry, clothe the needy, comfort the sick). But they do not believe any more than I do that it refers to Hell as a place “prepared for the devil and his angels” to help them find gainful employment.

Yet this idea persists, dogging the contentious doctrine of Hell throughout the centuries and inextricably binding itself to it. This is an unavoidably common image conjured up by the word “Hell” — this unshakable idea of a fiery landscape dotted with horned, goat-footed creatures tormenting the damned with pitchforks. No matter how cautious and studiously precise the theologians of Hell try to be in defining that place or state, this idea always lingers close at hand — the connotation to their every denotation.

On the one hand, this is a very strange bit of folklore. Why should these devils and demons escape the punishments being meted out to mortal sinners? “Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven,” Milton’s Satan said, but where did either Milton or his Satan get the idea that he would “reign” there? Why has it become common to think of Satan as something like the CEO of Hell, rather than one of its prisoners? Why have so many preachers and artists — dating back many centuries before Milton — seemed so convinced that Satan would be a torment-or in Hell, rather than a torment-ee?

From that angle it doesn’t make much sense. But viewed another way, the idea has a compelling logic to it.

Let’s stipulate that the damned are to be tortured for eternity. OK, then, who exactly will be doing the torturing? It seems unseemly to imagine God directly involved, personally poking the gangrenous flesh of sinners with a heavenly pitchfork. And it’s unimaginable that this eternal duty could be delegated to the angels, who desire nothing more than to spend eternity in the presence of God, singing praises. Nor could this task be delegated to the saints. They’re saints, after all, and thus such an assignment would be for them an eternal punishment nearly rivaling that of the souls they would be assigned to torment.

This job, if it must be done, is clearly devils’ work. Only a fiend could carry out such an assignment. Only a demon — a monstrous, soulless, malevolent and wholly unholy creature — could devote itself to eternal torture, unrestrained by mercy, unhampered by revulsion or repugnance.

And thus we come to the paradox of pitchforks. Any creature capable of eternally wounding another creature with a pitchfork lacks the authority to wield that pitchfork, rightfully belonging at the other end of it. The pointy, business end of it.

What the paradox of pitchforks means, of course, is that this enduring bit of folklore doesn’t really work. It doesn’t solve the problem it sets out to solve. It kicks the can a bit down the road, but doesn’t ultimately address the uncomfortable question it arises to deal with, namely the disturbing thought of God’s culpability in this unholy devils’ work. Here the idea of devilish sub-contractors working on God’s behalf does no more to protect God from complicity than the charade of “extraordinary rendition” does to protect the United States from complicity in the abuse of those we allegedly handed over to be tortured. All those goat-footed devils in the medieval frescoes and illuminated manuscripts, this idea says, are God’s proxies — God’s servants, God’s employees.

And so we’re back at the original problem, putting the pitchfork back into the hand of a fiendish God. That was the very disturbing notion that I believe prompted us to concoct this whole devils-and-pitchforks business to begin with.

Not everyone finds this notion disturbing, however. Some argue that God is not subject to the paradox of pitchforks because God is perfectly holy and perfectly righteous and therefore perfectly capable of tormenting a suffering creature with a pitchfork, eagerly, forever, without any loss of moral authority. I understand the form of this argument, but it seems to be based on several words not meaning what I think they usually mean.

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  • DC’s version of the Pantheon seems to have broken with convention and cast Ares as the devil, rather than Hades.

  • Amaryllis

    AndrewSshi: My general hunch is that Fred’s eschatological vision is generally more along the lines of bringing social justice to everyone here on Earth under the inspiration of the teachings of Jesus. Which is to say, I’m actually pretty sure that he’s on your side but uses the interpretive framework of the New Testament to give his ideas structure.

    I can’t speak for Fred, of course, but I think that many Christians wouldn’t see it as a one-or-the-other choice.
    “Why this is Hell, nor am I out of it” and “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you” can both be true right here in this world. And maybe, what happens after death is where that contradiction is resolved, in a way that it can’t be within the span of a limited human life.

    Italicizing rather than “replying,” because I’ve noticed that “jump to comment” doesn’t always work, at least not for me. Is there a trick to it?

    Echoing the recommendation for the Heaney Beowulf. And if you don’t mind dealing with Amazon, you can get a paperback edition quite inexpenceslaus…I mean, inexpensively.

  • Anonymous

    Sorry to be late to this, but it strikes me that the idea that hell is the place where all those who reject God go, both (fallen) angels and humans alike, harkens back to the Calvinist idea of utter depravity, wherein without belief in Jesus or the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in at least some people, the world just falls into a horrible, dog-eat-dog place.

  • Possibly Religiously triggery…. or Misspelled GodsElizabby + algifu sounds ok. I like the idea of God riding in to save the suffering. Sounds like something she’d do. Or he. Or a whole host of them, for that matter. (I have Ganesha and Jesus coming to the rescue with Diana and Athena.) Or death as a curative for the body’s ills, that’s a treasured belief from the Old School.

    Now I’m imagining evangelism as some sort of CBT for finding peace and God’s love. (My most skeptical side assures me their success rate on that score is abysmal, my own experience biasing me that way.)

    But I cling to the idea that If I’m just Imagining all This God Stuff Anyway, I can imagine it any way I want, and that means I’m going to imagine it’s awesome.

  • hapax

    Falconer — I wasn’t offended, just musing.

    Actually, you have an excellent point about the possibility of a repulsive mystical experience. I don’t think I’ve read one that purported to be true (note “not having run across this” =/= “this doesn’t exist”) but I do recall being shaken by a short story I once read in OMNI about an alien race that, for research purposes, pulled humans out of various historical periods, and were usually mistaken for for that human’s notion of the Divine.

    There was a brief but memorable episode in which the aliens snagged a woman condemned to Auschwitz, about to die in the “ovens”, and the horrified alien reported “She thought I was her God — and she HATED me!”


    Thanks for the good computer wishes. The Geek Squad poked and prodded and restored and reinstalled for two weeks and finally conceded “We have no idea what’s wrong with this thing.” However, as of today, it hasn’t crashed on me yet (knock wood) — maybe it has been chastened by its prolonged stay in Coventry…

  • Anonymous

    Headless Unicorn Guy: As I understand it, the image of devils specifically-weilding pitchforks came from Dante, where one of the circles of Hell is burning pitch.

    That predates Dante; most of Dante’s Inferno is based on earlier stories of people having visions of hell, usually as part of near-death experiences. During the middle ages there were countless such stories, and one of the most popular was the vision of Tundal, which features a mountain that’s half covered in fire and half in ice. Demons used big forks to lift up and toss sinners back and forth between the two sides.

    On that note, it seems that the earliest accounts like these during the 200s or so featured angels punishing devils and sinners alike, but by the 900s at least it had switched to devils usually being the ones in charge of hell, and taking delight in torturing sinners.

  • Anonymous

    Scyllacat, I actually liked that rather than finding it triggering. Speaking of religiously triggering, though:

    V whfg ernq n cbfg va nabgure pbzzhavgl ol fbzrbar jub ybirf gur irefr Yhxr 8:48: ‘Gura [Wrfhf] fnvq gb ure, “Qnhtugre, lbhe snvgu unf urnyrq lbh. Tb va crnpr.”‘ Mvr yvxrf guvf irefr orpnhfr jura mve fvfgre qvrq, “orvat noyr gb cynpr gung irefr va ure pbssva jvgu ure jnf n jnl sbe zr gb erzvaq hf gung [fur] unq orra urnyrq va gur jnlf gung znggref.” (Qverpg dhbgr sebz gur cbfg.)

    I replied with, “…V jnf ernyyl qrongvat jurgure be abg gb cbfg guvf, ohg: Ubj pna lbh fnl gung fur jnf “urnyrq va gur jnlf gung znggre” jura fur qvrq? Gung frrzf pybfre gb qravny guna snvgu gb zr.”

    I just…ugh. THAT was triggering–not to the point of making me cry, but pretty much every muscle in my body is tense right now. That’s just…that’s not healthy faith, I don’t think. It looks to me more like a refusal to wrestle with the difficult questions brought up by the fact that God (at least usually) doesn’t heal people in the real world as is done in the Bible. It freaked me out. I hope my response wasn’t too insensitive–the post was in a Christian community.

  • Anonymous

    kisekileia and hapax have hit on my main problem with the concept of hell as popularly understood: the effect is has on the concept of heaven.

    How joyous and, well, heavenly, can the place be for the presumably compassionate, empathetic, charitable people in heaven knowing that friends, loved ones, admired strangers- really anyone- is having an equal and opposite, horrific and, well, hellish, experience somewhere else?

    Either those in heaven are made unaware of what is happening in hell (ignorance is bliss?), the concepts are mutually exclusive, or the RTCs are right and heaven is for the sadistic, joyously gloating over the suffering of others.

  • Dea Syria

    I don’t think you have quite idea. At the level of the narrative, the text says it s a direct quote from god, in the same way it says the 10 commandments come from god, that is the only ‘evidence’ of what god tells human beings in the biblical world view–the authority of th text. If that authority isn’t enough to mark this out as a divine command, then there aren’t any divine commands in scripture.

    If you want to start analyzing the historical context of the text, that is another matter. There never was a conquest of the land. This is all the fantasy of an unknown author writing sometime after the Babylonian captivity (possibly much later), who is engaging in grandiose fantasies of destruction to compensate for his actual state of helplessness.

  • guest

    I don’t think you have quite idea. At the level of the narrative, the text says it s a direct quote from god, in the same way it says the 10 commandments come from god, that is the only ‘evidence’ of what god tells human beings in the biblical world view–the authority of th text. If that authority isn’t enough to mark this out as a divine command, then there aren’t any divine commands in scripture.

    There’s no real evidence that it’s a ‘divine command’, either. What you have is someone else saying that God said … which is, at best, second-hand, and at worst just someone’s wish-fulfillment fantasy. (Funny how those ‘commands’ always seem to justify what the locally-powerful want.)

  • hapax

    I had a professor once who argued that the New Testament passages that were most likely to be the authentic words of Jesus were the so-called “hard sayings” — those that went against all our selfish “gut instincts” and socially-reinforced desires (e.g., “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple”.)

    I don’t have any particular problem applying the same rubric to the Hebrew scriptures.

  • How joyous and, well, heavenly, can the place be for the presumably compassionate, empathetic, charitable people in heaven knowing that friends, loved ones, admired strangers- really anyone- is having an equal and opposite, horrific and, well, hellish, experience somewhere else?

    A question theologians have been kicking around for a while now. One of the nastier answers is that observing the damned getting their just desserts for all eternity is one of the pleasures of Heaven. Other,s as I recall, have kicked around ideas about the nature of eternity making Hell and Heaven non-contemporaneous.

    Calvin Miller’s reworking of John’s Revelation has a rather nice concluding image, of Heaven expanding infinitely while Hell contracts, until it is gone entirely and nothing is left but the eternal joy spreading out in all directions.

  • I know, kisekileia, I have had those moments.

    Ntabfgvpnyyl, qbhogshyyl, V thrff jr znxr urnira/nsgreyvsr sbe n jnl bs erqrrzvat bhe vqrn bs Tbq ol fnlvat Tbq qvqa’g urny uve va guvf jbeyq, ohg mvr vf unccl naq jubyr va Tbq’f jbeyq abj. Ohg lrnu, Tbq qvqa’g urny zl qnq, ab znggre gung V xarj uvf snvgu jnf fgebat. Vg qvqa’g ernyyl ghea zr ntnvafg TBQ ohg vg fher nf urpx ghearq zr ntnvafg gur crbcyr jub fnvq gung ynpx bs urnyvat ==ynpx bs snvgu. Nccneragyl, vg gnxrf zber guna gung. Jub’qn guhax vg? (/-fanex)

    “urnyrq va gur jnlf gung znggre” pbashfrf zr, gbb. Ohg jura V srry “pbaarpgrq” gb gur Havirefr, V qba’g arrq gb oryvrir Tbq vf erny, gung V nz rgreany, be gung guvatf jvyy trg “svkrq,” orpnhfr vg nyy pbzrf nebhaq ntnva.

    Yeah, it’s a mixed bag in here. Thanks for replying in the spirit it was meant.

    (And no, I don’t know how triggery, but it makes me feel nervous, the way I go around slinging bits together.)

  • It’s a tough one to call; but my personal rule of thumb for stuff like that is, if it brings comfort to the still living, and doesn’t contradict the life and legacy of the deceased; then it’s best to just let people have their thing.

    (For instance, that kind of thing would be way out of line if the person in question were a lifelong atheist; but I would see zero problem if the person in question were also a Christian.)

    But that’s me; loss is painful and, since it’s permanent, you have plenty of time to get on with the ‘acceptance’ part of it. Anything that softens the initial blow without grossly distorting who that person was in life is welcome, I think.

    But that’s me; I don’t deal with loss particularly well. I still tear up over my grandma, who’s been dead for 14 years.

  • Anonymous

    The thing is, the statement “she was healed in all the ways that matter” logically leads to the conclusion that the ways in which she wasn’t healed don’t matter. I have trouble understanding how someone could actually find comfort in the belief that their sister’s physical death was insignificant and not worth mourning.

  • Anonymous

    Okay, the OP has come back and explained herself (thought not after I got a mod warning for actually daring to ask difficult questions about something that didn’t make logical sense *eye roll*). Apparently the sister’s situation had improved before her death to a point greater than anyone could reasonably have expected, and the fact that she did die was expected and presumably paled in significance compared to the other improvements that happened before her death.

    ETA: The mod accused me of lack of compassion. My reaction was more along the lines of, “What the OP is saying makes about as much sense as someone enjoying having the stomach flu. WTF?”

  • > I have trouble understanding how someone could actually find comfort in the belief that their sister’s physical death was insignificant and not worth mourning.

    Hm. This doesn’t strike me as especially difficult to understand: once something is irrevocably taken away from me, it is emotionally rewarding to believe that it’s valueless.

  • Dea Syria

    one else is the author of the bible. If you are going to be a Christian and accept the authority of scripture, you have to accept it. There is no more basis for rejected that passage than any other.

  • one else is the author of the bible.

    Seems like a word’s missing there. I’m guessing “No,” but am not 100% on it.

    If you are going to be a Christian and accept the authority of scripture, you have to accept it. There is no more basis for rejected that passage than any other.

    I am, however, pretty sure that you’re not the authority I need to be consulting on how to understand or interpret the scriptures of my faith. I am, however, made curious as to what credentials you have to back up your blanket assertions on the correct way to interpret the Bible.

  • hapax

    Well, that clears THAT up.

    Apparently I am not a Christian and do not accept the authority of scripture.

    Who knew?

  • Anonymous

    Yeah, same here. It’s a real pain in the a$$, especially since several other Disqus client-sites that I post on don’t have that problem.

  • One of the other discomforting responses I have heard is that those in heaven simply wont remember the people they knew in hell. Which, you know, getting mind-wiped always sounded pretty horrific to me as a child.

    I never cared much for stereotypical descriptions of either heaven or hell, really. Streets paved with gold just sound tacky.

  • Anonymous

    if one assumes hell is as the myth says, there are only two things that make “logical” [or, at least, internally consistent] sense.

    either, A) some NEW type of demon – call it a devil, to separate it from the original, demons-who-were-once-angels – was created to serve this purpose, or;
    B) these are ANGELS – sure, they rebelled, but that doesn’t make them the type of beings who like, enjoy, get kicks out of, torture. maybe THEIR torture is the torture of others.

    if we take a slightly different postulate – that the “myth” of hell is as given, then i can only assume that Lucifer [Satan et al] fell because that was the PLAN, so that there WOULD be a populace, that all those once-angels-now-demons ARE doing “God’s Work”

    or perhaps, if there is an actual hell that PEOPLE go to for some length of time, it’s more of a jail-then-rehab, and Lucifer[Satan et al] is serving HIS time and HIS rehab by running the ward for the rest of us.

    or, maybe, Heinlein was right, in his novel Job. [gotta admit – that’s my favorite idea of Hell-as-a-real-place, even though i don’t believe in hell at all]

    i hope i didn’t repeat anyone – it’s after 7am and i’m so VERY tired, too tired to read all the comments… sorry if i did

  • Anonymous

    Streets paved with gold just sound tacky.

    And impractical. Gold is real easy to bang up.

    Pre-typo-correct sentence read ‘God’. Insert snickers here.

  • Caravelle

    (Also, the story of the redemption of Israel from Egyptian slavery was the first time in human history that anyone thought that slavery was something that happened to themselves and also was something bad.)

    I guess this might be true if we limit ourselves to written historical accounts, history being usually written by the winners and all, but still : cite ?

  • I’m going to imagine that every slave in human history thought that slavery was something that was happening to themselves and was something bad.

    But of course slaves don’t actually count as human beings right? :P

  • Caravelle

    I think one of the strongest arguments against hell is that heaven wouldn’t really be heaven if the people there knew friends and loved ones were experiencing hell, but if God somehow made the people in heaven understand why hell was necessary, would they be in pain at the suffering of their loved ones?

    Yes ? Do the parents of a serial killer not feel pain at the execution ? Or in most other countries, do they not miss him and feel sad about him being in prison ? Even if they accept the legitimacy and even the necessity of such a punishment ?

    For that matter, doesn’t a parent feel pain seeing their children go through a painful but necessary medical procedure ?

    As hapax pointed out, how much convincing would it take to make you not feel pain at the idea of your loved ones being in hell ?

    That said I don’t think we should assume there can be no pain in Heaven, especially a universalist Heaven. There are many different kinds of pain and I don’t think all of them are antithetical with the idea of a very, very, very good place. But that doesn’t really work with the Ultimate Heaven/Hell dichotomy, because knowing someone you love is in the Ultimately Horrible place is a bit too painful for an Ultimately Perfect place.

  • Anonymous

    [No] one else is the author of the bible.

    Sounds like someone needs to introduce you to J, E, D and P.

  • I think I was about 11 when I really started to grapple with this question (it was also about the time I started considering the priesthood). The only way it works is for God to be all-loving and all compassionate.

    It’s a bit complex, perhaps even tortured, but bear with me.

    1: God and Satan are adversaries.
    2: God is displeased with mortals who break the rules.
    3: Satan is planning a assault on heaven.

    4: God sends the souls of those He is displeased with to Satan.
    5: Satan Punishes them.

    At this point the system falls apart. If Satan is pissed at God, and looking to overthrow is Kingdom of Heaven, why would he be doing God’s Work in tormenting the souls he gets sent? I think, if I were being tormented by Satan, I’d be Pitching for God when the Assault on Heaven takes place. How much worse can it be if God Wins? Is he going to ship everyone back to Hell (reminds me of the army joke, “What are then gonna do, send me to ‘x’?” where “X”= place one is when speaking).

    So, that means, if Satan is punishing people, that he is in cahoots with God. It’s possible God is so petty and vengeful that He is willing to punish infinitely for the actions performed in a finite life, and one with so confused a moral landscape as the one presented (whom shall one turn to for answers to the question, “What does God demand of me?”. I am fond of Micah, myself, “Do Justice, Love Mercy, and walk humbly with my God”. But what of Fallwell (what a name for a preacher), or Dobbs, or (God forbid) LaHaye and Jenkins?).

    I was also reared a Roman Catholic. I have purgatory as a model. Think of it as probation. That makes Hell like prison. One gets out of prison. When… well to paraphrase Arlo Guthrie, when one has rehabilitated oneself. What is that rehabilitation? To come to a place where one knows why what evils one practiced were evil. I think the mortal sin, the one that condemns one to “hell”, is lack of awareness. Being able to do evil, and not know it for evil.

    I understand torment, and torture, and painful epiphanies. Stripping those unmerciful ideas, those failure to be just, and gaining the ability to walk humbly with one’s god.. that is, IMO, the only real way Hell can be justified (as presented).

    There are any number of useful arguments for other definitions of hell. I am open to persuasion, but if the “Fire and Brimstone” model of Eternal Torment ™ is the one we are working with, then the only way it makes sense is for it to be redemptive.

  • Markbwr73

    I am not familiar with the typ of hell you people are talking about? I have always understud hell to be a lake of fire where you burn for (forever and ever )with no chance of relief. which is little difference in the story of Lazeras and the rich man who burned in hadies and begged for lazeras to have his tongue cooled with water. the thought of burning in flames for forever hummm . pretty rough hmmmm being poked with forks and harassed by demons hmmmm servral diferent faiths useing serveral bibles probbly with simular stories about hell hmmmm commic books? how do commic books serv as documentation? this whole demon pitch fork thing dosen’t sound impressive to me. how is this any worse than being beaten rapped continually starved and worked hard enough to die from exuastion loss of sleep being burned but not to death exposed to the cold others torterd in front of you? Hey we as humans do this stuff to each other all the time and always have and some people do live through it ! I have encounterd people who are permanently disfigured crippled and mentally ill from such human abuse. Besides does anyone actually know any real true facts about Hell? DANTE was a writer he had a dream and wrote about . I don’t know anyone who has been there ,not interested in going there . But I believe it exists as well as heaven ,I also believe that if your human you probbly arn’t going to understand everything an all konwing all capable does. But I do understand this people often spend alot of time argueing over details when they could just do whatever it is that needs to be done . How do you know derision and confusion arn’t tools? Well this dumb southern boy is hungry and im gona eat and read my bible see ya.

  • dutchs

    So what do things like James 5 mean when it warns the rich that a day of reckoning is coming? We all know perfectly well they will mostly die in bed, comfortable to the end. Even in the OT, the vast majority of the evildoers who eventually brought about the collapse of Israel and Judah lived out their lives in peace, and only an unlucky few saw the collapse. Even those, I’ll bet, managed to buy a cushy life in exile.

    The downtrodden will rise up? Oh, please. The Tea Party would like nothing more than an excuse to lash out.

    So if the rich oppressors are pretty much guaranteed to escape any punishment in this world, and there’s no other reckoning, then all those verses about social justice are empty rhetoric, maybe there to con the rubes into thinking justice will eventually prevail. Oh, you think Wall Street is evil? Who gives a rat’s @$$? Not flippant, a serious question. How does your opinion matter in the slightest? You have zero power to do anything and you deny that God does, too. So who cares in the least what you think? They’ll just have to console themselves with their mistresses, yachts and private jets, and die knowing they screwed everybody and got away with it to the very end.

    If you’re going to criticize the idea of hell, criticize what theologians have actually said and not what you know from The Far Side, or even Dante or Milton. In his preface to The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis notes that by ennobling Satan, Milton did an enormous amount of harm. To Lewis, Faust is a better image of Satan than Mephistopheles. Mephistopheles is urbane and well mannered, whereas Faust is greedy and utterly selfish.

    Hell is usually pictured as a place of torment, but a toxic waste dump is probably a more appropriate image.

  • EllieMurasaki

    You know, I don’t think Fred’s ever critiqued the idea that those deserving of punishment get it after death. What he’s critiqued is the idea that those deserving of punishment get nothing but punishment, forever and ever amen.