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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  • Mau de Katt

    omg, first?

  • Anonymous

    Several of the Sandman comic books are set in Hell, and one of the most disturbing story arcs, “Season of Mists”, is about Lucifer resigning from ruling Hell – emptying it out and locking the gates and giving the keys to Morpheus. (And what happens then? Well, that’s the story…) Neil Gaiman comes up with a very disturbing end: like all good storytellers, I think he concluded what Fred concludes here: that the only way Hell “works” is if God is in charge of it.

    Wasn’t Hell supposed to have been invented as a punishment for mortal sin, and suicide declared a mortal sin, to stop slaves deciding that Heaven was better than life as a slave and killing themselves?

  • Mau de Katt

    Yes, that’s been one of my hangups with the stereotypical/archetypal concept of Hell, too. I also suspect such contradictory assumptions behind it are the reason it’s so popular in “dark” comics, movies, etc as well. It doesn’t really “jibe” with the concept of a Just and Holy God, so we come up with all kinds of reasons why it exists as we’ve conceived it to exist in this imagery.

    Usually, these examinatory stories ultimately boil down to “God is really an a$$hole.”

  • Mau de Katt

    Which is hardly a satisfactory answer….

  • Mau de Katt

    Yes, Jesurgislac, that particular Sandman story arc is what I was thinking of when I posted… of all the various treatments of the theme I’ve read and seen, Gaiman’s is somehow the most disturbing. Not sure why….

  • Anonymous

    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.

    Ah, maybe that’s the answer: devils are just fallen angels, right? So maybe God is punishing them by forcing them to torture people. Of course, this still ends up implying that God is a huge jackass.

    Anyway, there’s this great book called The History of Hell by Alice Turner that goes over how the concept of hell has evolved over time in the west. I remember she touches on the shift from devils as prisoners in hell to devils as hell’s employees, but I can’t recall exactly what she says about it. Maybe it’s time I reread it.

  • Wells

    If I recall correctly, Satan was a prisoner in the very ass of Hell, as well as Hell’s animating force. He was held there by his own struggle to get out, which cooled the circle of hell that he was on and powered the rest of the place.

  • Wells

    Previous commenter here. That happened in Dante’s Inferno.

  • Anonymous

    And Satan was chewing on Brutus, Cassius and Judas.

    This being Dante, Satan’s excrement also came into play, but I can’t remember exactly how. I think my brain forgot the details for sake of its own survival.

  • what I remember particularly is the torture victim’s reaction to being told it was all over. (I had to go and look it up, and the specific sins he confesses are a little too much for me to quote directly – incest and rape and a whole slew of horrors). The insistence that this is his just punishment, that he can’t allow himself to stop being tortured, and the tear in his eyes when he realizes that he doesn’t have that torture to rely on anymore. That he needs to be punished by God, for eternity…and if he doesn’t have that, then he has to live with his own guilt, and try to move on, and that would be far less bearable.

    Gaiman is such an amazing writer.

  • Anonymous

    I’m reminded irrestiably of the Hellboy universe. And the B.P.R.D. repeadtedly having to deal with celestial bureaucratic headaches like this. And again, they generally do with far more sense of empathy and compassion, especially Red himself. I can see him breaking his pitchfork in half over his knee and telling god what to do with himself in this situation.

    I understand the previous post, I and a lot of folks I know are cool or just plain burned (heh) out on religion because of the idea of God as ultimate cosmic torturerer but it’s okay because god is good.

  • Anonymous

    This is just concept with no backing (new poster), but what about a hell where all the people, demons/devils down there torture each other? This would kind of be the ultimate image of a world with no good or no god, right? This is what most Christians think would happen in a world where they stopped preaching God’s morals, so it is fitting for a place with no god or Christian moral influence in a dog eat dog kind of fashion.

  • picklefactory

    Hey Fred and/or Disqus admin folks — when I read the comments on my iPad, it still says “click here to read N replies” — that is, threaded. But clicking on them does nothing whatever and so the replies are in fact hidden.

  • The character mentioned from the Gaiman story claims to be the tyrant of the nation of Livonia (don’t quote me on that). His enumeration of his crimes seems to me to be a bit of an ego trip, and it is implied that he his only in hell because he believes that he must be tortured for his actions. The story of another character, a self-righteous elderly woman from the late eighteenth century, who claims to have been put in hell for what her husband “made” her do in bed, jives with the ego trip/you choose interpretation. The dictator’s list is, I think, meant to sound Hitler-y, and it does in many ways. Lucifer gets him to leave by telling him that almost nobody left in the world can point to where his kingdom was on a map.

    SPOILERs: The way the story ends, by the way, is by putting the pitchfork back directly in God’s hands: two angels who did not rebel are sent to take the key. One laments, the other accepts. The one who accepts, by the way, seems to me to be one of the most interesting characters in that story arc. When he takes the key, he seems very sad, but in hell, he just…grins. When told by the other angel that hell is now redemptive, a “sinner” responds that that just makes everything worse. (the angel, by the way, uses the “infinitely good” justification for hell)

  • Tehanu

    I dunno … I think psychologically the idea of fallen angels as tormentors makes sense if you think of Hell not as a place of employment, but as a place where there’s nothing but pain and fire. People who are in pain — especially people who don’t even realize they’re in pain — often lash out at others and try to make them as miserable as they are. If devils are being tormented, and there’s no authority except that of other devils, what’s to stop them from tormenting other souls in the place? Maybe it distracts them from their own torment. If you believe in it, of course, which I’m not sure I do.

  • Anonymous

    Re: Hellboy and the BPRD —

    Mignola certainly has rejected the idea of torturing devils as essential. Hellboy is compassionate and empathetic, and loses all patience with the Bureau when ur qvfpbiref gung gurl’ir chg n obzo va Ebtre.

    And he seems to have pity for a whole bunch of priests who’d been caught observing non-Christian rites and burned in their church as a group. He says they didn’t deserve that.

    One of the few times we actually see a Prince of Hell, it isn’t pretty — ur vzcnyrf na byq jbzna ba n ubbx naq unatf ure sebz uvf ubefr’f znar; fur vf uvf cbffrffvba naq ur jvyy unir ure, qrfcvgr gur rssbegf bs ure qribhg puvyqera gb cebgrpg ure. Gung’f n snveyl hcfrggvat frdhrapr va jung vf, nqzvggrqyl, n ubeebe pbzvp, nyorvg n ubeebe pbzvp jvgu Anmv chapuvat.

  • Anonymous

    In Supernatural, the tortured become the torturers, and for at least part of the time, being the torturer is its own form of being tortured.

  • Anonymous

    Anyway, there’s this great book called The History of Hell by Alice Turner that goes over how the concept of hell has evolved over time in the west.</blockquote

    ::adds to Amazon wishlist::

    Hey, it's less than $15!

  • If you’ve ever read Ian M Banks’ Surface Detail (and if I’m reading it right), I think this is how the virtual hells he imagines (or at least the one we see) are run. Most of the participants are tortured, a few are hired (or coded) to torture, and it is no stretch of the imagination to think that a few are required to torture as part of their own punishment.

  • Falconer, is that hell-speak from Hellboy, or is something wrong with the internet (or both)?

  • Anonymous

    Copy the offending text and paste it into If, that is, you don’t mind descriptions of graphic violence. Also, if you don’t mind being spoiled for Hellboy.

  • I’m also reminded of No Exit, which explicitly subverts this idea… the condemned sinners torture one another, not because they want to or because they are commanded to, but simply because it is their nature to suffer in one anothers’ presence.

  • oh. thanks.

  • I’ve seen this point of view as a way to try to justify hell: That basically God just shoved all the undesirables into a waiting room and never got back to them, causing them to turn on each other.

    But isn’t neglect itself considered a form of abuse…?

  • My main fictional dealings with hell have been the rather excellent Old Harry’s Game, which depict Satan as rather bored, chafing at his duties. And God’s retired, and the whole system has got screwed up, and people are arriving in Hell who shouldn’t be there. When Satan pops around to Heaven to complain, and to ask them to take the good guys off his hands, there’s no one there who can do it. God’s on holiday, and no one else has the authority.


  • AndroidUser

    @picklefactory Yes the same happens when reading on my Android.

  • Evan

    When I was 13, my then-best-friend joined a pentacostal church. He told me that one of the doctrines of his church (something they had purportedly learned through “research”) was that when judgement day came, God would instruct his special chosen followers who’d been taken up in the rapture to judge everyone who’d been left behind. He went on to tell me that this was why he hoped so desperately that I would join his church: because he was, in his words, ‘terrified that I might have to send you the other way’.

    I don’t even believe in god, yet I still find that a shocking heresy. So sinners aren’t just judged and tortured for eternity by God; they’re judged and tortured for eternity with the active assistance of God’s loving followers (in their capacity as His holy bureaucracy, I suppose). This hideous responsibility will devolve on them not as a punishment, but as part of their eternal reward. And they’re terrified of it. Who do these people worship, Cthulhu?

    And yet I have to admit, it might be a little more honest than the devils and pitchforks line. At least that church was preaching to its flock of RTCs that they were themselves going to have to be complicit in eternal torture, instead of playing the out-of-sight-out-of-mind game. I expect the preacher thought this would sound wonderful to people–“won’t it be wonderful when we’re with jesus, watching the infidels burn?”–but perhaps there were a few people who, like my friend, found the idea revolting, but unlike my friend, had the sense to turn away from it.

  • There’s also the Tempter aspect that hasn’t been brought up. The convenience of devils and demons doing the torturing explains why they (supposedly) have free movement into the hearts and minds of human beings. If the Devil and his angels were busy being tortured, it would be a lot harder to explain how they’re tempting human beings into Hell.

  • Michael P

    I automatically thought, not of Season of Mists, but Murder Mysteries, another Gaiman story that deals, not with Hell, but Heaven, and events leading up to Lucifer’s rebellion. I won’t go into detail, because folks should really read it for themselves, but there are similar implications of “God’s rather a bastard, if all this is true.”

    And then there’s his “Other People,” a completely different take on the question of who it is doing the tormenting in Hell.

  • Armando

    I’m not so much reminded of Gaiman (though I really need to get me that Sandman comic now) or Hellboy as the Buddhist/Eastern notion that if God is truly god, then he must embody both good AND evil fully, therefore such a god would certainly fit the bill for a hell minder.

    Also, in original first temple Judaism, Satan wasn’t so much a punished demon or lord of hell so much as a foil, as in the book of Job, who inspired Goethe’s Mephistopheles, which was always my favorite version of the devil (well, aside from the Robot Devil).

  • Madhabmatics

    Just wanna say that Surface Detail is the best sci-fi book ever written about anti-Hell vs. pro-Hell armies.

  • Kristy

    This makes sense. In Milton, especially, the idea was that simply being in Hell was a two-fold torment. One, the loss of God’s presence and the grace of Heaven, and two, the physical agony of Hell itself. There are no tormentors in Hell, at least none set there by God (though Milton does imagine there are guards) – Hell itself is the torment.

    However, once in Hell, there’s nothing to stop demons from setting up shop. After all, they’re stronger than any human souls that may have been sent there, and understandably bitter towards God’s favorites. It doesn’t stop their own torment – demons aren’t immune to the eternal physical and spiritual pain of Hell – but when people are in pain, they do tend to lash out and hurt other people for distraction or momentary relief. Why would demons be any different? So yeah, I can see demons consoling themselves with the idea that they “reign” in Hell – after all, if you can make someone suffer worse than you, then you’re better off than them, right?

    That still leaves the question of why God would let that happen in the first place, but you’re pretty much gonna come back to that no matter which version of Hell you decide to go with.

  • Hey Fred, great work here. I’m an atheist now, but grew up as a Christian; I moved away from Christianity in part due to its being only a step in the evolution of European religion.

    In that vein, the pitchfork makes perfect sense, as does the employment of the demons in hell, and the geographical relation between the three realms of heaven, earth, and hell. While clearly not Jewish, the common conception of hell comes fairly clearly from the people who picked up Christianity from the Jews and made it widespread: the Romans.

    In Greek and Roman mythology, the three realms were arranged vertically: heaven, Earth in the middle, and hell below (each separated by nine days by anvil-fall). The deepest pit of hell was Tartarus, originally the punishing-place of the titans (semi-divine creatures who fought the gods) and later modified to also be the punishing-place of evil human souls. Sound familiar?

    The ruler of hell, and thus also Tartarus, was Hades. His weapon of choice was a two-pronged staff (or “fork”), which I suspect is where we get our pitchfork. As for the goat legs, my guess is they come from the fertility god Pan, who was a holdover from “barbarian” (ie pre-Greek) times, and thus more demonized by early Christians than were the other Greek deities.

    As for the demons, Greek mythology doesn’t have anything quite equivalent, as demons (/ djinn) were more a Mesopotamian/Syrian/Arabian concept. But since Hades (aka Satan) ruled hell, and the demons worked for Hades/Satan, the demons were also assumed in common folklore to work in Hell, where Satan ruled. In addition, the demons took on some aspects of the Keres, or Dooms, of Pandora’s Box fame — death spirits who would cull the souls of the dead and bring them to the underworld. The Keres were also responsible for such Greek sins as Lust, Envy, Greed, etc., which you also see in Medieval church demonology, where each of the seven deadly sins is impersonated by a demon.

    So there you have it. The links are even more obvious when you read Dante, whose work provides a fascinating window into the transitionary period between Roman paganism and modern monotheistic(ish) Christianity.

    @Spalanzani: is this discussed in the book you mentioned, or am I missing some other important lines of origin?

  • seems a bit specific…
    I found the book excellent, except for a few issues with plot focus (I simply failed to care about the main character. Everyone else was great, though.)
    *edit*: this is about Surface Detail. I keep thinking in threads…

  • Anonymous

    I definitely wouldn’t put it in as a justification. In the usual form of thinking God is so righteous that sin and God cannot be in the same place. Making humans allowed into heaven and Jesus into kind of filters that keep out the bad smell.

    Of course, what God can’t stand to be around is what we are left to every day, so I would say hell and earth both suffer from neglect.

  • Persephone

    The whole problem sorts itself out if we remove Hell from the equation.

  • Wait a minute. Didn’t the Greeks see Hades (place name as well as god name) as the destination of all the dead? It was divided into three regions: one for heroes, one for normals, and one for losers (I think we should call this one HFIL, since I can’t remember the real name). Hades as a whole was where everyone went after death, except for a very, very small number (counted on one hand small) who were actually raised to godhood and went to Mount Olympus. Hades as Satan is an invention of much later Christians who constructed Zeus as God, Hades as Satan, and mostly ignored Poseidon and the rest.

    Hades to the Greeks was actually a pretty cool guy; note that if you deal with Zeus, he or Hera will hate you forever. Hades didn’t do too much actually bad to people. The only exception is Orpheus, and Hades offered the out in the first place because he was moved by Orpheus’s devotion. Orpheus was the one who screwed it up. Also important, Hades, in addition to ruling the land of the dead, also had dominion over mineral wealth.

  • To clarify: The “infinitely good” justification for RTC hell isn’t that God has an infinite quantity of goodness and thus the amount he would lose by torturing people forever still leaves him infinitely good. Instead, it’s that God’s infinite justice and goodness is an axiom, so whatever hell entails – even being jabbed by pitchfork demons forever – must therefore be perfectly good and just, no matter how little sense it makes. It’s still a dumb justification, though, quite aside from directly contradicting the available evidence.

    In fact, the opposite is true: eternal punishment is far more appropriate for “the devil and his angels” than for mortal men. An immortal, irreconcilably evil being actually does need to be kept out of heaven forever for it to be a place where “sorrow and mourning have passed away.” Alternatively, think of Satan as a prisoner who keeps attempting escape and having his sentence extended, forever.

  • Madhabmatics

    (That was the joke, shhhh)

  • There is another way to resolve the tension but it requires a weird understanding of humans. Basically that at judgment, we shall know whether we belong in the presence of God, and seek out our place accordingly.

    But I think it’s more just that Milton and Dante have forever changed the face of the religion (till someone else can reshape it).

  • of course, Milton and Dante were working before the religion fragmented…the “face,” such as it is, probably can’t be changed anymore, what with all the different groups claiming (rightly or wrongly) to be part of the overall Christian umbrella

  • I found the book excellent, except for a few issues with plot focus (I simply failed to care about the main character [of Surface Detail]. Everyone else was great, though.)

    I think it depends on who you consider to BE the main character. There seems to be some feeling that Yime Nsokyi is the main character, but, honestly, I don’t think she is.
    As it turns out, I didn’t address that in my review, (I had to go back and check, because I recall reading someone else’s review, which made basically the same criticism you did – that Yime, the main character, was boring), but I don’t think it’s at all clear that Bank’s actually HAS a main character. Instead, there are 6 protagonists (7 or 8, if you includes the ships, and, really, don’t you have to include the ships?) who touch each other’s lives at more or less random intervals.

  • Philly_Adam

    So, what if the popular image of hell is popular because it is true. Or rather, because elements of the description match what some mediums and others gripped with prophetic utterances have spoken of it.

    As a Christian, I have special revelation to tell me what Hell’s like (that is, what Jesus said on the subject in the Bible) but there’s no reason other folks wouldn’t be interested, and knowing what we do of God, He’d provide a way for them to find out about it too.

    Perhaps another way of putting it, is that God seems to especially value love that is freely given for Him. So much, that he allows free will for both men and celestial beings like angels and demons. If we rebel from God, then we share something with the devils, and our mutual affinity will draw us together.

    So, if Hell is the place where entities capable of choosing to reject God go to be away from Him, then there seems no violence to the idea that both the devils and the people who wind up joining are in some sense there voluntarily. They are there because otherwise there would be no place free of divine presence, and the Lord in his compassion and munificence grants an empty spot for the rebels to own.

    Now, I think it likely that the devils will eventually realize that the Lord does love them, and desires they should rejoin him. But hell should always exist, because if it didn’t then even the angels would be in a sense captive, because they’d have no choice but to sit in the company of God.

    And likewise, as suggested by the mysterious passages regarding the Lord’s personal visit to Hell (the Harrowing of Hell), I think that God will provide a way to rescue people. Lazarus might not have been able to cross the great gulf, but I’d wager everything on the Lamb of God.

  • As far as I believe in Hell, I believe in a Hell where we mainly torture ourselves. The set-up Lewis describes in The Great Divorce continues to be the conception of damnation that makes the most sense to me.

  • I’d argue, on the other hand, that Hellboy’s compassion and empathy are human traits, derived from the other side of his family tree. His paternal relations, on the whole, are a pretty unmitigatedly nasty bunch.

  • I have read this version of Hell before. It makes a certain amount of sense, but my question for it has always been “But can people change their minds and leave?”

    If Yes, then it’s a concept and I can start to support.

    If No, then it falls apart for me. That’s like saying that at one particular moment you had to choose God or not God, and chose Not God, that’s eternally binding. What if, after a day, a week, a year, 10,000 years you sort of mature and think “I’d like to try “with God” now, I understand more than I did then. But if they say no, your one decision in that one moment is binding, then yeah, we are right back into Punishment for Believing the Wrong Thing.

    But, if I understand you correctly, you lean towards “Yes,” and that’s cool. But I’ve heard this line of thought from many people who leaned towards “No,” and in that case I’ve always considered it cold comfort.

  • I actually liked Yime. It was Ledj that I couldn’t really make myself care about, and the climax seemed to revolve around her and her issues.

  • Evan

    If I torture you until you tell me you love me and promise to join my side and say flattering things to me forever and ever, have I done anything worthy of love or respect?

    You seem to be proposing an afterlife based on Stockholm syndrome. If I die and find out that that’s the way god acts, then I will pray to whatever competition he may have for the strength to resist him as long as I can.

  • Okay, so throughout the various rounds of “Team Bell vs. Team Hell” discussions, I’ve poo-pooed the eternalness of Hell as something that really bothered me. At one point I even suggested that Hell should be more of a reform center where Angel Counselors help people learn not to be selfish, that that reformees should then be able to get into heaven.

    But I did try to understand why people want an eternal Hell to exist. After a while, I did come up with a reason that wasn’t about Schadenfreude, which is maybe what Fred has been trying to get at all along.

    It came to me that if you view Jesus primarily as a social and religious reformer, (which is not inconsistent with a Messianic Jesus,) then you are bound to consider his message. And his message, basically was that loving your fellow person, your neighbor, all people, and caring about their welfare is the highest and most sincere way of loving and worshiping God. So why do I think Jesus talked about an eternal Hell? It puts the onus on loving and doing good in THIS lifetime. That NOW is the most important time, the time you need to be loving and caring for your neighbors and making a difference in the world. If He were to say “Even if you go to Hell you’ll still eventually make it into Heaven,” it might have tempted some to say “Then so what. I’ll just do what I want in this life. I won’t help the poor or needy. I’ll hoarde and self-indulge. Even if I have to spend some time in hell, it won’t be forever. Then I’ll get into heaven and that will be forever. So it don’t matter.” Basically, Hell was a way of say “This is your chance now. You won’t get another.”

    Now, don’t get me wrong. Eternal Hell still really bothers me. So I haven’t done an about face here. I’ve just started to try to understand it a little bit.

    The problem is when Eternal Hell is de-coupled from an Onus to do good and is focused on what Fred calls “The Pie in the Sky.” It then just becomes of game of “I’ve got mine, screw you! won’t you fell stupid burning in Hell forever.” And, in my opinion, “Once save always saved” feeds into this too. And I think this is what Fred may have been trying to say all along. That those focusing on Hell itself are missing the point of it entirely.

  • more re: Surface Detail

    See, I liked Ledj – I’m a sucker for a good revenge plot, and I think that qualified.

    Thanks for the tip re: Phlebas – as I say, I’m not sure I’ve actually read it. I loved Player of Games, though. Are there any of the novels in which the Culture is not adversarial? I mean, don’t they exist, on some level, to be adversarial?