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Saturday, January 5, 2013
Leitura De Sabado: Vai Para O Inferno
Mas e se inferno for somente imaginacao dos humanos, como parece ser?
Into everlasting fire
For hundreds of years, Hell has been the most fearful place in the human imagination. It is also the most absurd
Dec 22nd 2012 | from the print edition
TO MANY in the West, Hell is just a medieval relic. It went out with ducking stools and witchcraft. It should have disappeared with Plato, who said he wanted to delete every reference to future pain from Homer as damaging to moral character; or with Cicero, who said not even old women believed it; or with Seneca, who thought it a fable only for not-yet-shaving boys.
Hell hardly hurts any more. In everyday parlance (“What the hell are you doing?”), it is merely a bark, not a place. As a place, it is anywhere nasty: the London Underground in summer, the worst bits of Lower Manhattan, department stores at sales time, a publisher’s party. Philosophically, Jean-Paul Sartre has encouraged the idea that Hell is other people. Theologically, even the Vatican now defines Hell as a state of exile from the love of God. The devils and pitchforks, the brimstone clouds and wailing souls, have been cleared away, rather as a mad aunt might be shut up in the attic.
But hold on. For many people in the world, Hell still exists; not just as a concept, but as a place on the map. “Hell is Real,” declare the billboards across the American South: as real as the next town. To make it an abstraction is comforting and tidy, but doesn’t work. Religion thrives on fear, as well as hope: without fear, bad behaviour has no sanction and clerical authority wins scant respect. “[People] must have hell-fire flashed before their faces,” wrote General Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, “or they will not move.” And there can be no fear of a place that is not detailed and defined. Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists all still have a Hell, and those who are devout believe in it. So do fundamentalist Christians. For some decades now they have specialised in “Hell Houses” in which terrified American teenagers, herded by “demons”, are shown graphic strobe-lit scenes of brawlers, suicides and drug-takers, as plausibly infernal as any medieval imagining.
Hell looms just as large in the online “Catholic Encyclopedia”. The Vatican may be undecided about it, but the authors are steadfast: only “atheists and Epicureans” do not believe in it. This Hell still fits the description given in the fifth spiritual exercise of St Ignatius Loyola, in which the Jesuit novice, now as in the past, prays “for an intimate sense of the pain that the damned suffer”: to feel the fire, hear the lamentations, smell the brimstone, taste the tears. At the end of the 19th century the teenage James Joyce, shivering in his boots at Clongowes Wood College in Dublin, was treated to the terrors of the full version:
ever to be eaten with flames, gnawed by vermin, goaded with burning spikes, never to be free from those pains; ever to have the conscience upbraid one, the memory enrage…ever to curse and revile the foul demons who gloat fiendishly over the misery of their dupes, never to behold the shining raiment of the blessed spirits; ever to cry out of the abyss of fire to God for an instant, a single instant, of respite from such awful agony, never to receive, even for an instant, God’s pardon…
This Hell is not Hades. Most cultures have their underworlds—Egyptian Amenti, Jewish Sheol, Purgatory—in which the spirits of the dead gather, are judged, and purify themselves for other lives or life in Heaven. The Egyptian “Book of the Dead”, from around 1500BC, introduces the boat, the river, the tests of the human soul and the scales in which its deeds are weighed: all notions borrowed by the Greeks and, later, by Christianity. But sojourns in this dim, labyrinthine land, though often very long, are finite, and may be shortened by the prayers and holy actions of friends still on Earth. A stay there, though tedious and anxious, is for many not much worse than Earth-life.
Hell is not like that. It is a torture-place for the damned in which they are flayed or eaten alive, disembowelled or impaled on stakes, either for incalculable ages or actually for ever. No one can intercede for them, except in extraordinary circumstances. They will never get out, except in cultures that believe in reincarnation. At the end of a stay of aeons of time in Yama Pura, the Hindu Hell—the oldest known, with its subdivisions of heated kettles, iron spikes and “dreadful shrieking”—or at the end of the Buddhist Hell, with its particular torments of scraping the heart and stuffing the skull with hedgehogs, the purged soul returns to Earth as an insect or a reptile, entering the cycle again. From both the Muslim and the Zoroastrian Sell, souls eventually return to Earth: the Zoroastrians on an annual basis, on the last five days of every year.
The Western Hell grew out of an even sterner tradition. It was devised as a permanent punishment for the worst offenders, those who had opposed the gods. These were, for the most part, giants. In Hell, stretched over many acres, lay the Titans who defied Zeus in Greek myth—Prometheus, Tantalus, Sisyphus and the rest—or the bad angels who fought God in Judeo-Christian tradition, Beelzebub, Moloch, Ashtoreth, Belial, “hurld headlong flaming from th’Ethereal Skie”, as Milton wrote, into the lake of fire. Angels who came down to sleep with women also ended up there, together with disobedient stars.
And so Hell might have remained, a club for unruly super-humans. But man’s appetite for vengeful nastiness is pretty unlimited; and inevitably, such a first-rate broiler-house of pain swiftly became a favourite place to put ordinary enemies, routine sinners and, in Dante’s case, almost anyone from Fiesole or Pistoia.
Alongside God’s infinite love burns God’s infinite justice, which is just as unconditional
Hell’s democratisation seems to have begun in Judaism, with both Isaiah and Ezekiel arguing that it did not seem right that good and bad alike should go to Sheol. The wicked, surely, should have deeper and sharper punishment. God should deal with them as they deserved—especially since, in life, they had usually prospered from their wickedness, whereas the virtuous, like Job, had been struck with disasters and covered with sore boils. The Essenes, a more extreme sect, injected the idea of eternity into it, as well as storms and dungeons. Just as man has always made God in his own image, so he projected his own notions of fairness on to the world to come; and ended up with a real horror story.
Geographically, Hell lies “as far beneath Hades as Hades is beneath the Earth”, wrote Pausanius, a Greek geographer. Dead and living, especially bad dead and living, had to be kept far apart. The Trojan hero Aeneas in Virgil’s “Aeneid” toured Hades, with difficulty enough, and met the shades of both his lover Dido and his father there; but he merely glanced towards Tartarus, glimpsing a high cliff with a castle below it surrounded by a torrent of flame. That single sighting fixed him to the spot in terror. In Plutarch’s “Moralia” a youth called Timarchus had a closer look, seeing a great chasm filled with howling, and the souls of the wicked leaping up and down like stars. Bede in the eighth century saw almost exactly the same: frequent globes of flame rising out of a pit, in which flared the sparks of human souls.
The shape of Hell, as Dante described it (and he, together with Milton, is the primary textual source for the Christian Hell, at least), is an inverted funnel of several layers separated by rocky banks, with each layer deeper and narrower than the last. The Buddhist Hell is similar. But Hell has many mansions. Hinduism has 21 main Hells and a lakh of smaller ones, mostly for religious offences. Sinhalese Buddhism has 136 and Burmese Buddhism 40,040, one for each particular sin—including nosiness, chicken-selling and eating sweets with rice. At the entrance to the Underworld proper in most religions there is a trial of sorts, in which the damned are separated from the not-so-bad. It is always peremptory: as Jesus pictured it, as brief as a farmer ripping weeds out of a field. Then come the long fall and the fire.
Hades, though no cake-walk, is a place of remorse and cleansing. Hell is a place of despair and desolation. Purgatory is founded on tough love; Hell is the pit of God’s unappeasable revenge. And here begin its many contradictions. As dozens of writers have pointed out, from Origen in the second century to Percy Dearmer in the 20th (trying to comfort those who faced imminent death in the trenches of Flanders), God is meant to be love. It seems impossible, then, that he could heap pain on his creatures with no hope at all of redemption. And not just pain, but torment exquisitely designed for the sin in question: so that gluttons wallow in filth, spendthrifts are torn apart by dogs and traitors are cased in ice, di giustizia orribil arte, as Dante says. Everlasting torment repays what Alexander Pope called “the sins of moments”. The four rivers of Hell—Phlegethon, Cocytus, Acheron and Styx—are made of human tears, flowing all the faster because God in his fury will never notice them. Worst of all, Hell was apparently prepared, and waiting, even before poor venal man was created.
Modern biblical scholars have done their best to adjust the picture. They point out that Jesus himself, and even tetchy old St Paul, made no mention of “Hell” or “damnation” in the New Testament. The Greek words used there meant only “judgment” and “condemnation”; and only for “a long time”, aionios, not for ever. Jesus, having evoked that ruthless farmer’s bonfire, also said that a man should forgive his sinning brother not seven times, but “70 times seven”. Paul said God would have mercy on everyone. To all this the Infernalists retort that Jesus really did mean everlasting fire; that God’s ways of caring for his creatures are not man’s; and that alongside God’s infinite love burns God’s infinite justice, which is just as unconditional.
Hell, being based on such appalling vengeance, needed to be hot: as hot as the divine wrath that created it. The name for Hell, in most cultures, meant a hole or hidden place, and this soon became a hole of fire. The Jewish Gehenna, mentioned by Jesus, was no more than the smouldering rubbish tip outside Jerusalem where the bodies of criminals were thrown. The Egyptian Hell, however, was a fiery pit in which people were not merely burned, but hacked into small pieces by “the Commander of Fire” and “the Eater of Entrails”; and both the Hindu and Buddhist Hells put sinners in cauldrons, or on spits basted by many devils, the better to feel the heat.
Fire and ice
Such temperatures, as volcanoes showed, were probably achieved at the centre of the Earth; so Hell must be there, with sulphurous surface pools and vents (as near Naples, where Aeneas went) indicating where the entrance was. But not necessarily. Tobias Swinden’s “An Enquiry into the Nature and Place of Hell” (1714) put it in the sun, the hottest place imaginable, and also the farthest in his scheme of things from the Empyrean, or Heaven; and William Whiston in 1696 put it in a comet, “ascending from the Hot Regions near the Sun, and going into the Cold Regions beyond Saturn, with its long smoaking Tail arising up from it.”
Yet the fire of Hell was—is—no ordinary fire. First, it needed no fuel, and second, it did not consume what it burned. Hell-fire, though it could melt both stars and mountains, did not eat away the damned, for that would have ended their torments; it simply raged and hurt. The devisers of Hell also realised, however, that continual scalding heat could become routine; so deep snow and ice alternated with the fire. In the 14th, 15th and 16th Buddhist Hells the sinner’s skin gradually peeled back “like a water-lily” with the cold, and then fell off. In Dante’s Hell the core was solid ice in which Satan was encased up to the neck, while traitors in the ninth-circle lake of Cocytus found their tears frozen on their faces. Somehow, freezing cold and boiling heat could co-exist there: a scientific paradox, to add to the many worrying theological ones.
Time was another. Hell’s torments introduced to the medieval mind the concept of infinity and how it could be grasped. This was true even of Hells that did not quite last for ever. Buddhist teachers asked their pupils to imagine a cart loaded with 20 kharis of sesame seed, from which once every century one tiny seed was removed; yet when the whole cartload had gone, they would still be in the first Hell, and thousands of further Hells lay beyond it. The young James Joyce was told to imagine a mountain of grains of sand a million miles high, a million miles wide and a million miles thick, from which every million years a little bird carried away one grain of sand; and when the mountain was removed, not a single instant of eternity would have ended.
Hell itself seemed poised uneasily on the very edge of time. Milton, like Hesiod, thought that all beginnings and all ends contended just beyond Hell-gate, and that night and day met there. Dante, on his infernal tour with Virgil as his guide, recorded nights and mornings (though merely by the stars, as he saw no sun). He himself cast a shadow, to the astonishment of the shades around him. And there rose another conundrum. Hell’s fires meant that it could never be convincingly dark, though it was meant to be, made vivid only by screams and by the stink of decay. “No light, but rather darkness visible,” wrote Milton, beautifully; Bede saw “black flames” there: just light enough for the sinner to glimpse the eyes, teeth and implements of devils, and what they were about to do to him.
The naked soul
And throw away the key
Exactly what they did was another source of rich contradiction. The body was obviously left behind at death, mouldering under the Earth. Even the most excruciating pain could no longer touch it. There seemed no point, then, in all these burnings and flayings. Yet those who believed in Hell, in every culture, usually believed in a naked, humanoid soul that was timid and vulnerable outside the body, like an insect out of its carapace. The sheer exposure of the soul made Hell decidedly worse; and the soul’s very immortality, as argued by Plato and endorsed by Christians, helped make eternal pain possible. Hell could not lose its vivid grip until Descartes in the 17th century declared that the soul was immaterial, and thus beyond physical pain. It was this, as much as the diminishing clout of priests and preachers in industrialising Europe, that at last began to damp the flames.
From that point on, the topographical Hell began to fade. Its smorgasbord of terror became largely psychological, a matter of loneliness and regret. The wisest of the ancients had reached that conclusion many centuries before. “It is but our own fraud which frightens us”, wrote Cicero; “it is our own evil thoughts which madden us”. Even Thomas Aquinas agreed: much of the anguish of the damned, he wrote in his “Summa Theologiae” (1265-74), stemmed from the knowledge that they could never reach happiness. Hell meant ceasing to hope. So, by inversion, hopelessness was Hell.
Milton, too, had foreseen this. Though few Hells were physically as vivid or as detailed as the one he painted in “Paradise Lost”, with boiling oceans breaking on black shores and “glossie scurff” lying on the “griesly” hills, his Satan unforgettably expressed the modern version, that incessant gnawing of the worm within: “Which way I flie is Hell; my self am Hell;”
The mind is its own place, and in it self Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
“Hell”, wrote William Blake around 1790, “is the being shut up in the possession of corporeal desires”. “Mark”, he went on, “that I do not believe there is such a thing litterally.”
By then, few did. The theology of Hell had long strained credulity too far, even in the Middle Ages. It could not be just and right, for example, that all the unbaptised were automatically sent there, though doctrine (and Dante) said they had to be. So Hell had acquired anterooms, in which virtuous pagans from the ancient world walked together in pleasant meadows rather like the Elysian Fields. Limbo, the first circle of Hell, was created for unbaptised infants, and the second circle, the destination of those who had died unwisely for love, contained no pain beyond ceaseless yearning. Lovers were even together there, though not happily.
Popular sentiment also believed that the principal actors of the Old Testament—Adam and Eve, Moses, Noah and the rest—had been swept up out of Hell by Jesus after his crucifixion, just as Hercules had several times harrowed Tartarus and the god Siva, moved by pity and anger, had transported a band of souls out of Yama Pura. Even the famously bad might be allowed a respite: St Brendan, visiting Hell, saw Judas sitting quietly on a rock on a Sunday, his day off from being tormented. Aquinas said that though Christ descended only to that part of Hell where the just were imprisoned, “his influence was felt in every part”, confounding the malice of the damned. (Some Catholic theologians, however, say that Christ’s harrowing of Hell never happened, and is a misreading of the First Epistle of Peter, 3:19.)
That is as may be. But when a place becomes too awful for even its adherents to tolerate without escape routes, its days are numbered. In Hell’s case, it should have been sunk long ago by the weight of its contradictions. But the key to its survival lies in the writings of St Augustine, who, of all people, ought to have been tolerant of sinners: to paraphrase, “Knowledge of the torments of the damned is part of heavenly bliss.” St Bernardino of Siena took it even further: there could be no perfect sweetness of song in Heaven, he wrote, “if there were no infernal descant from God’s justice.” Just as there can be no light without dark, and no sound without silence, so everlasting celestial joys depend on a contrast of everlasting horror. Without Hell, you can’t have Heaven.