How many of you have see the movie As Above/ So Below? It’s a fantastic little horror movie that I have to recommend before I continue. Seriously, if you have just a passing interest in horror movies, then I strongly recommend you go see it before reading this. Really, I mean it; don’t read on until you’ve seen the movie because there will be spoilers. And no, the movie is not Oscar-worthy and has plenty of problems and plot holes. Still, it is still a very fun and effective horror movie.
The gist of the film is that a group of people descend into the catacombs of Paris because they believe that the fabled Philosopher’s Stone is buried somewhere down there. And of course they get lost and weird things start happening. The weirdness gets creepier and creepier until the group finally comes to a crawlspace with and inscription that reads, “abandon all hope, ye who enter here”. To those who don’t know, this is said to be the inscription over the gates of Hell in the Divine Comedy. This marks the beginning of a literal descent into hell.
In what was one of the creepiest scenes, the group comes across a car engulfed in flames. When they get closer, they see a teenage boy in the car who then turns to look at one of the characters, Papillon.
Papillon freaks out and starts spouting panicked sentences about how it wasn’t his fault and how he had nothing to do with it. whatever it is. Suddenly the teenage boy reaches out and grabs Papillon and drags him into the car. The whole car then nearly vaporizes and all you see are Papillon’s legs sticking up out of the ground.
This might seem weird until you realize that this is another reference to the Divine Comedy. As one blogger puts it:
[Because Papillon refuses to acknowledge / atone for his part in the lad’s death, he is put to death exactly as is described in Dante’s Eighth Circle of Hell:
Out of the mouth of each one [baptismal font] there protruded
The feet of a transgressor, and the legs
Up to the calf, the rest within remained.]
Now I bring all this up for a reason. There are some very interesting ways this movie plays the beliefs of hell and this gave me a lot of food for thought. See, the typical Evangelical Christian depiction of hell involves lots of fire and man-roasting. I’ve written a whole series of posts arguing for more of a metaphorical interpretation of the fire and brimstone language of hell (not hell itself mind you, just the fire imagery). You can read the beginning of that series here if you care for that sort of thing.
This post is more like a random collection of thoughts where I speculate some more on the nature of hell. I admit these are speculations and cannot speak with any authority on the subject. That said, here’s what As Above/So Below gave me to think about.
One message that is plastered all over the Bible and Christian thought throughout the centuries is that of actions having consequences. The verse about reaping what you sow is the first thing to come to mind, but you still see it all over. God will pay each according to his deeds (Romans 2:6). The righteous will each the fruit of their actions (Isaiah 3:10). The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself (Ezekial 18:20). Because of this pervasive theme, I wonder if Hell will not be a getting-your-just-desserts sort of place where you are punished according to your sins.
Having grown up in Evangelical Christianity, I noticed that many Evangelicals seem to have a revulsion to the idea that some sins are worse then others. After all, sin is sin. See James 2:10, thank you very much. Whatever the reasoning, I find this to be incompatible with everyday experience. Of course some sins are worse than others, it’s a fact of nature. We humans consistently act like some sins are worse than others. Our law codes have this idea built into them as well. Because of this difference in degree of sin, I believe that the reality of hell and heaven will reflect that as well.
In his depiction of hell, the brilliant Dante Alighieri depicts the punishments of hell as being in some way related to the sins of the damned. We are not talking simply receiving less punishment for this sin and more for that sin. These punishments are in some ways mirrors of the sins committed in this life. For example, the souls who were consumed with lust in life are condemned to a hurricane in which they are whirled about. Here’s how Dante describes it:
I came into a place mute of all light, / Which bellows as the sea does in a tempest, / If by opposing winds ‘t is combated./ The infernal hurricane that never rests/ Hurtles the spirits onward in its rapine;/ Whirling them round, and smiting, it molests them./ When they arrive before the precipice,/ There are the shrieks, the plaints, and the laments,/ There they blaspheme the puissance divine./ I understood that unto such a torment/ The carnal malefactors were condemned,/ Who reason subjugate to appetite./ And as the wings of starlings bear them on/ In the cold season in large band and full, / So doth that blast the spirits maledict;/ It hither, thither, downward, upward, drives them;/ No hope doth comfort them for evermore,/ Not of repose, but even of lesser pain.
In life, these souls were tossed to and fro by their unquenchable lusts; likewise, they are condemned to an eternity of being blown about by hurricane winds. The punishment fits the crime, so to speak. Another brilliant image is the fate of those consumed with Avarice. Here, Dante sees the Avaricious (greed) and Prodigal (reckless spending) as two sides of the same coin. When he enters the fourth circle of hell (Greed), Dante sees both groups of people rolling huge weights with their chests. Both groups push these weights around in a circle and end up constantly crashing into each other. When this happens, the prodigals ask the greedy why they hoard? The greedy, in turn, ask why the prodigal are so wasteful. This macabre dance goes on and on for eternity. Again, the punishment fits the crime. The Divine Comedy is full of this sort of imagery. The wrathful, the slothful, the murderers, the heretics and everyone else all receive punishments fitting their sin.
In keeping with Dante’s theme, I see hell as a place where your sins catch up to you, so to speak. Granted, Dante’s wonderful imagery is a bit simplistic because people tend to be guilty of many sins not just one kind. Then again, the souls in Dante’s hell are punished for the sin that consumed them here on earth. Either way, the point still stands. Your actions in this life will follow you into the next one for good or for ill. As such, whatever your sins are, the punishments will likely fit. In this scheme, I don’t see room for the one-size-fits-all punishment of simply being locked in a fiery torture chamber regardless of what you do.
This brings me to my next thought. As a kid, I was always told that those in hell will likely regret their actions and wish they could change their minds. But by then, it will be too late; they’ve sealed their fate. We see a bit of this in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus; however, I think there is more to the picture. Both As Above/ So Below and the Inferno point to something else.
As we have seen, in As Above/ So Below, Papillion refuses to repent and continues to rationalize away whatever guilty he has even while being dragged into the fiery car wreck. To the very end, Papillion refuses to admit guilt and repent. In the Divine Comedy, Dante makes the point that all the souls condemned are unrepentant. Even while being blown about by the hurricane winds, the lustful souls continue to blaspheme God. The greedy continue “being greedy”, so to speak, for all eternity.
Those who are condemned to Hell are those that don’t repent. Likewise, in hell, they will continue to be unrepentant. They will still hate God. They will still be rationalizing or making excuses for their sins. They will spend eternity there because they will never repent or see the error of their ways. This is the reason C.S. Lewis wrote in The Great Divorce that the “gates of hell are locked from the inside”. In addition, anthropologist C.R. Hallpike writes that:
If the essence of Heaven is closeness to God, then damnation is our own self-exclusion from the presence of God by our own wickedness. As William Law said, “Men are not in hell because God is angry with them; they are in wrath and darkness because they have don’t to the light, which infinitely flows forth from God, as that man does to the light of the sun, who puts out his own eyes.” p. 97
God won’t have have to lift a finger to punish the unrepentant damned, they will gladly do it to themselves in order to escape the presence and light of God.
Remember, I’m not making any real arguments in support of these thoughts. I’m simply speculating here while standing on the shoulders of Christian giants. I’m sure someone reading this will instantly think of a particular verse that “debunks” completely what I write here. So be it. Doesn’t really bother me as I’m not making a serious attempt to argue for any of these positions. I’m thinking out loud and only want to stimulate some thinking and discussion.