I’ve been thinking about hell recently, and I’ve come to the realization that I experience hell only on the intellectual plane as a place of torment and the destination for those who choose to live by their own will and not God’s.
I don’t doubt that hell exists or that lost souls make their way there each day in a long procession that should fill us with great sadness. Hell for me, however, is like a city or a country that I’ve read or heard about but have not experienced as traveler.
I’ve lost the experience of hell’s flames that seemed so real to me when I was a child. At the lowest point of my life, in my twenties, I didn’t even fear the possibility of going to hell. I knew in my heart that hell was my destination because of the numerous sins I had committed, and I simply was resigned to this reality and to continuing to gratify my own desires.
While I was saddened by this, I gave no thought to the suffering that would await me in hell. Instead, I eventually changed my thinking and decided to believe that God and hell did not exist at all and that nothing could compare to the suffering I had already experienced in my life.
I’ve experienced hell through the eyes of others: saint and poets. I’ve read Dante, for example, and I’ve contemplated his nine circles of hell, in particular the circles dedicated to those whose dominant sins are lust, gluttony, and anger.
I’ve paused to consider many passages in the Inferno, such as those about the souls immersed in the river of blood in Canto Twelve; the suicides in Canto Thirteen who are transformed into knotted and gnarled thorn-trees that bleed and feel pain when they are fed on by the Harpies of Greek mythology; the diviners of Canto Twenty whose heads face backwards.
I cannot picture myself in the place of the violent or the suicides, but I have pictured myself like the lustful in Canto Five, in this translation by Anthony Esolen:
I now begin to hear arising wails
of sorrow; I have come where the great cries
batter me like a wave pounding the shore.
It is a place where all light is struck dumb,
moaning as when high winds from east and west
wrestle upon the sea in a fierce storm.
That hellish cyclone that can never rest
snatches the spirits up in its driving whirl,
whisks them about and beats and buffets them,
And when they fall before the ruined slope,
ah then the shrieking, the laments, the cries!
then they hurl curses at the power of God.
I learned such torment was designed
for the damned who were wicked in the flesh,
who made their reason subject to desire.
And as a flock of starlings winter-beaten
founder upon their wings in widening turns,
so did that whirlwind whip those evil souls;
Flinging them here and there and up and down. . . . (Lines 25-43)
For some this torment of the lustful may not seem like much, but in the years before I returned to the Christian faith I often felt battered and beaten and whisked about and flung here and there by the winds of my own desire, and my inability to stop myself from always seeking respite from this torment through the satisfaction of my lustful and gluttonous passions, which, of course, were never satisfied.
I wonder why I could not see then, or come to understand now, this torment as a small example of what I would experience to a far greater degree if I were to be condemned to hell.
Hell as more than intellectual knowledge has not taken root in my mind or in my heart, and I wonder if I, or any of us, can truly know God’s love if we do not have a profound understanding of hell.
I’m going to seek this knowledge of hell. And while it is a work of imagination, I’m going to start by returning to Dante’s Inferno, which I have not read as a Christian since I was a high school student.
The Divine Comedy was instrumental in my return to the faith when I read it and lectured about it as a college professor and atheist in the 1990s. Perhaps now if I read Dante’s Inferno with new eyes he can help me reflect on the torments that await those of us who reject God’s love and his mercy, and so help me attain a greater love of the merciful God.