To Hell With It – How we imagine the evil afterlife

A picture of a burning sulfur pit, edited colours to make it richer and more hellish

Since reading Orwell’s 1984 I’ve often thought about the climax in Room 101 and the idea of somebody using my worst fear against me. The idea is fascinating, because a fear can manifest itself in so many forms, but can be so particular to the individual. In the novel the malevolently regulated Ministry of Love have stockpiled information on citizens of Orwell’s dystopic world and use this information to discover a person’s deepest fear. They then use that fear against the individual to finally make them submit.

A photograph of a dark grill with light coming through, representing a prison

This vision of unleashing a person’s deepest fear to take away their humanity reminds me a lot of hell. The idea of hell has been something of a fascination of mine for some time. It all started when watching Nick Cave live, where I swore that the ground was opening up beneath me (anyone who has seen Nick’s recent tour will probably understand). Hell and fire, eternal torture, and the underworld are all connected. But where did this notion of “underworld” come from, what form does it take, and why does it go down into the earth?

Having grown up in a Christian country, my understanding of hell is associated with suffering eternally in a fiery afterlife. But in other religions hell can be passed through or visited; it is not eternal, and often not associated with suffering. Eternal suffering is the punishment in Christian religion for a poor life spent on earth.

A picture of a burning sulfur pit, edited colours to make it richer and more hellish

The Ancient Greek version of hell was very much removed from this – the underworld was a place that could be moved in and out of, where experiences could be gained. Odysseus spent time in hell as part of his journey home in The Odyssey, for example. Ancient Greek religion might also have an interesting overlap with Christian hell through the figure of the Devil.

Although comparisons have often made between Hades and Satan in cultural history, there is also an overlap between the titan Prometheus and the Christian leader of hell. Prometheus was the ancient figure who gave life to humanity, and also gave human beings freedom of choice and access to fire. Due to these acts against the will of the gods, Prometheus was condemned to 1000 years of suffering (tied to a rock, the titan had his liver eaten daily by an eagle only for it to regenerate overnight, a hellish experience). This figure of eternal suffering has an interesting overlap with the fallen angel Satan, and further to this Prometheus was also a major protagonist in a war between the titans and the gods.

A series of steps covered in ice, representing the descent into an icy hellThe similarities between Prometheus and underworld-leaders continues in comparisons with Norse mythology. In the Norse myths the mischievous Loki was a trickster character who gave birth to Hel (the ruler of a realm of the same name). Loki was the antagonist of much of Norse lore, and his mischievous characteristics are similar to the titan’s. Prometheus stole fire to give it to man, acting against the gods and for the progress of people on earth. Likewise, Satan’s acts in the Garden of Eden can be said to be the work of a trickster who is acting against God, but his acts cause humanity to move forward. This ties into the theory of the good devil – the creature who gave autonomy and freedom to humanity as opposed to sin and destruction (interesting theological discussion continues in my mind, not for the virtual page).

These figures in historical culture are crucial when viewing how hell is interpreted in Christian religion. Originally, Christian hell was a cold place, but it evolved into fire-and-brimstone somehow. Dante described the zenith of hell as a lake of solid ice. Something in a reading of Solzhenitsyn’s One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich brings this cold hell to life; the protagonist is a zek or convict in a Russian gulag in Siberia, where bitter cold and endless toil are the daily routine.

A fire image, dark black background with roaring flames in the foregroundThere is a presumption, highlighted in the In Our Time radio show, that burial grounds outside Jerusalem in the desert created the “hot” hell. The origin of heat may have come from Gehenna, where it is rumoured that dead babies were once burned outside the walls of Jerusalem. In Roman times this became a municipal rubbish dump with a perpetual fire; the hideousness of these images lending itself to a real-word hell.

It has been argued that the idea of a hot hell was more in tune with the warmer climate of the Mediterranean where ice and cold were less of an issue, but this doesn’t necessarily link to the revolving door policy in the Greek underworld, which was illustrated in classical writing as more like a watery cave than a fiery pit (so many elemental versions of hell!).

Hell-on-earth is a popular device in historical art. William Blake illustrated hell through Dante’s writings, placing hell in an earthly surround. Rodin saw our world as some hellish incarnation, and built the gates of hell as a seething reminder of the dark underworld that awaits (also inspired by Dante). These visceral illustrations of Dante’s hell have perhaps cemented the idea of suffering in contemporary hell, but the connection between hell and earth has very specific connotations – in so many versions hell is beneath the earth.

Which brings us to the final point. Why does hell go down? With modern knowledge of the stars it is easy to picture hell in the vacuous emptiness of space. Endlessly suffocating, de-pressurising souls floating in eternal cold: that is a perfectly hellish idea. In fact, Stephen Hawking envisaged for me what one of the most eternal and most torturous of hellish events when he described what it would be like to standing on the surface of a star as it imploded to form a black hole. He imagines an intrepid astronaut sending signals as the star collapses beneath him, and with the star time also collapses so an eternity passes in an instant as the astronaut is slowly pulled apart into spaghetti.

Hell going down may perhaps have something to do with the stars. With so many ancient religions focussing on the sun and the moon as life-givers and as key to our existence, it would be hard to believe that people could see the infinite emptiness of our skies as a hellish idea. Or perhaps cremation and burial have everything to do with how we see hell – fire and descent as common methods for dealing with human remains that came from a need to ensure they were not left to animals. It could all be as simple as a children’s fear of the unknown.

A photograph of seemingly endless graves from Glasnevin Cemetary

So to hell with it. We have our visions of hell; suffering, hot/cold, elemental wastelands in so many forms make up our evil afterlife. But it is the hell on earth; the specific suffering that is due for the specific sin, that makes the Room 101 prospect so utterly terrifying and hauntingly poignant.

I think I can at least finish this post on some positive words, courtesy of songwriter Jeffrey Lewis:

Well if we lived for ever we’d really want to find out
But what a relief, we all die, so there’s nothing to worry about,
Some say that life is empty, some say its meaningless,
And some say it isn’t such a bad thing if it is.
And some say I’m wrong and that when I die I’ll go to hell,
But I’d be happy just knowing that there was a point so it’s just as well.
People assume that you’ll suffer there, they just think you’re selfish,
If I was in hell id be glad knowing that other people are in heaven
It’d make it no so hellish…
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