Damn you! There is something oddly toothless about this once most potent of all curses, defanged by overuse and by dwindling concern about the prospect of eternal torment. Polls show that many people still believe in hell; they just don’t think they’ll wind up there. Rather than growing up convinced they are inherently depraved, most folks these days are encouraged to have a good opinion of themselves, depraved or not. This means they aren’t predisposed to think they deserve to burn in hell forever.
My, how times have changed! For much of the Christian era, great artists were imaginatively engaged with the hereafter – and never more so than when evoking the terrors that await in the nether regions. Hieronymus Bosch and Dante explored both heaven and hell in their work but were clearly more inspired by the latter. The Puritan firebrand Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, “Sinners at the Hands of an Angry God,” was a masterpiece of its genre, so graphic in its depiction of hell’s torments that listeners were said to collapse on the floor or cling to pillars for fear of being flung into the abyss.
Perhaps the only sermons of this type to rival Edwards’ in literary merit – as well as in sheer ferocity -- were the ones delivered by Father Arnall in James Joyce’s autobiographical first novel, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Joyce’s alter ego, Stephen Daedalus, is subjected to a series of Arnall’s hair-raising perorations during a retreat at his Jesuit boys’ school in Dublin. The keynote of the sermons is a biblical passage (wrongly) cited as Ecclesiastes 7:40: “Remember only thy last things and thou shalt not sin for ever.” The “last things” are death, judgment, hell and heaven, with dramatic emphasis on the fiery punishments that await the unrepentant. Arnall leaves nothing to the imagination as he drives home his point: “Every sense of the flesh is tortured and every faculty of the soul therewith: the eyes with impenetrable utter darkness, the nose with noisome odors, the ears with yells and howls and execrations, the taste of foul matter, leprous corruption, nameless suffocating filth, the touch with redhot goads and spikes, with cruel tongues of flame.” The terror-stricken Stephen is convinced the sermons are aimed directly at him and flees to his room, where he vomits in his washstand.
What inspires fire-and-brimstone preachers to such feats of rhetorical excess? Presumably they have no direct experience of the things they describe in such lurid detail, nor is there much to draw on in Scripture. The Bible has remarkably little to say about the afterlife apart from the Book of Revelation, and even there the focus is on heaven rather than hell. It appears these preachers have nothing more solid to go on than their own feverish imaginations. The kingdom of heaven lies within, as it says in Scripture. And so apparently does hell.