‘Perhaps’, one must always say perhaps for justice.
There is a future for justice and there is no justice except to the degree that some event is possible which, as event, exceeds calculation, rules, programs, anticipations and so forth. Justice as the experience of absolute alterity is unpresentable, but it is the chance of an event and the condition of history.
~ Jacques DERRIDA, Force of Law
Hell has gotten a bad rap. Now if anything is going to get a bad rap, it’s probably going to be hell. For some reason, people don’t like to talk about “the unquenchable fire, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:44). Well, some people like to talk about hell (more specifically about other people going there), but they’re the last people who should be talking about it.
Hell is not just a Christian or Jewish concept – it features in many world religions and cultures. There is a wealth of art and literature generated from the idea of hell, some of the most famous being from Dante’s Inferno or William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The image in the header of this post is “Behold Man Without God” from William Kurelek, one of my favourite Canadian artists, who wrestled both with hell from a religious standpoint as well as with his own ‘hell’ of mental illness and depression.
So let’s get one thing straight. In this post I am not talking about a literal place of physical burning forever. In the same way that thinking about heaven as a place of actual gold streets is an unimaginative exposition of biblical texts, believing that hell is the place where great grandma Edna went to burn because she forgot to add “personal Saviour” to her sinners’ prayer is a cop-out of a potentially rich theological concept. (If you’re into shallow theological concepts, you should at least go for the hilarious kind with Louis C. K.)
As a Protestant, I never really understood why Catholics believed in purgatory. The Catholic biblical defense of the place where ‘friends of God’ go to receive additional purification before entering heaven seemed weak at best. In speaking with a Dominican friar, however, I came to understand the deeper theological function of purgatory, beyond a base belief in the place itself. It is a way that Catholics are reminded that we don’t have the final answer on who will ‘make it’ into the Kingdom of God. Purgatory reinforces that there is more room for grace than we might think, and even we may be surprised at who receives the ‘Golden Ticket.’
Matthew 21:23-46, including The Parable of the Two Sons and The Parable of the Tenants is very clear that we should not be clear about who will enter the Kingdom. Jesus tells the chief priests and teachers of the law, “I tell you the truth, corrupt tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the Kingdom of God before you do” (Matt 21:31). I love Flannery O’Conner’s depiction of this in Revelation, which I have posted previously.
So if hell is not to be used as a scare tactic to convert people to our faith, or as our description of where crusty Uncle Joe ended up because he drunk too much, how the hell are we supposed to talk about it?
1. Hell as Trauma
There’s a reason why people say they’re “going through hell” in some of the toughest periods of their life. I tend to think of this in terms of “hell as trauma.” When looking up definitions of trauma, you will find many medical definitions. I am more interested in the philosophical weight of trauma. This is one of the best descriptions I came across:
“Traumatic events are extraordinary, not because they occur rarely, but rather because they overwhelm the ordinary human adaptations to life.” — Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery
There is a way in which trauma exceeds our capacity. It goes beyond our adaptations to life and overwhelms us. It creates a rend in the fabric of our life that we lack the tools to repair. Now, it may be objected that hell is a spiritual description and is used only metaphorically with regard to our physical experiences. Trauma, though, in breaking through our capacity to understand and process our own experience shatters the boundary of that which we can process psychologically. What is spiritual except that which goes beyond our understanding of the physical? Is not the spiritual our way of expressing that which we can’t comprehend or that has a meaning deeper than our physical existence? In this way, trauma is hell. It is an experience so shocking that we cannot process it within the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. We cannot make sense of it to ourselves. We can not comprehend it or encounter it in the same way we can other experiences. It exceeds our physical understanding of the world and has a deeply spiritual impact on our lives in ways that we find we cannot successfully recover from or adapt to.
In trauma, then, I can think of no better “heaven” to this hell than in William Blake‘s phrase,
Love seeketh not itself to please,
nor for itself hath any care,
but for another gives its ease,
and builds a Heaven in Hell’s despair.
2. Hell as Apocolypse
The New Testament prophesies the end of the world and the Second Coming or parousia of Christ:
But the day of the Lord will come as unexpectedly as a thief. Then the heavens will pass away with a terrible noise, and the very elements themselves will disappear in fire, and the earth and everything on it will be found to deserve judgment. (2 Pe 3:10, NLT)
This description of fiery destruction closely resembles passages on hell, and this post by Jean-François Mouhot, the Marie Curie Fellow at Georgetown University examines the relation between modern ecologists and prophets of old. Both tell us we’re going to hell in a handbasket (or wheelbarrow if this stained-glass is any indication) if we don’t start paying attention.
According to the Bible, as the end of times approaches, the waters will turn ‘bitter’, ocean-dwelling creatures will die and ‘on the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea’. The sun, the moon and the stars will be obscured and then the sun will heat up and burn mankind. It is not a stretch to interpret these passages as a presage of actual environmental problems: water pollution and air pollution that obscures the atmosphere (even photo pollution that impedes observation of the moon and stars), acidification of the oceans and the resultant destruction of coral reefs, global warming, rising sea levels. The passages emphasise human responsibility for environmental degradation and lay out the accompanying punishment: ‘The time has come … for destroying those who destroy the earth’ (Revelation 11:18).
What is perplexing, though, is that even as ecologists, world health professionals, and those who warn of nuclear disaster pick up the refrains of the prophets and their urgency echos that of apostles warning of the Second Coming, theologians and many religious fundamentalists seem to be quite content with enjoying the spoils of the earth. Warnings of end times are waning, and when they do occur (think Left Behind) they bear little in common with the potential disasters that actually threaten us.
It is a strange age when Carl Sagan is our eschatological theologian, writing in his theology tome Cosmos, “the development of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems will, sooner or later, lead to global disaster.” Michael Oppenheimer, climate scientist at Princeton, condemns the sins of government as he cries in the wilderness, “the need for a lot of luck looms larger and larger. Personally, I think it’s a slim reed to lean on for the fate of the planet.”
The latest prophets, such as Elon Musk, proclaim the evils of AI: “In all those stories where there’s a guy with the pentagram and the holy water, it’s like yeah he’s sure he can control the demon. Didn’t work out.”
Especially with respect to nuclear or ecological disaster, there are striking similarities to the biblical accounts. Even more, there is a connotation of judgment since most of these scenarios are described as a result of human choices. These ‘judgments’ involve no direct divine retribution, simply natural outcomes of the choices we make.
Which brings us to the last form of hell: Hell as justice.
3. Hell as Justice
But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. (Matt. 24:36)
The concept of God as Judge, sending people to eternal torment for breaking obscure divine laws – or worse yet, for not quite believing the exact right formulation of inerrant truth – is likely what people have the hardest time believing when it comes to the idea of hell.
Let’s back the wheelbarrow up, though. What comes to mind when we think of judgment? When is it that we encounter the instinct in ourselves to distribute divine retribution?
The reality is, over the last several months I have come across countless times when I wish judgment was swift and thorough. Jesus warned, “do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matt 6:34) and I can’t help but think that if he were walking the earth today he would add that “Sufficient for each neighbourhood is its own trouble.” In our age of instant, global communication, where the most shocking news travels the quickest, we are bombarded with the most brutal stories day and night. Most news stories we can do nothing about but pray and, well, be anxious.
(Warning: Examples to follow)
I think of the father who shot each member of his family in the head and then lit the house on fire with gasoline and fireworks. I think of the ongoing campaign of rape in the Congo. I think of the women and girls being used as suicide bombers by Boko Harem. I think of the atrocities of ISIS and over 1,000 estimated deaths due to US drone strikes alone.
One example that was particularly upsetting was the arctic priest who was finally sentenced for dozens of horrendous sex offences against Inuit children. In contrast to ISIS burning people alive in a literal hell, the priest would threaten children with going to hell if they would not obey his wishes. I think of the hell of trauma that each one of those children, and possibly many more, endure each day of their life due to this one man’s actions. In the psychotic thoughts of this lone priest, I can only imagine him, like a child himself, pushing the limits of torture to see when his Father in the sky would step in and bring down judgment on his head. More terrifying than the fear of God reaching down to pronounce judgement is the realization that the judgment wouldn’t come. There was no Nanny in the sky who would send him to his room, just as there is no Blessings Dispenser who rewards our good behaviour from his treasure chest in the clouds, contrary to popular opinion.
We live in a world where, once away from our parents, we face the ‘dizziness of freedom’ and often shield ourselves from the full weight of ethical responsibility on our shoulders. When we encounter these horrific tales, no words adequately describe our disgust except those that draw on spiritual aspects, in ways that push beyond the limits of cognition. We are left grasping for boundary-words, such as the ‘demonic’ and ‘evil’, pointing to the fact that we cannot even fully comprehend the hell that has been wrought by these terrible deeds. In 2012, after the Aurora shootings, Rollo Romig published an article in the New Yorker on why we continue to cling to words like ‘evil’ in a world that would prefer to see itself as beyond the shadow of metaphysics.
When we grasp the horror of evil, the unimaginable suffering that it can cause and the immeasurable hell that is inflicted on its victims, any lover of justice cannot help but long for an “eye for an eye,” that retribution is swift and that the guilty party come to feel the full brunt of the pain they have caused. Confronted with this reality, we no longer cling to the “nice Jesus” and say that mercy and forgiveness is all we want. “Love wins” is not what we look for in response to these atrocities. When we hear that the pedophile arctic priest got 19 years, we may even wish there were rare exceptions to enact the death penalty in Canada.
Yet, as we think of the terror that is caused we also recall the sobering message of Hannah Arendt on the everyday banality of evil. From the trials of one of the worst mass-murderers in Nazi history, Arendt describes the problem that we face,
“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.”
Unfortunately our rage comes to a confused, tortured stop. The person in front of us is not always the demon we were expecting. When we listen to them they sound “human, all too human.” Even Hitler had an office like a normal person, not a den of iniquity. How are we to reconcile this just desire for absolute retribution with the frightening awareness that the demons we despise look an awful lot like us? What if we even start to understand some of the factors that drove them to this? We cannot simply dismiss the thirst for justice, nor can we simply forget the face of the Other who is our enemy.
Enter the promise of the Event. To recall the words of Derrida,
‘Perhaps’, one must always say perhaps for justice. There is a future for justice and there is no justice except to the degree that some event is possible which, as event, exceeds calculation, rules, programs, anticipations and so forth. Justice as the experience of absolute alterity is unpresentable, but it is the chance of an event and the condition of history.
We need an event, an Other, a justice that is truly just. A justice that we know we cannot deliver, nor will we see in this lifetime. This justice is a ‘perhaps’. We know not what it will look like, and yet we need to believe that it will be the case. Will it involve hellfire and brimstone? That would be surprising, as it seems like a rather ‘one-size-fits-all’ form of justice. But the point is that the justice is out of our hands. Dante’s Inferno helps us imagine a bit more how this justice could look. Take, for example, the Fourth Circle of hell. This is the circle where misers and the greedy find themselves:
… I saw multitudes
to every side of me; their howls were loud
while, wheeling weights, they used their chests to push.
They struck against each other; at that point,
each turned around and, wheeling back those weights,
cried out: Why do you hoard? Why do you squander?
The message here is that ‘the punishment fits the crime’. We need not know the crime ourselves, nor the punishment, only that there is to be a judgment and a Judge.
Why, though, do we even need hell as justice? What if there is no ultimate justice? Each day we are confronted by the absence of justice in the world, as we cry with Christ on the cross “our God, our God, why have you forsaken us?” We long for that perfect justice, now.
We need hell, we need the future event of justice precisely because we long for it now. If we have no Other to look to who will distribute absolute justice, if we no longer believe that justice will be wrought, than we ourselves will have no peace. We lovers of justice and lovers of peace cannot have both if it depends on us, for violence must be done in the name of justice but forgiveness must be extended in the hope of peace. If we no longer believe in a God who judges justly, we must become the Judge we no longer believe in.
Thus, to hope for hell is the only hope for a world where both peace and justice are possible, where we know we are not required to do the violence required by justice. After all, we do not even know which justice is just. Caught between the chasm of evil and the almost dull face of the accused, we are at a loss. We must divest ourselves of this sacred, righteous violence. As Jewish scholar Henri Atlan argues,
The best way to rid the world of the violent sacred is to reject it onto a transcendence. The transcendence of violence… culminates in its being expelled from the normal horizon of things (Atlan 1988, 206)
Miroslav Volf summarizes in Exclusion and Embrace, “‘The only means of prohibiting all recourse to violence by ourselves’ is to insist that violence is legitimate ‘only when it comes from God.'”
This ‘theologization’ of violence, then, is our best hope for non-violence. The ‘perhaps’ of the event of justice is captured in our descriptions of hell, a hell that we have no idea what it looks like or where it might be, a hell that “exceeds calculation, rules, programs, anticipations and so forth.” All we know are that there are demons that we cannot do justice to, for in doing that same justice we become demons ourselves.
Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.
And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.
~ Friedrich Nietzsche (Beyond Good and Evil)