GIVE THEM HELL–WHOEVER “THEM” ACTUALLY TURNS OUT TO BE
Even as a kid, I never thought Hell sounded all that bad.
I mean, there’s torture, sure. But I imagine you’d get used to it after a while; in Paradise Lost, one of the fallen angels speculates that in time the damned “will receive familiar the fierce heat; this horror will grow mild, this darkness light.”
This didn’t sound nearly as bad as the idea of death that I already had at that age, ie passive annihilation. An idea I still have, and one that frightens me routinely. By comparison, at least Hell is somewhere.
Many atheists criticize the doctrine of Hell as an idea born out of a kind of sadism and hostility that few people who are not immigration agents can conceive. But I don’t think it’s hard to imagine wishing Hell on someone; certain people, in my estimation, have it (or something like it) coming.
The problem of course is that Hell is a lot like an Ivy League school: Admission only seems to favor those who are the least deserving.
In his book Heaven & Hell: A History of the Afterlife, atheist Bible scholar Bart Ehrman writes that our contemporary idea of a judgment-based afterlife of rewards and punishments emerged from apocalyptic preachers during the Second Temple period, like this one subversive anti-Roman carpenter you might have heard of.
“Jesus of Nazareth proclaimed those who did god’s will would be raised from the dead to live forever in a glorious kingdom,” Ehrman writes, while “those opposed to god would be punished” in the final judgment.
The kingdom of god was supposed to be built here on Earth, and the resurrection and eternal life meant just that: People would be raised bodily from the dead, and live forever in a material sense. When would this happen? The same time preachers always say prophecies will happen: “Soon.”
Well of course it didn’t happen soon, unless you measure things in geological time, which if you’re of an evangelical persuasion you most definitely do not. So people began to imagine that maybe the great reckoning already was happening–not here on Earth, but in some spiritual realm.
(As someone who has often fails at comedy, I can identify with this kind of retreat to authenticity: “Okay, nobody laughed, but it WAS funny, right?”)
The journey from this to our more or less contemporary ideas of Hell and Heaven remains a bit opaque to me. But I suspect it’s stupid anyway, so maybe that’s for the best.
On our most recent episode of Black Mass Appeal, our guest–Satanic Temple Sacramento religions scholar Deena–raised a point I’d never considered before: When ancient Jewish Christians conceived of the torments of Hell for god’s enemies, most likely the enemies they imagined there were their occupiers.
Americans have inherited the fascistic, Eurocentric idea of Rome as the acme of civilization, but the truth is the Roman state’s greatest exports (besides George Clooney’s 90s hairstyles) were mostly what we’d call crimes against humanity today.
The Jewish historian Josephus estimated that during the first Jewish Uprising (66 to 70 CE), Roman armies killed some 1.1 million non-combatants–equivalent to about half of the estimated population of Judea.
Roman historian Seutonius alternatively pegged the figure at a bit more than half of that–which is a hell of a sunny-side estimate. Of course, the Judeans incited that revolution to begin with (hence the name “Jewish Uprising”), but that brings us around to the issue of why there were always so many Roman soldiers in Not Rome around this time.
In recent years, historians like Notre Dame’s Candida Moss suggest that tales of Pagan Rome’s persecution of early Christians were strategic exaggerations.
“The idea that Christianity is persecuted and needs to defend itself from external and internal attack comes from the victorious church of the fourth and fifth centuries and beyond,” Moss wrote in 2013.
However, all this means is that Rome did not bother to persecute Christians specifically; rather, they just enslaved, massacred, and rounded up lots of people, and sometimes early Christians ended up taking their licks alongside everyone else.
Mind you, I realize these ancient apocalypticists didn’t imagine JUST Roman soldiers burning forever in lakes of fire. The texts themselves are pretty preoccupied with meting out misogynist punishments to women–because dog forbid we ever ease up on that.
All I’m saying is the political context of the day made it much, much easier to conceive of such ideas to begin with. It’s not hard to imagine occupied people wishing hellfire on their colonizers, the same way I hope that a self-driving car one day interprets the Three Laws of Robotics in such a way that it swerves into Matt Gaetz. I’m only human.
But that being the case, why do we STILL have Hell? These days the average Roman occupies a public toilet at most, and instead the Hell myth gets employed against trans teenagers.
Imagine if you had a rat problem and bought some poison, but then instead of poisoning the rats you poisoned a well instead.
To what kind of mind are these equivalent transgressions? The answer of course is that because we’re Satanists we’re considering these issues from a humanistic point of view–which is to say a well-adjusted one that doesn’t require anyone to channel a Thomas Harris character.
But these other religions are not humanistic. As I’ve mentioned already, they’re apocalyptic, religions in which individuals or even populations are not necessarily important–only gods are.
So you see, an idea like Hell COULD make sense, in its proper historical context. The reason why it doesn’t is because sense did not conceive of it to begin with.