Hell and Damnation: The whys, the wherefores, and the what-the-hells of Eternal Torment.
To be published early in 2018 by the University of Regina Press.
Hell and Damnation is more than a peek into the wormhole of the medieval imagination, more than a guidebook to cruelty, though it is both those things. It is, in essence, a commentary on the nature of faith, for the decline of hell (if, indeed, it is declining) has consequences for heaven too. This book is for those with an interest in the picaresque, but also for those who look on the human religious project with a certain skepticism, and are keeping a wary eye on the continuing overlap between faith and politics. It is less polemical (and more forgiving, and certainly more fun) than Dawkins and Harris, but with a similar point of view: it belongs on the shelves alongside those skeptics (and also alongside that curiously burgeoning publishing sub-genre, books that seek to “prove” that heaven is real).
On the other hand … you could place it in the Travel section.
The key questions
If the fear of hell fades, how do we control hellishness?
If hell fades, shouldn’t heaven too?
It is easy enough to see the absurdities and contradictions of the medieval imaginings of eternal torment, but not so easy to see that even now religions depend on the cudgel of punishment as well as the sweet carrot of heavenly bliss. Many believers still insist that without the fear of hellfire, evil acts have no effective censure and theological constructs lose authority. The eternal bliss of heaven depends, in this view, on the eternal horror of hell. St. Bernardino of Siena put the case perfectly: “There can be no perfect sweetness of song in Heaven if there were no infernal descant from God’s justice”, meaning that everlasting celestial joy depends on a contrast of everlasting horror.
We live now in a supposedly cynical age, and should no longer believe in primal innocence, or very much in hell for that matter: we have begun to understand that evil is made here on earth, in the fevered imaginings of the human mind, and needs to be dealt with by politics and law, not by superstition. Historical hells were peopled by the demons of our imagination, as we shall see. Now our demons are made manifest: the bureaucratic monsters called Eichmann or Pol Pot, or the pitiless psychopathy of a Ted Bundy or Robert Pickton.
We know that the baleful hells of the major religions haven’t altogether disappeared from either public or private view: jihadis, among other people, tell us so. But hell is now more modern than that, and more difficult. Many religions have been rapidly backpedalling from a strict-constructionist view of hell as an actual place where actual sinners go to be actually tortured. What does this tell us about the rest of religious belief?
The opening and closing sections deal with the two “whys” of hell – why it seemed necessary to invent it, and then why it persists, faded perhaps, but still present, a dark background to heavenly joy. True enough, sniffy moralists like Seneca and Lucullus have been debunking hell for two thousand years or so (Plato struck it off his list of philosophical Likes too) but the idea of eternal torment has had its adherents, and still does in the more fundamentalist corners of the religious universe. Along the way there are chapters on the specifics of hellish beliefs: hell’s various locations, its cultural variants (Hell, Hades, Sheol, Gehenna, the bewildering multiplicity of Buddhist and Hindu hells), the many horrified historical tourists to hell; its geography, topography, catalogue of torments, its diet, terrible weather, and its physics of eternity, as well as hell’s rulers, servants, demons and denizens and, of course, the sinners who give the place its meaning.