Heaven and Hell

Pessimism seems to be a newly popular theme in American cultural discourse. Having written a bit about worst-case scenarios, I was interested to get a review copy of Karen Cerulo’s Never Saw It Coming: Cultural Challenges to Envisioning the Worst. Perhaps because I’m naturally optimistic by temperament, I’m finding Cerulo’s relentless pessimism a bit annoying, and, not coincidentally, finding a lot to disagree with in the book.

One point particularly struck me. Cerulo claims that “positive asymmetry” is demonstrated by the fact that, in theology and art, Heaven is given a detailed and appealing description, while hell is described only in vague and non-specific terms. She mentions, as an illustration of the latter point, an etching inspired by Dante’s Inferno.

My recollection of Dante is that the descriptions of Hell, and the various categories of sinners, were detailed and intricate, making the Inferno a fascinating book, while Purgatory was less distinctly graded and the Paradiso was unreadably dull. I haven’t read Paradise Lost or Paradise Regained, but I get the impression that the same is true. Correct me if I’m wrong here, but I thought this was one of the standard criticisms of religious art – Hell and the Devil are made much more interesting than Heaven and Hell.

Cerulo focuses mainly on paintings, and maybe she’s right on this score, but even here I’d hazard a guess that the work of Hieronymus Bosch is much more widely reproduced than any detailed representation of Heaven.

21 thoughts on “Heaven and Hell

  1. Slightly OT note on Heaven, Hell, pessimism, and the precautionary principle:

    If God exists, and requires earthly belief for entrance into heaven, then we should believe in God since:

    Payoff to Believe|God exists = +infinity (Heaven)
    Payoff to Believe|God doesn’t exist = small negative (the bother of having to go to Church, etc)
    Payoff to Not Believe|God exists = -infinity (Hell)
    Payoff to Not Believe|God doesn’t exist = small positive (the benefits of a heathen lifestyle)

    Even if the probability of God existing is small, we should still believe just in case. This version of Pascal’s wager is an application of the precautionary principle. If you want to convince someone to become a Christian through the wager you can focus on either the upside (Heaven) or the downside (Hell). Given that people tend to be loss averse, it makes sense to devote scarce evangelical resources to focusing on Hell rather than Heaven.

    Of course, the problem with the use of the precautionary principle by pessimists is that it invites inclusion of contingent states with a large negative downside. This is particularly so when the payoffs to contingent states are uncertain. Simple applications of the precautionary turn us all into massive risk/loss averters (GM food, global warming, and regulatory approval for new drugs/technologies).

  2. And I always thought a deathbed conversion was enough, Paul, enabling the rationalist to enjoy the best of both worlds! I’m pleased to see you agree that the heathen lifestyle is preferable to the god-fearing one.

    Meanwhile, I’ve never forgiven the Catholic Church at Vatican 2 for abolishing Limbo for us non-baptised heathens. Limbo sounded quite pleasant by comparison with both Catholic heaven and hell. I wonder what its residents – who included all souls from creation to AD30, as well as those since who were never inducted into the bosom of the church – felt about their eviction? I’m sure they weren’t consulted.

  3. Hal, as the preacher observed to Bart Simpson in the episode he became a devout Christian, what happens if you get hit by a car, and have no opportunity for a deathbed conversion?

    I’m interested that Limbo was abolished. I was taught about it in my Catholic primary school, and that was well after Vatican 2. But then, my understanding of Limbo is its only for unbaptised infants, and worthy people before Jesus’s death. Unbaptised adults who’ve committed sin are in just the same boat as sinful Catholics. (Also, by the definition of my very Catholic grade six teacher, limbo is a part of hell, because you are separated from the beauty of God.)

  4. Satan definitely has the best lines in Paradise Lost. One of the best among many good passages:

    “The mind is its own place, and in itself
    Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.
    What matter where, if I be still the same,
    And what should I be, all but less than he
    Whom thunder hath made greater. Here at least
    We shall be free; the almighty hath not built
    Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
    Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
    To reign is worth ambition though in hell:
    Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven”

    (Book 1, lines 253 to 263)

    that is, God is basically an authoritarian bully and the devil is the one who fights nobly but loses (and something of a libertarian too). Hell is a teensy bit disturbing, but a far more interesting place than heaven eg:

    “A dungeon horrible, on all sides round
    As one great furnace flamed, yet from those flames
    No light, but rather darkness visible”

    (book 1, 61-63)

    don’t think this was Milton’s intention, but it was certainly the effect.

  5. And as usual no comment from God about all this.

    And people have been predicting we’re going to hell in a handbasket ever since the concept of hell was invented.

    ““positive asymmetryâ€? is demonstrated by the fact that, in theology and art, Heaven is given a detailed and appealing description,”

    Pull the other one Karen. This whole Manichaeism that has infected so many belief systems and social management philosophies is always waving around a very clear and highly detailed stick while being vague about the carrot.

    What’s heaven? Clouds, angels, harps and an generally incoherent explanation of transcendentally becoming one with your maker. Whereas we have highly detailed cartographies of hell from the Bible and Dante through to the Matrix and Constantine.

    For me hell is a heaven full of believers. Can you imagine the kinda jokes they’d crack for starters?

  6. So when Limbo was abolished where did all those previously blissfully unaware souls go?

    Did they know they were going there?

    Are they now blissfully unaware again?

  7. Katz – it’s hard to say. Probably not Hell, since there is a mathematical proof of its non-existence …

    A Mathematical Proof of the Non-Existence of Hell from the writings of the free-thinker Neiht, born in Brussels, 1877. “The area of the valley of Jehoshaphat is 60,000,000 sq. ms. … Supposing that each race originated with one couple only, one has five couples or ten people, and applying to them the principle of compound interest, up to the Flood there were 9,289,000 births in 1,658 years. Since the Flood up to our epoch 2,326 years have passed, during which, if only five couples survived, they would have produced 2,213,867,610,000 children. If these calculations are extended up to the year 2000, the resulting number is 34,326,414,259,675,172,000 which, together with the 9,289,000, makes 34,326,414,259,684,461,000 offspring. If one concedes, charitably, that all papists are saved, their number today being 1/7th of the population of the earth, that of the damned would be made up of those born before the Flood plus those born since the Flood up to the year 2000 minus the 1/7th of those born since the year 44, that of the birth of Christ: this number is 4,903,773,008,164,544,000, and the total of damned would be 29,422,641,251,519,917,000.

  8. Hal, I don’t understand how that proves hell doesn’t exist. It just makes it sound very crowded.

    Katz, by the sound of Hal’s article, the poor souls never went anywhere; they weren’t in limbo to begin with.

    Hal (again), seems like limbo was dropped after I stopped paying much attention to the world of Catholicism. That makes me feel old.

    Joseph Clark, I also meant to posit my own response to Pascal’s wager: The chances of God existing as Catholics believe is probably similar to chances of God existing directly opposite i.e. an evil lord who would punish those who did good and fête the evil—and who’d even come down to encourage us to do good to make the final reckoning all the more enjoyable. Actually, considering that God’s meant to be omnipotent and omniscient, but that evil nevertheless exists, I’d hazard it more likely. Which God do you want to spend æternity with?

  9. For shame. There are no sinners in Hell at the moment. The Last Trump has not sounded and the Day of Judgement has not come to pass. Therefore no-one has been ejected from Limbo, it has merely been rather permanently closed for theological repairs before the Grand Opening ever took place, and if the mass(?) of sinners is too great for the volume of Hell, then we might have the makings of a new universe.

    It would certainly be leaving the next Big Bang to the experts.

  10. Memo
    From: The Father of Lies
    To: The Prince of Darkness

    Dear Nic

    As you know, we’ ve encountered some accomodation difficulties lately.

    On top of the gernal inctrease in market share we got last century, our recent marketing campaigns in the Middle East has been very successful (Dubya really deserved last year’s performance bonus). This has led to a large influx of new clients. Also, our best Earthly agent took it upon himself to send the entire population of Limbo herero Charon, and then promptly absconded from earth (is he staying with us or the opposition, BTW? I bet that impulsive fool Peter listened to his sob stories about a pure life, etc and let the bugger in).

    Normally we do like to keep our guests tightly packed, as this helps maintain the warm atmosphere for which Hell is renowned. However, it turns out that our guests are complaining even more than usually about our new arrivals – our existing guests find the Blissfully Unaware Infants dead boring, while the Virtuous Pagans just don’t get along with the unvirtuous who are our core market.

    My suggestion is that purchase Earth from the competition and put the Virtuous Pagans there – we could call it “Hell on Earth”. I understand that their CEO is losing patience with the place anyway. We’d need to do an extensive redecoration along the lines of the one that fellow Duhrer did here a little while ago.

    I’ve had the new accounting team from Enron run the numbers, and they say it should be a snip to turn an eternal profit from it. What do you think?


  11. In the prologue to Faust, Mephistopheles gets the good lines. Apparently he regards the mortal existence as more hellish than hell. He tells God a few home truths about His creation:

    The petty god of the world remains always from the same mould
    And is as queer as on that first day.
    He would live a little better
    Had You not given him the certificate of heavenly light;
    He calls it ‘reason’ and uses it solely
    To be more animal than any animal.

    God replies saying “Man errs as long as he strives”. It is a pathetic excuse (and a cliche like the cliches Shakespeare is riddled with).

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