Whether a state of mind or a real place, hell again is a hot topic of worry BEYOND REDEMPTION

January 22, 1994|By Roy Rivenburg | Roy Rivenburg,Encyclopaedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Americana, U.S. News & World Report, interviews.Los Angeles Times

Just when it seemed safe to enter the afterlife, eternal damnation has returned.

That glowing light at the end of the tunnel, the story goes, might be a blast furnace.

Hell -- after practically vanishing from public thought in recent decades -- is making a comeback in a rush of new books, philosophical debates and accounts of near-death experiences.

It also has been remodeled.

Since Dante left, the place has been overhauled by everyone from Catholic priests and a Tennessee cardiologist to "Far Side" cartoonist Gary Larson. The result: a state-of-the-art Hades with such innovations as constant psychological torment, a skyscraper-sized human popcorn popper, and unending Muzak and mimes.

Its location has changed, too. During the 1700s, scientists theorized that hell was on the sun or aboard a comet. Today, theologians believe it less a place than a spiritual state. Then again, it might be underneath western Siberia. In 1990, the wacky Weekly World News reported that Soviet engineers found hell there while drilling for oil.

Whatever and wherever it is, says historian Alan Bernstein, hell ranks as one of history's most influential concepts. And one of its most misunderstood.

"The popular image of hell has next to nothing to do with the doctrine of it," says the Rev. Augustine DiNoia, a theologian for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops: Not only is it flame-free, but people who go there do so by choice.

"God isn't some vindictive judge sending humans to a place of punishment," he explains, echoing the views of mainline Protestants and conservative evangelicals. "If that were the case, he would be a monster."

So, then, what is hell and who ends up there? That question has been argued for centuries.

The latest Christian thinking locates Hades in some sort of invisible dimension. If souls don't occupy space as we know it, theologians reason, neither does hell.

"It exists, but it's not a place," says J. P. Moreland, professor of philosophy at California's Biola University and co-author of "Immortality: The Other Side of Death."

"It's like numbers. They're real, but no one knows where they are."

Therefore, hell's pain is more spiritual than physical. "It's like the misery of a broken love," Father DiNoia says. "Suppose you marry a [superficially] very attractive man or woman, only to find out later [he or she] married you just for your money. And suppose, in order to marry this person, you gave up someone who really loved you. The pain you'd feel in knowing you chose the wrong person is what hell is like."

In the same way, he says, people who choose a life apart from God's love will spend eternity quarantined from him, knowing they made the wrong choice.

Can't they change their minds? The answer is complicated -- and controversial.

For starters, says Mr. Moreland, God wants people to choose him freely, which becomes impossible after death: "At that point, it's not really a choice to be with God. It's merely an attempt to avoid hell."

Also, people who end up in hell don't want to be with God. The decisions they've made in life and the kind of person they've become don't fit in with him, Father DiNoia says: "They'd be like fast-food addicts in a great French restaurant."

Hell hasn't always been so difficult to define.

In ancient Greece, the damned simply spent eternity lying face down in a swamp of mud and frogs. Later, Plato spoke of a place of "temporary punishment for the curably wicked and eternal punishment for the incurably wicked."

The Jewish concept of hell grew out of frustration with injustice, says Mr. Bernstein, a University of Arizona history professor who teaches a class on Hades and who wrote "The Formation of Hell," a newly released first volume of a planned hell trilogy.

It was obvious that people were getting away with sin in this life, he explains, so some Jews (around the second century B.C.) began looking for punishment in the next one.

Enter Gehenna, named for a dump near Jerusalem where garbage and animal carcasses were cast into fires. Although not mentioned as an afterlife destination in Jewish scriptures (the dead -- good and bad -- went to a shadowy underworld called Sheol), Gehenna soon evolved into "a cosmic disposal site for the wicked," Mr. Bernstein says.

It was Christianity that truly perfected hell and put it on the map.

Actually, the New Testament is surprisingly vague about the subject. The apostle Paul barely mentions it, and other references -- including statements by Jesus -- describe little more than a "lake of fire," "weeping and gnashing of teeth," "outer darkness" and a "worm that never dies."

Theologians, artists and writers fleshed out the details.

Almost immediately, Mr. Bernstein says, "People began trying to chip away at the absoluteness of eternal damnation." An early text called the Vision of Paul describes a divine visit to hell in which Jesus gives the damned Sundays off in honor of his resurrection.

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