Just the word Hell breeds fear. If it exists, then it’s possible that I’ll end up there. The horror of it rests in my belly, just below my solar plexus. The idea’s been with us so long that I think it’s found its way into our DNA, the idea of a place where human beings are held in eternal agony for what we did when we were alive.
I know Christians who are very sure that Hell exists. With it comes the corollary that they might well end up there, and under their gay apparel of worship and love there’s a terrified animal trembling in the dark.
My father died sure that he was going to Hell. Given the things he’d done in his live, if the logic of damnation held true, he was likely right about this. The truth is that he lived in hell, a hell of addiction and violence and horror. Raised by an ‘upright’ alcoholic father who was free with his belt and his fists, and by a bible-thumping mother who locked her children in the closet to drive the devil out of them, his first job, after his father made him quit school. still in his late teens, was as a guard in a maximum security penitentiary. He didn’t have much of a chance, I think.
But I remember the tenderness he could find. I remember, before the demons entirely took him over, how much he loved me. I remember him stopping the car and weeping because he’d hit a fox. And I remember him crying with as much grief as I’ve ever seen in my life as he surveyed the bloody ruination he’d wrought on my mother’s drunken body.
They lived in hell those two, causing each other, and their children, incalculable damage. What kind of justice would seek to punish them further? I guess I’d hope, if ever there were any kind of post-mortal reckoning, that it might amount to looking at, and fully recognizing, the damage you’d done. What could be worse?
My core belief is that everyone does the best they can. This is easier to work with in the case of broken and tormented people than it is with people who consciously, knowingly, inflict unimaginable pain on others, people like the gang who ran the Buchenwald concentration camp. There’s hell on earth for sure, but the people who lived in torment that must have seemed eternal were not the perpetrators; they were men and women and children kept alive in the larder for things that gnawed and fed on their bodies and souls.
Did Josef Mengele, Ilse Koch, Wilhelm Boger, do their best? Was there a moment in time where they surrendered to the demon? Were these people just ‘criminally insane’, used opportunistically by a regime that had a dark agenda? I knew a little boy once who caught mice and boiled them alive. He spent much of his childhood in an institution for criminally insane children, a hell on earth if there ever was one. I tutored him one summer when I was eighteen, and he was between institutional sojourns. And he was, with all of that, just a little boy. Should that little boy be in hell?
Josef Mengele was a family man, loved and respected by his children. He didn’t bring his work home with him. At work he sewed Jewish children together to make Siamese twins. What was that for him? I expect we’ll never know. It’s unbearable to imagine. Either he was a sane and rational human being who chose to lie down with the devil, or he was a decent man with a crack in him where the devil got through.
We can look at these extreme instances to come to terms with the concept of hell. We can pick the worst people in the world to protect ourselves from our own shadow and say yes, they deserve to be in hell for sure. But it’s a slippery slope, this damnation business. For myself, I’m pretty sure that hell is here. If the Kingdom of Heaven is among us, so is the other one. The demons are vigilant as they look for cracks. Their access is through us, through the cracks in us. Is it our fault if we’re cracked?
The truth is that we’re all cracked. It’s just that some of us are in a position to do much greater harm, or are cracked in more strategic places. that I haven’t done truly appalling things is my good fortune, and not to my credit.
If Heaven is something we can build here among ourselves, so is Hell. To move either of them into some abstract future state outside of this incarnational plane seems to me to be futile. If you kill me and then go to hell for it, it’s not going to do me much good, and it certainly won’t help you.