Two weeks ago, Saika wrote a post about pop cultural interpretations of Paradise. This week, I want to explore our ideas of Hell. What I think is most interesting about Hell is not how many different interpretations of it exist, but the fact that most people don’t actually believe Hell exists. While some have good reason—the concept of universal reconciliation is a theologically nuanced doctrine that states that all are eventually reconciled with God in the end—many just plain don’t like the idea of Hell. Even if Christians today are more than happy to imagine an other-worldly life of eternal happiness, many don’t actually believe a place of eternal suffering and punishment is real. Why is this the case? Pop culture might have something to do with it.
If I asked you to imagine Hell, most people would probably picture a cavern under the earth, painted red with lots of fire and tiny red devils brandishing pitchforks. It’s hard to believe anyone would believe such a place existed. The little red devils are comical; aren’t they cute? Such a vision is only at most suited to scare kids into behaving properly, and at least to entertain them for a while.
Dante’s vision of Hell, on the other hand, was much different. As with his Paradiso and Purgatorio, the Inferno is a highly structured, tiered system of torments. Every evildoer has his or her proper place where he or she can receive their poetic justice. As Dante follows Virgil lower and lower into the depths of Hell, we’re shown people of greater and greater evil (in Dante’s personal opinion, that is). Heretics are encased in flaming tombs (because their soul “dies” within the body), Thieves have bits of their identities stolen by snakes, and Fortunetellers have their heads on backward, so they can’t see what’s in front of them. And in the final depth of Hell lies Satan himself, a three-headed beast trapped in a lake of ice from the waist-up. In his mouth Brutus, Cassius, and Judas endure a perpetual chomping.
Arguably the most famous modern literary interpretation of Hell is found in C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. Written in 1942, The Screwtape Letters is an epistolary novel, containing the letters written by expert demon Screwtape to his “dearest” nephew Wormwood. Although we never read Wormwood’s responses, the “advice” offered by Screwtape allows the reader to follow the hellish attempts of one demon to damn a man to Hell. Lewis portrays Hell as some kind of demonic bureaucracy, with endless paperwork, criticism, and micromanagement.
Something about how today’s common depictions of hell are a combination of these three.
In Futurama, Robot Hell is filled with animatronic demons and devils, in an evil carnival somewhere in New Jersey. The joke being, of course, that New Jersey is a cesspool of a state, Hell on Earth. Supernatural attempted to bring some scary back into Hell by sending Dean there to torture and be tortured (and Adam is still there). But more recent storylines have hinted at a complex leadership system, where Crowley has climbed to the top to be the king of the proverbial mountain. In Ugly Americans we see demons from Hell living and flourishing in an office environment. The Far Side comic did the same thing—Hell has pitchforks and typewriters.
Hell is either comically bad, or a slice of life. Supernatural is the exception that proves the rule. The show itself is supposed to be scary, so Hell is going to be scarier. However, even its writers have all but abandoned that fact to focus on the fight for power within it. What’s most interesting about how we depict Hell is that it’s always a joke, either by virtue of being comical or some kind of slice of life. Hell is either too absurd to exist, or we’re already living in it.