Hell Is What You Make It

by Sam Thielman

Detail from 'Sheol', Joseph Ferdinand Kepler (1889), shows a disappointed Satan, seated on a rock and holding his trident, at the locked and barred door to Hell. The very fine large scan at the Library of Congress is described thusly: “Illustration shows a number of historical figures enjoying the pleasant atmosphere of ‘Sheol’ after suffering the flames of Hell; at left is a dejected Devil sitting beneath a sign that states ‘This Business is Removed to Sheol, Opposite’. Among those ferried across the river by ‘Charon' are ‘Hypatia, Fanny Elssler, Voltaire, Frederick [the] Great, Socrates, J. Offenbach, Darwin, J.S. Mill, Rousseau, George Sand, Galileo, Jefferson, Th. Paine, Goethe, [and] H. Heine.’”
Image detail: Library of Congress

I believed in Hell all my life until, I suppose, comparatively recently. I couldn’t tell you when it ended, all I know is that it didn’t last forever, despite what it says on the label. It has been very real to me in nightmares. When I was little, if an episode of a children’s cartoon had a demon or a scene in Hell in it, it was immediately turned off and the cartoon was subsequently banned. I don’t think my parents did this because they were especially strict—they understood I was scared. But no longer.

I don’t remember how I first learned about Hell, or where I first saw it depicted, I just know that it was there, fully-formed, much more available to me than Narnia or Tír nan Óg or even Heaven, because we believed it was a real place where your soul might go after you died, and where you would be alone. I was also scared of going to Heaven, because the idea of eternity frightened me, and then I began to feel that, if Heaven was truly good, the sort of vertiginous terror the idea of it gave me was merely a foretaste of Hell. 

I was here, a part of the fallen world, after all; someone born into sin and, without the intercession of Jesus, condemned to Hell already unless I died before I got old enough to be responsible for my own eternal disposition (twelve, I think?). So that fear of everlasting whatever—life, death, choose your poison—must have been part of that fallen-ness. Just stood to reason.

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