Devil in the details / Biden's not confused

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

Today: Sam Thielman, a reporter, critic, essayist, and editor, and graphic novel columnist for the New York Times; and editor and journalist Maria Bustillos.

Issue No. 84

Hell Is What You Make It
Sam Thielman

“Get them for the things that they deserve to be gotten for.”
Maria Bustillos

Hell Is What You Make It

by Sam Thielman

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.

The word “Hell” is not present in the original texts of the Christian Bible. It is derived from the Anglo-Saxon hel or hele, which means to conceal, or keep secret, and has cognates among Germanic languages with Hel, the name of both the underworld in Norse mythology and of its ruling goddess. It’s a good translation: For Hell to be effective, it must be secret.

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