Arts & Books Comment

How the West became embarrassed about hell

The Last Judgment by Stefan Lochner (c 1410–1451)

Augustine knew all about the limits of the imagination. “When we were boys,” he once explained, “born and brought up in a landlocked region, we could already form some idea of the sea after we had seen water even in a small cup; but the flavour of strawberries and of cherries could in no way enter our conceptions before we tasted these fruits in Italy.”

Some things are simply beyond our ken until we experience them. The afterlife presumably sits securely in that category, but this hasn’t deterred us from speculating about it in the most intricate detail. I’ve always been rather impressed, for example, by the audacity of Johannes Gonopius who, back in the 16th century, insisted that everyone in heaven was sure to speak the Brabantic Dutch of his hometown.

Similarly precise depictions of the hereafter make frequent appearances in Philip Almond’s book. According to the 17th-century Jesuit Jeremias Drexel, the damned (all 100,000 million of them) would be crammed into precisely one cubic German mile at the centre of the earth “like grapes in a wine press, or salt herrings in a barrel”.

At the other end of the spectrum, Isaac Watts seemed to know a great deal about the routines of paradise. The residents, always awake, would continue in their chosen earthly professions while finding time for inspirational lectures on diverse topics: Adam on innocence, Moses on the Jewish law, or Noah on arks. Watts’s heaven, writes Almond, “resembles an eternal academic conference held at a fashionable resort”.

Not that Almond would want us to pour too much scorn on these attempts to grasp the ungraspable. After all, our feeble human brains are lumbered with earthly terms and concepts, and it can sometimes feel a little unfair to have been granted sufficient intellect or spiritual curiosity to ask questions about our eternal destinies without the slightest hope of formulating satisfactory answers. We deserve some credit for ploughing on regardless, and Almond’s rewarding book guides the reader through this sometimes courageous, sometimes comical intellectual journey, all the way from Hades to the modern era.

Almond identifies two “foundational narratives”, both of which have provoked endless theological wrangling. The first concerns timing. Should we expect our existences to continue immediately after death or will we have to wait until the end of time – until, for instance, Christ returns to judge the living and the dead? Almond concludes that there has always been a “complicated and often messy tension” between the two possible trajectories.

Matters become even more muddled with the second recurrent theme: the relationship between body and soul. Almond suggests that a straightforward division between the two (the former mortal, the latter eternal) is challenged as soon as we envision the soul in a specific posthumous location (lending it a kind of “quasi-corporeality”) and all but collapses when we bring a sense of the bodily into our understanding of the afterlife.

Attempting to understand all this has provoked some curious musings. Humphrey Hody, a 17th-century chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury, worried about the detail of the Last Judgment. If bodies and souls were going to be reunited, would there be sufficient matter to accomplish the task? After tortuous calculations, Hody determined that “in the 17th part of England, if you go but one foot deep, there is as much substance as would make up all the human bodies that ever were, are, and will be, tho’ the world should last in all 10,000 years”.

Such frippery aside, debates about body and soul have been central to thinking about the hereafter, and Almond deploys a delicate but scholarly touch in his analysis. The same talents are applied to a host of difficult questions: from the fate of unbaptised deceased infants to the ways in which some Christians attempted to fit virtuous pagans into their blueprints of the afterlife.

The result is a thoroughly entertaining and well-researched survey that also manages to raise important broader issues. Time was, Almond notes, when we were all obsessed with the nature of heaven and hell, but the subject has fallen increasingly out of fashion, even becoming a source of embarrassment for some. Either we envisage eternity as little more than a continuation of earthly existence or we push it to the edges of serious theological inquiry. Almond quotes Jürgen Moltmann, who complained that eschatological questions “have dried up like fish in a drained pond”.

That’s a shame, since a great deal – not least how the world’s religions define themselves – is at stake, but it is also easy to sympathise with those who find the whole topic just a little too baffling. It’s not often that the country singer Iris DeMent features in such discussions, but perhaps she made a good point about conceptualising the details of paradise: “Some say that they’re comin’ back in a garden / Bunch of carrots and little sweet peas / I think I’ll just let the mystery be.”

This article first appeared in the July 29 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.