A teacher friend of mine emailed the other day out of the blue, asking about life after death. Would I answer a short questionnaire for her class of 10-year-olds? They needed to know what Catholics believe about the afterlife, why, and what “you personally” believe.
The last bit was telling, I thought. For most people dogma, if not God, is dead. ‘‘Cafeteria Catholics’’ and their equivalents in other faiths like to pick-and-mix their own personal set of beliefs. It makes adhering to them that bit easier.
Undiluted dogma never did me any harm when I was young, though, so that’s what these kids were getting. They were going to hear about hell, purgatory and heaven.
To avoid getting anything wrong, I began by sticking to the Creed. Catholics believe, I said, in “life everlasting”. But eternal life won’t be the same for everyone. There really is a place called hell for evil people, such as Hitler, who aren’t sorry for the bad things they have done.
But when I used Google to fact-check myself, it turned out that hell isn’t a place at all. According to St John Paul II, it’s the “state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God”. The “symbolical language” of hellfire in the Bible is to be taken with a pinch of salt. The thought of hell should not create “anxiety or despair”, but is a “healthy reminder” of the freedom to be found in Christianity.
That’s reassuring, and makes perfect sense. But after finishing the questionnaire I couldn’t help wondering in the days that followed: has the Church gone too far in its bid to avoid causing anxiety? When was the last time you heard a priest warn his flock about the danger of damnation? Or talk seriously about the consequences of sin? It’s as if hell is out of fashion.
My anxiety probably wasn’t helped by reading the Divine Comedy for the first time, which I had quoted in the questionnaire, then got hooked on. Dante’s work – which draws on the theology of St Thomas Aquinas – is at times utterly terrifying. What if it is closer to the truth than your average parish priest’s homily?
Here’s what happens to murderers, for example, on the other side of the gateway inscribed “Abandon every hope, who enter here”. They are submerged up to their brows in Phlegethon, a boiling river of blood that’s guarded by huge centaurs. These half-human creatures patrol the banks of the river, “their arrows aimed at any soul that thrusts above the blood more than its guilt allots”. Attila the Hun is in the deepest part of the river, Dante writes, where he is forever tormented by divine justice.
Fine, you might think: I’m not the Attila type so I’ll be all right. Not so fast. The gluttonous, to take a less extreme example, are found in the third circle of hell, which is “filled with cold, unending, heavy and accursed rain … Gross hailstones, water grey with filth, and snow come streaking down across the shadowed air; the earth, as it receives that shower, stinks.” The souls buried in the muck there are guarded by the three-headed dog Cerberus. And “those miserable wretches turn and turn”, in a vain attempt to shield themselves from the never-ending downpour. Anyone for seconds?
Purgatory, by contrast, is often said to be a hopeful place, because the souls who reach it know that they will go to heaven. Disconcertingly, though, the Catechism talks of a “cleansing fire”. And the medieval idea of the place is even more alarming.
In The Stripping of the Altars – which explains how the Reformation, far from liberating the devoutly Catholic English, was ruthlessly imposed on them – Eamon Duffy quotes Bridget of Sweden, a mystic whose revelations were well known in 15th-century England. Her vision of purgatory included seeing the judgment passed on a newly dead soul guilty of lies and pride. Bridget saw that there was a “bande bonden abowte his hede”, so tightly that “the brayne braste out”, and “the teth were smetyn togyddir”. The horror continues, ending with the observation that the victim’s “bonys were drawen oute as it had bene a thred of a clothe”. Her purgatory sounds worse than parts of Dante’s inferno.
But Duffy says the “retailing of such horrors was not simply intended to harrow and terrify but to convert and chasten”. What the medievals called the “paynes eternalles of helle” helped them to focus on removing the “synne of our soules”.
The tradition has all changed. But the Church dogma – the Truth with a capital T that you find in the Creed – is pretty much the same as it was in the time of Dante and Bridget. It’s only the touchy-feely teaching of it that has gone soft.
That’s what makes me anxious. If “the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction”, shouldn’t we be warned about it more vehemently? I’d put up with more fire and brimstone in this life if it saved my soul.
Will Heaven is the managing editor of the Spectator