Other formats

    Adobe Portable Document Format file (facsimile images)   TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 8

Where and what is Hell?

Where and what is Hell?

Next to the fault of having no religion at all is that other of having the religious ideas in such a state of confusion that one ordinarily shuns any attempt at analysis as he would the vapour of some infectious disease. Mental idleness has no doubt a great deal to do with this—the putting off until to-morrow what should be done to-day. Thus men become self-constituted authors of their own spiritual discomfort, and still far as ever removed from that state of mental ease which a greater or less degree of religious assurance can alone impart. And why is this? The mind demands its reasonable exercise as well as the body, otherwise it is apt to contract such an access of lethargy as to wholly preclude its healthy action. Our hands and feet are made to minister to our well-being with a prospect of future ease and enjoyment. Are the expectations of futurity on so sandy a basis that all energy of pursuit and the examination of a page 268 so-styled faith are undermined by the ever-encroaching tide of spiritual unbelief? Listen to the outward profession, and you would at once repel the charge; note the daily practice, and you would at once affirm its correctness.

But if man is naturally inclined to postpone these considerations, either from mental apathy or from an unacknowledged dread, it is only to carry the lethalis arundo in his side and to suffer self-inflicted torment. With coward mind he stands aloof, hoping to filch in some way or other the happiness of a future state, and by seeming to embrace what he possibly thinks he believes, because he has never said in so many words that he disbelieves it, he holds himself up as a consistent and exemplary character, before whose eyes heaven and hell are clearly decided localities open at once to his own mental vision and spiritual capacity.

But here we must join issue with our devotee, and ask him without further preface on what he grounds his belief in a Hell—understood theologically to be a place of everlasting fire and torment, reserved for such as shall at some undefined period be debarred the gates of heaven. Where and what is Hell? we ask. Can we gather any distinct notion of it from scripture phraseology? Shall we take a dip into mythology? or base our ideas on the inverted cone of Dante's Inferno? If Hell is deep, where is its depth? If its interior is fire, where is its focus? If the molten centre of our earth be the receptacle of the damned, we might find it somewhat difficult to imagine how earth and hell should go together when "the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also, and the works that are therein shall be burned up;" or, if the crust of our earth be gradually cooling, as the most noted geologists of the day concur in saying, what becomes of Hell at some remote period with all its undying flames, unless we suppose that the mode of punishment by the result of natural circumstances changes from furnace heat to arctic cold? But again, putting our earth out of the question as the habitat of the wicked, where else can we locate the ultimately damned? Science assures us, if the Bible does not, that our own little earth is only one of the very least of millions of worlds revolving in a universe to whose proportions our globule here is in inconceivably less ratio than is the human form to the planet it inhabits. If "Hell is moved from beneath," as the son of Amoz has it, where is this beneath? Is it below, above, or on either side of us? Or must its site depend, perhaps, on our hemispherical position? But giving up earth, or any part of earth, as the barathrum of a future retribution, must we look for a Hell beyond our orb in the widely-ranging realms of air, where spirits of evil are said to wander? Or must we finally place our Pandemonium in some other star, so far removed from mortal ken as to trench on the very confines of imagination?

page 269

While we would deal with this naturally interesting point in no unbecoming spirit, so as either to shock the prejudices of the weakly or minister unbridled hardihood to the vicious, we feel no inclination whatever to indulge in a squeamishness that would be out of place, or to bow before the idol of a long-existing superstition. We would try, if possible, to agitate the subject in a sober manner, to ask again what and where is Hell, and see what influence for good or bad such belief has had on the ordinary conduct of mankind.

If an object is supposed to justify its means, we can easily enough fathom the intentions of those who first set this dogma going. Examine it critically and it assumes the character of a class idea, naturally enough generated in the minds of a minority from the very earliest period of struggling civilisation by a longing for mental ascendency and the all-pervading lust of rule. Beside this, contemplation of the heavenly bodies with all their intricate and marvellous machinery—stirring visions of sleep, coloured and fluttering with strange and portentous forms—the severe and oppressive silence of deeply-shrouded night, when stillness itself would seem to deal in speech and to strike us with an undefined awe—these and suchlike incidents of nature were early turned to profit by the more cunning mind and rendered subservient to that enslavement of the human understanding it has ever hitherto been the object of one petty class especially to impose, and the seeming fate of the other to submit to from supposed inability to resist. It was easy for the craft of an acuter intellect to embody the sickly visions of another's diseased imagination. It was no hard task for cunning to create a Hell where the material lay so ready to the hand in the sickly terrors of a disordered mind—and if some punishment in terrorem was needed to confirm this subjugation, it readily enough fixed on an element whose racking and often-experienced pain on earth would give very ample ideas of the torture and fire-torments of a future state of sorrow. How this idea came to germinate, to grow, and to produce an ever more and more vigorous crop of baleful fruit, can truthfully be conjectured by anyone who reflects how insensible man becomes to his religious state, how reprehensibly callous about dispelling those mists and unwholesome exhalations that cloud the otherwise sunshine of the heart and gloom it with a sad and increasing distemperature. Fettered by a keen and depressing superstition that ever pertinaciously cleaves to him like the burden of Faithful on his way to the Beautiful Mountain, man wends his weary way; all the while inwardly chafing at a serfdom as unentitled to his obedience, as it is unworthy of his manhood.

Again we inquire where and what is Hell?—whether Hades, Gehenna, Tartarus, Orcus, or what not? Our earth, like every other atom of creation, will have its comparatively little day, and then break up and be dissolved for the structure it may be of page 270 worlds to come. No theological Hell can then, we repeat it, be contained in this puny sphere if punishments are to be never-ending. What other position can we reasonably assign it? Shall we place it far away beyond the limits of our globe, in some immeasurably distant region of space where imagination may altogether run riot in the boundless expanse of the universe? Yet why imagine that any portion of the great whole should be devoted to any such ignoble purpose, or that any such improbable Hinnom for the refuse and viciously corrupt mortality of our little speck, should so blemish that loveliness and harmony so conspicuous features in all that we see around us? Why should man so wander from the track of sober probabilities? Why lash himself, as he so often does, with a scourge of his own knotting? Why accept as a fact what is after all but a designedly mischievous interpretation of a mere word, which, if we may judge from Jonah and the whale, and the parable of Lazarus and Dives, is but a figurative form of speech that but characterises the lowest depression of the human mind? What in fine is Hell but a figment, an absurdity, a something, like the oracles of old, not to be too closely examined by the vulgar eye for fear the crafty mechanism should be detected, and the moving springs laid bare to view. Its coarse and material terrors are more often inferred than expressed. And with reason; for in the absence of any sufficient evidence to establish a Hell, it is thought by those who are ordinarily too clever or may be too reticent to commit any religious solecism, that it may more judiciously be left for the imagination to act, than to jeopardise a dogma by unskilful manipulation. And so unless imagination be disciplined and be one of more than ordinary élan and vigour, it is but too apt to be caught in the every-hole-and-corner-spread web of any suggestive genius of superstition that from its spider-like hole views its victim's involvement, endeavouring to cut off all hope of escape by now and then throwing an additional coil.

In touching on this too seldom discussed subject, we trust we have laid ourselves open to no charge of impropriety. Our reader's satisfaction, ease of mind, and a not impardonable curiosity is our primary object in venturing on an otherwise unbeaten track; and we should deem it but small compliment to his wit and understanding to scoff at what should rather be calmly weighed. And in briefly concluding our remarks, we would ask once more whether Hell is not rather to be looked for within the region of the human heart than in the shadowy realms of fancy. Undoubtedly it is. For what however startling fictions of Hell have not their veritable realities in life? Note how superstition distorts the human sense and renders it absolutely torpid with fear, and in hourly terror of the accidents of life, as if, forsooth, physical laws had anything to do with moral conditions. If the glutton and debauchee are not made page 271 to wallow in the waves of an imaginary hell, is their breast less exempt from the recoil such vices engender? If no poetically retributive torment racks the man of broken trust and violated friendship, does neither anguish rend nor conscience scathe him? In fine, can a more fiery hell be thought of than that which burns in the heart of the avaricious, or tortures more agonising than such as come home sooner or later to the persistingly impure?

"Cerberus et Furiæ? jam vero, et lucis egestas,
Tartarus, horriferos eructans faucibus æstus:
Quæ neque sunt usquam, neque possunt esse profecto.
Sed metus in vita pænarum pro male factis
Est insignibus insignis : scelerisque luela
Career, et horrbilis de saxo jaetus eorum,
Verbera, carnifices, robur, pix, lamina, tædæ :
Quae tamen etsi absunt, at mens sibi conscia factis,
Præmetuens, adhibet stimulos, torretque flagellis,
Nee videt interea, qui terminus esse malorum
Possit, nec qua) sit pænarum denique finis;
Atque eadem metuit magis hac ne in morte gravescant:
Hinc Aeherusia fit stultorum denique vita!"