Man has always preferred Hell to Heaven, since Heaven is a bland concept; there is very little to it as far as imagination is concerned—just infinite love, a concept that is a bit sickly to speak about and is, in fact, cheapened and destroyed if it is spoken or thought about with any frequency. Hell, on the other hand, probably the sinister left hand, provides unlimited opportunities to imagine sadistic tortures exacted on our enemies and people who have crossed us, or, alternatively, if we are in a masochistic frame of mind, to imagine ourselves tortured for all our sins of omission and commission that, at some level, we feel will eventually land us in hot water. The mind is much more at home with hot tar, skin flailed from the body, eyes gouged out, and the like than it can ever be with infinite love and understanding—it is all so much more vivid for us, presumably because, down on earth, we are closer to Hell by default.
Of course, if you think about Hell for long enough, the initial fearful thrill wears out; as with a Buddhistic exercise, all the tortures become mundane and you reach the sage view that, perhaps, Hell is best not imagined as a place with literal physical tortures and agony; no, it is, as modern vicars will venture, perpetual separation from God. The problem with this concept is that is about as bland as Heaven; it makes me imagine some galactic interstitial zone between universes, a place black without starlight where nothing happens and you feel very lonely. Frankly, this does not terrify me as much as some demon caked in human blood and excrement; and, anyway, it does not solve the problem. If you dwell on the absence of God’s love for long enough the situation becomes as banal and palatable as infinite time spent with needles inserted into the soft demi-moons beneath your fingernails.
Despite its popularity, Hell has suffered a decline in recent decades. Nietzsche was very much against Heaven and Hell, concepts he attributed to Plato and Socrates—decadent Greeks who then inspired decadent Roman Christians. Nietzsche’s views on the afterlife stand behind every contemporary atheist who says, “I don’t need some fairytale to be good, thank you. Anyway, it detracts from my good acts if I do them because I’m afraid of Hell. I have to be good for its own sake. I just want to get on and enjoy my life, you just want to imprison people with your sick stories.”
As Nietzsche noted, there is a resentful streak to people who believe in Heaven and Hell. Tertullian, an early Christian, observed that one of the pleasures of Heaven would be to look down at those being tortured in Hell. This is an ugly sentiment, though it is very recognisably human—unfortunately.
Yet the decline in Hell, still quite popular with many people even fifty years ago, can be attributed less to any intellectual revolution and more to the rise of the screen. Until the 1950s, people had radio and cinema—the former required imagination, the latter was a weekly treat—but by the 1950s the TV, then the computer, arrived. The result has been to atrophy imagination, and imagination is required if Hell is to be palpable.
If we speak about Hell today, the temptation is to Google it and then our Hell is that found in a 19th-century painting or a 1960s comic; and this destroys the delicious moralised imaginative self-torture that gives Hell its power. “Britney speaks out about drugs hell,”’ says the headline; yet this is not Hell, it is about physical pain here and now—what we have lost is Hell as a moral sanction, today little “h” hell is a metaphor for extreme discomfort. Self-torture and resentful pleasure in pain for others are unpleasant, but you have to wonder how many wicked acts were prevented and good deeds contracted thanks to Hell, the now unimaginable place.