You might think Heaven and hell are a matched set — you can’t have one without the other. But the post-modern mind seems to have decoupled two of the most basic and universal religious ideas in human history, according to the writer and host of Hell: A Survivor’s Guide
“Hell is more popular than Heaven. It’s probably more popular than God,” said Brian Paisley. People are more secular now — that kind of thing. But they brought hell with them. Hell, as Jean-Paul Sartre said, is other people. Hell is the blackened landscape, the world that has been raped. It stands in for a whole mess of things really.” Paisley’s one-hour TV special, a documentary airing on VisionTV Feb. 8 at 9 p.m., comes with a companion web site at hellsurvivorsguide.com which allows viewers to delve more deeply into hell across several world religions. There’s hell as a philosophical idea, hell in the tradition of Western literature from Dante Alighieri to Jean Paul Sartre and hell in the history of art.
Hell seems to be having its moment on television. Chef Gordon Ramsay reigns supreme in Hell’s Kitchen year after year and has now launched Hotel Hell. The dark, bewildering, morally challenging western Hell on Wheels is entering its fifth and final season. CTV has just picked up Lucifer, an American series about a modern emissary from hell.
The glut of hell on TV is acontrast from a decade ago when Touched by an Angel was a cultural phenomenon accompanied by books, collector dolls and all manner of fascination with emissaries from Heaven. “It was that kind of era for people, where we wanted to be optimistic,” said Paisley of TV’s age of angels. “Now there’s a kind of feeling — politically, economically, around the world — it’s a situation that probably reminds us more of hell than Heaven.” Hell at first can seem like a very simple concept, Paisley said. “People are drawn to it because it’s a real shorthand for misery,” he said. “It’s simple, black and white. It’s a bad place where bad people go.” But as Paisley examined how hell functions in the modern imagination, he began to discover levels of meaning. “The question of whether we need hell kind of underlies it all.”
Do we need the fear of hell to keep us on the straight and narrow in a modern world with effective institutions of law and order? If hell isn’t a way of keeping people from doing bad things, why do we cling to the concept? “Hell has moved into a more psycho-spiritual, existential place,” said Paisley. “You are attributing a place of non-being and non-feeling as being hell. I think that’s where we’re at today.” After the Second World War, Auschwitz and Hiroshima, Aldous Huxley wondered whether our planet is another planet’s hell. And singer Bonnie Raitt summed up our own time’s attitude to religion and hell when she said, “Religion is for people who are scared to go to hell. Spirituality is for people who have already been there.” Each Sunday Catholics solemnly declare that Christ descended into hell. Christ’s harrowing of hell (releasing its captives) is more than just an image to feed our imaginations. It is a promise of salvation and mercy that extends every level of life and meaning in the universe. Thinking about hell is good for the soul not because it may scare us into good behaviour but because our Saviour has already been there on our behalf. It tells us more about who we are to God than what we should do.