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Stairway to Heaven, Highway to Hell

Tuesday, 24th April, 2001

War is hell. Hell is other people. Hell ain't a bad place to be.

Hell is a construct used every day by millions of people without much thought at all. Hell, I've used it myself. It also makes appearances in countless rock songs or horror novels. Nothing yet, however, has rung true for me.

I've wondered for a long while just what Hell would really be like. If I died tomorrow and went down instead of up, what would I expect to see? I've never been to Australia or Mars or Ulan Bator, Outer Mongolia, but I still have vague ideas of what they would look like. I wouldn't expect to be totally right about them, of course, but I wouldn't expect to be totally wrong either. I haven't a clue when it comes to Hell.

The standard image is the medieval fire and brimstone thing. Satan, resplendent in redder than red skin and a dinky little pointed tail, flits around the place having a ball. He gets his rocks off watching a multitude of demons do whatever they want to whoever they want. As Aleister Crowley always said, 'Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.' The smell of sulphur is all pervading; the fires burn higher and higher. It all sounds a bit too much like South Central LA to me.

You see, like so much else, Hell is relative to time. If you were a peasant in 12th century rural England, that sort of image would strike the fear of God into you, literally. But try it on a gangsta rapper, and he'll laugh. Been there, done that, he'd say. Try it on someone who lived through Pol Pot's Cambodia, or Idi Amin's Uganda, or Adolf Hitler's death camps. We don't expect Hell to be an image out of Bosch or Goya. Nowadays, if we believe in a literal Hell at all, we expect it to be very different, because fire and brimstone doesn't fit our culture any more.

But what do we expect? Something like Orwell's Room 101, that merely contains something tailored to individual requirements. What do you fear most? Are you ready to endure it for eternity, without the safety net of quietly going insane, like the hero of Terry Gilliam's Brazil?

Maybe it's even simpler than that. Maybe it's just a place where you become forever separated from those you love, but never being separated from your memories.

Forever comes into this stuff a lot, something else that doesn't make a lot of sense to me. Mankind can get used to anything, given time. People fell in love at Auschwitz. Every civilian warzone from Palestine to Northern Ireland has its own Romeo and Juliet stories. I think that if we did end up in a literal Hell, we'd probably end up decorating.

Of course, now we're back to 'Bart, quit pestering Satan!' Isn't the Devil himself supposed to be all powerful? But that would give us an obvious target to fear, and it would detract from the effect of the rest of Hell. Roger Corman, godfather to Hollywood, used to talk about the difference between right wing horror and left wing horror: right wing horror is 'it's out there, it's going to get me!' and left wing horror is 'it's in me, it's going to get me!' I guess popular culture has shifted Hell further left wing as time goes by.

And what about Heaven? Is it really a bunch of happy guys sitting on clouds playing harps all day? They may have done away with N'Sync up there, but would you really want to sit on a cloud and play a harp all day? You'd be bored senseless.

It could be worse, of course. Ian Gillan wrote a hilarious song called 'No Laughing in Heaven' all about a notorious sinner who decides to reform just so that he can get into Heaven, which is of course the place to be. And he makes it! He throws away all his bad habits, he gives all his money to the poor, and when he dies he's taken straight upstairs to St Peter, who checks his card and lets him through. But now he's ready to party and God isn't having any of that. As he says, 'Here we pray every hour on the hour and read extracts from the Bible and look solemn.' The hero responds. 'What,' says I, 'no party? No party? Lemme out!'

The old axiom is 'careful what you wish for, as it might come true.' If you were going to wish for something for all eternity, what would you wish for? Is there anything that you wouldn't get bored of? And Heaven can't be about mere pleasure anyway, or they'd let Jeffrey Dahmer in. I'm sure he had a great time doing what he did, but what he did doesn't fit with our ideas of what Heaven should be about.

Maybe you'd settle for some of the other traditional benefits of Heaven. God will take away all pain - whatever ailment you suffer, you'll suffer no longer up there. You'll be safe. Nothing can harm you up there, so all fear would disappear.

And you'd live in the presence of God himself. Of course this is as abstract a concept as a literal Hell. I kept enough faith when I left organised religion behind to still believe in God. I know many people who are still a part of various different organised religions and who all believe in God. However, I doubt any of them could tell me what he looks like. Which after all, is maybe the point.

Graham Masterton wrote a novel called 'The Devils of D-Day', an intriguing horror yarn about a bunch of demons who ran amok on our planet in days gone past. They'd all been captured in the end and a certain few had been sealed within the very tanks they'd used to cause chaos in France during World War II. Being a horror novel, of course, they'd found a way out. Their final demise comes at the hands of an angel, depicted in very intriguing terms as something awesome in the literal sense of the word. Awesome and damn scary and a far cry from the happy guy in a white dress and a halo.

All of which mindless rambling is because I recently read an intriguing book about the subject. C S Lewis is known by most, of course, for his children's books set in Narnia, and rightly so. But he wrote far more than that, and a large chunk of his output had to do with religion, which he found after years of devout atheism. After all, the Narnia books may be great adventure stories, but they're also an astute parallel to the story of Christianity.

His book, 'The Great Divorce', was written as a response to William Blake's 'A Marriage of Heaven and Hell', which I really ought to find. It starts with the narrator wandering up to a bus stop and waiting in the queue. Gradually people bicker and fight and leave the queue, and eventually he ends up on the bus. No bus to Basingstoke this, though; it turns out to be a day trip to Heaven from Hell.

This character wanders for a while, watching how his fellow passengers interact with the inhabitants of this new place, and eventually finds his own inhabitant to talk to, who explains much and opens up thought on more.

It puts into easily visualised terms his views on Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, God, death and the hereafter in every way. I'm still thinking about it a week later, which Lewis would probably see as the highest praise I could offer him.

Books about theology are not supposed to be read easily and with enjoyment. Then again books about theology are not supposed to be written by famous authors of children's classics. Or should that be the other way round? Whichever, I ought to start reading more of this stuff.

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