Heaven and Hell (2) 157

Hell by Hieronymus Bosch

The playtime revolutionaries and vandals of the Viennese commune (see below, Heaven and Hell (1)) lived very comfortably in the midst of what they chose to call Hell. They knew it was nothing of the sort. They also could not help knowing that millions in neighboring Communist countries longed for the freedom and prosperity that they had and pretended to despise. Their Hell was a lie, but their Heaven was truly unimaginable.

Genuinely feared Hells are much the same in successive generations and diverse cultures. Hell is pain, sorrow, fear, loneliness, loss, defeat, oppression, humiliation, frustration, despair. It is all that we hate and fear. Its geography and architecture are hideous and threatening. Its images are iron and fire wielded by ruthless tormentors with absolute power, assaulting vulnerable flesh. Everyone can recognize Hell instantly in Hieronymus Bosch’s picture of it. As pain is universal, so are the furniture and vocabulary of Hell.

But what of Heaven? Who has described or pictured it convincingly?

The conventional Christian Heaven or Paradise – commonly depicted as a pearly-gated garden (‘Paradise’ is an Old Persian word for a garden) where disembodied but human-shaped beings with wings stand on clouds and pluck harp-strings, in the vicinity of a throne on which a huge bearded man is seated – cannot have a lot of appeal to a human nature that craves excitement, competition, challenge, variety, drama, achievement, and carnal satisfactions. At best it might be a rehab retreat rather than a pleasure resort. But there are profounder Christian visions. In Dante’s Paradiso the degrees of bliss – that is, nearness to God – depend on the capabilities of the individual souls.

In ancient Greece, the shades of heroes went to Elysium to wander about in a state of blessedness but not happiness, according to Homer. It lay on the rim of gloomy Hades, where the unheroic multitude languished forever. The wicked suffered unremittingly in the dreadful pit of Tartarus.

A perpetual feasting with the Gods in the great hall of Valhalla was how the Vikings imagined eternal bliss. But even if immortal digestive systems are part of the deal, such an afterlife, when measured against the pleasures pursued on earth, must surely lack a certain je ne sais quoi.

Jillian Becker,  December 16, 2009

Posted under Art, Articles, Christianity, Miscellaneous, Religion general by Jillian Becker on Wednesday, December 16, 2009

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