Mennonot: Pleasure with Pain for
Leaven, Issue #5
Ross L. Bender
Mennonot, Issue #5
Who's Going to Hell This Week
and Why or Why Not?
She lurks in the gloomy depths of the City Hall subway
station, beneath the thunking, quivering, wheezing,
scum-choked heart of the metropolis, decked with a decorative sandwich board
emblazoned with the vivid word "REPENT," and spasmodically clutching
and jerking a tattered Bible. The Market-Frankford subway lumbers in, its steel
wheels screeching like a bat out of hell, and disgorges its load like a full
bowel its bolus: red brown yellow black and gray, and as they spew from the
subway doors the go-to-hell lady takes up her stance, ratchets up her inhumanly
powerful voice to an insane bellow: "Y'all goin'
to hell! Y'all goin' to
hell! Not one of you is righteous, no not one, y'all goin'
Quest for the Historical Hell
How did hell originate? Whose idea was it anyway? Scientists are baffled,
historians uncertain, and theologians, as usual, are clueless. N. K. Sandars, in the introduction to her English translation of
The Epic of Gilgamesh, comments, "It would be an over-simplification to
say that where the Egyptians give us the vision of heaven, the Babylonians give
the vision of hell; yet there is some truth in it. . . It is a depressing
vision of heavy moping voiceless birds with draggled feathers crouching in the
dirt." Enkidu, on his deathbed, relates to
Gilgamesh a dream in which a black bird seizes him and carries him away to the
palace of Irkalla, the Queen of Darkness: "There
is the house whose people sit in darkness; dust is their food and clay their
meat. They are clothed like birds with wings for covering, they see no light, they sit in darkness. I entered the house of dust and I saw
the kings of the earth, their crowns put away forever; rulers and princes, all
those who once wore kingly crowns and ruled the world in the days of old."
Elsewhere in Mesopotamian literature, hell is described as a place of constant
thirst, as a city whose lord feeds on mud and drinks it by the cupful and
All very well, you say, but what does hell mean to us today? How can I
use my knowledge of hell to win friends, influence people and discover interesting sexual partners?
Today, Gone Tomorrow
modern 20th-century sophisticate realizes that hell is not so much a place you
go to but more of a place that persons construct in the here and now. Take Jean
Paul Sartre's play No Exit -- please!:
"So that's what Hell is. I'd never have believed it. . . Do you remember,
brimstone, the stake, the gridiron?. . . What a joke!
No need of a gridiron; Hell, it's other people."
"Hell in a Very Small Place"—a history of the
French-Indochina war. "Life in Hell"—by Matt Groenig, a cartoon of all things. Dachau,
Buechenwald, Dresden, Hiroshima, Cambodia, Serbo-Croatia, Rwanda, Guatemala. Do I put my finger
right on the nub? Do I have to spell it out for you? I sincerely hope not.
Hell of Intensely Hot Dung
to the jazzy notoriety with which Dante and Milton embellished the concept of
hell, some folks might suspect that hell is merely a dead white European thang. But the truth is stranger than fiction, and the
evidence is not all in. The evidence for Oriental hells is overwhelming,
although scholars still don't know for sure whether the idea of hell originated
independently in the East, was diffused from a single point of origin in the
Near East, or is an archetype of the collective unconscious that manifests
itself in all bodies of religious thought around the world. A fourth
possibility exists, namely that hell actually exists. Sound farfetched? Let's
go to the scriptures.
Here we have Genshin, an evangelist in the
Pure Land Church (Buddhist) of medieval Japan, and a forerunner of the True
Pure Land Church:
"Outside the four gates of this hell are sixteen separate places which are
associated with this hell. The first is called the place of excrement. Here, it
is said, there is intensely hot dung of the bitterest of taste, filled with
maggots with snouts of indestructible hardness. The sinner here eats of the
dung and all the assembled maggots swarm at once for food. They destroy the
sinner's skin, devour his flesh and suck the marrow from his bones."
This, by the way, was translated by Professor Philip Yampolsky of Columbia University, who used to teach a
graduate seminar in Zen. You may recall that when the Japanese exterminated
Christianity in the 16th and 17th centuries, they suspended Christians
upside down over pits of dung and left them there until their brains burst.
Motoori Norinaga, the eminent 18th-century Shinto
theologian, concurred that Hell was a stinky place. At their death, he stated,
all humans go to the underworld, the land of Yomi,
"an exceedingly filthy and bad land." Yomi
is the Hades-like land into which the goddess Izanami
descended, as graphically described in the Kojiki
and Nihon Shoki. Norinaga,
being Japanese, even wrote a poem about it:
yomi no kunibe
chi yo toko to wa ni
Bourne of darkness--
How dirty and disgusting!
I want to stay in THIS world
A thousand ages evermore!
(translation by Peter Nosco)
Comparative note: The Mayan underworld, Xibalba, is
ruled by gods who smell like they've just stepped in from the barnyard.
Hell You Say!
your walk in life, wherever you may roam, whether you be Buddhist or Baptist or
Jew, hell may be coming your way, whether you think much about it or not. In
any case, you must admit, as I am sure you will agree,
that the concept of hell has irrevocably enriched the English language. Without
it, we would never have had such gems as:
"to hell in a handbasket"
"when hell freezes over"
"hell on wheels"
"a cold day in hell"
"hell to pay"
"O Death, where is thy sting-a-ling-ling
O Grave, thy victoree?
The bells of Hell go ding-a-ling-a-ling
For you but not for me."
--song popular in the British Army, 1914-18
The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations