(Almost) Everything I Know About Hell I Learned From "Buffy"
December 18, 2015 6:32 AM   Subscribe

I would feel bad about this pop theological education, except I'm not alone. As part of Sojourner's series on God in sci-fi and fantasy (in honor of Star Wars Week), Rose Marie Berger discusses Hell as a trope and a reality.
posted by emjaybee (30 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
 
This was an interesting read, and I was interested to learn about the Bosnian cross with its dual images of Christ, but I was hoping for more reflections on Buffy itself. In particular, I'd love to read some detailed theologically-informed reflections on that strange powerful season 6 metaphor about being dragged out of Heaven by the love of your human family. It's not theologically orthodox on the life-after-death stuff, but it's very Matthew 10:37 in its critical view of the finiteness and potential selfishness of human love.
posted by Aravis76 at 6:49 AM on December 18, 2015 [5 favorites]


It's a solid point- virtually everything ever written about the Christian conception of Hell is overwhelmingly based on Dante's Inferno, and very little-informed by scripture.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:59 AM on December 18, 2015 [5 favorites]


I always liked the Buffy conception of Hell as a mystic dimension, with the possibility of Earth being dragged wholesale into it. (And.. didn't that happen in one of the shows? briefly?)
posted by curious nu at 7:12 AM on December 18, 2015


Ted Chiang wrote "Hell is the Absence of God" in 2001. I wonder if the genesis of this was the pope's announcement.
posted by Hactar at 7:26 AM on December 18, 2015


The threat of earth being pulled into the Hellmouth shows up every season, I think. It briefly happened in season 5, until Buffy dies to close it up again.
posted by Aravis76 at 7:28 AM on December 18, 2015


It's a solid point- virtually everything ever written about the Christian conception of Hell is overwhelmingly based on Dante's Inferno, and very little-informed by scripture.

There is a clever short story on the subject, Vanni Fucci is Alive and Well and Living In Hell, written by Dan Simmons. In it, a televangelist is confronted by a visitor from... well, you can guess... who explains the power of transformative ideology and how Dante is largely responsible for his current state.
posted by delfin at 7:32 AM on December 18, 2015 [5 favorites]


It's a solid point- virtually everything ever written about the Christian conception of Hell is overwhelmingly based on Dante's Inferno, and very little-informed by scripture.

This reminds me of Peter Brooks' film adaptation of his own stage production of The Mahabharata. Growing up Hindu, I was aware of the commonly held Christian idea of hell and what it was. And I was always blown away by Brooks' directorial vision of the Hindu hell: an empty barren darkness, like a silent void set within a cave of stone.

Doing a little research on my own Hindu faith and I realize that hell (Naraka) is a bit more complicated than the version Peter Brooks set to film. Like Dante's Inferno, there are various levels of hell as outlined in the Vedas, here are a few fun ones:
The names of many of hells is common in Hindu texts; however, the nature of sinners tormented in particular hells varies from text to text.

Tamisra (darkness): It is intended for a person who grabs another's wealth, wife or children. In this dark realm, he is bound with ropes and starved without food or water. He is beaten and reproached by Yamadutas till he faints.

Andhatamisra (blind-darkness): Here, a man – who deceives another man and enjoys his wife or children – is tormented to the extent he loses his consciousness and sight. The torture is described as cutting the tree at its roots.
Raurava (fearful or hell of rurus): As per the Bhagavata Purana and the Devi Bhagavata Purana, it is assigned for a person who cares about his own and his family's good, but harms other living beings and is always envious of others. The living beings hurt by such a man take the form of savage serpent-like beasts called rurus and torture this person. The Vishnu Purana deems this hell fit for a false witness or one who lies.

Maharaurava (great-fearful): A person who indulges at the expense of other beings is afflicted with pain by fierce rurus called kravyadas, who eat his flesh.

Kumbhipaka (cooked in a pot): A person who cooks animals and birds is cooked alive in boiling oil by Yamadutas here, for as many years as there were hairs on the bodies of their animal victims.

Kalasutra (thread of Time/Death): The Bhagavata Purana assigns this hell to a murderer of a brahmin (the Hindu priestly caste), while the Devi Bhagavata Purana allocates it for a person who disrespects his parents, elders, ancestors or brahmins. This realm is made entirely of copper and extremely hot, heated by fire from below and the red hot sun from above. Here, the sinner burns from within by hunger and thirst and the smouldering heat outside, whether he sleeps, sits, stands or runs.

Asipatravana/Asipatrakanana (forest of sword leaves): The Bhagavata Purana and the Devi Bhagavata Purana reserve this hell for a person who digresses from the religious teachings of the Vedas and indulges in heresy. The Vishnu Purana states that wanton tree-felling leads to this hell. Yamadutas beat them with whips as they try to run away in the forest where palm trees have swords as leaves. Afflicted with injury of whips and swords, they faint and cry out for help in vain.
posted by Fizz at 7:43 AM on December 18, 2015 [7 favorites]


This makes me want to re-read "What Would Buffy Do? - The Vampire Slayer as Spiritual Guide" by Jana Riess. Wonderful book! It also reminds me of when I climbed the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. One look at Vasari's frescoes and I was certain Joss Whedon had used it as inspiration for every demon that spilled out of the Hellmouth.

I am fascinated by people's conception of Hell. Ever since reading Dag Hammarskjold in college I have pondered this quote of his -- “In the last analysis, it is our conception of death which decides our answers to all the questions that life puts to us.”

And, FWIW, this is my 1st ever post! Hi Metafilter! I am so happy to be here.
posted by pjsky at 7:56 AM on December 18, 2015 [18 favorites]




the nature of sinners tormented in particular hells

Thus people, not content with filling the whole Earth with suffering, extend the empire of cruelty into other realms, until there is nowhere that exists or does not exist that is free from their furious hate. The devils, we read, lived in divine bliss until people made them slaves to unhappiness and automatons of punishment; the angels dwelt in peace until people drafted them into a ruthless army against the devils. People themselves are a trifold monster, whose faces are a murderer, his victim, his torturer. Justice for them is a whip, reproduction an insult, safety a weapon. It would have been better for the world had they never learned to speak, for every word needlessly multiplies enmity; nothing in the universe of evil would have occurred had they never been born.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 8:18 AM on December 18, 2015 [25 favorites]


Not exactly Hell, but if you want to spend some time learning about the Devil, listen to the A Cultural History of Satan podcast (it's Series 8 on that page). If you just want to sample it I'll recommend episodes 8.14 and 8.15 — 1 Enoch is wild.
posted by benito.strauss at 8:29 AM on December 18, 2015 [3 favorites]


Appropriate.
posted by Fizz at 8:52 AM on December 18, 2015 [2 favorites]


Ted Chiang wrote "Hell is the Absence of God" in 2001.

The change in question was 1999 and was more or less being taught by the Catholic church prior to that.
posted by Candleman at 10:20 AM on December 18, 2015


The band in Heaven
Plays your favourite song
They play it over and over
They play it all night long

Heaven
Heaven is a place
Where nothing
Nothing ever happens

Hell is the same, except that the band plays someone else's favourite song.
posted by Herodios at 10:27 AM on December 18, 2015 [3 favorites]


Hell is the same, except that the band plays someone else's favourite song. is Phil Collins.
posted by cmfletcher at 10:33 AM on December 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


Buffy's consistency (and actual interest) in theology is about the same as Firefly's consistency (and interest) in astronomy.
posted by straight at 10:38 AM on December 18, 2015 [3 favorites]


I feel like some of these more modern interpretations of Hell sound like they come from people who don't know any atheists. Unquenchable thirst for God? Meaninglessness? Hell is the life of people that separate themselves from God, the source of life and all that is good? Nah, sorry guys, that's not what we're dealing with here. I mean maybe "meaninglessness" is something we deal with, but so do you and that's why you chose faith and religion (I'm not really clear religion actually provides any "True Meaning of Life" that an atheist doesn't have anyway--so your end point is a bunch of fluffy clouds and boring people, whoopee?).
posted by Hoopo at 10:43 AM on December 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


The late Iain M. Banks' Surface Detail is about, among other things, a war being fought between civilizations which operate computer-simulated Hells and civilizations which regard this as a crime against (the local equivalent of) humanity. You can imagine which side the Culture is on.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:46 AM on December 18, 2015 [2 favorites]


The idea that Hell is a state of mind isn't especially modern, is it? It's in Marlowe's Faustus: "Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed/ in one self place; for where we are is hell/ and where hell is there must we ever be."

Also, I think the orthodox view that being separated from God and being an atheist aren't at all the same thing. You can be with and dependent on God without believing in God - that's an aspect of all the "ground of all being" stuff. CS Lewis covers this argument quite neatly in the Great Divorce - it's not separation from God as an idea that matters, so much as separation from (for example) selfless love and truth and mercy etc.
posted by Aravis76 at 10:55 AM on December 18, 2015 [2 favorites]


Glad to know Buffy is still influencing worldviews. I'm pretty sure Joss Whedon was dictated the entire six seasons on whatever mountain Moses got his schtick from.
posted by Mooseli at 11:58 AM on December 18, 2015


Hell is not knowing what Hell is.
posted by delfin at 12:00 PM on December 18, 2015


I feel like some of these more modern interpretations of Hell sound like they come from people who don't know any atheists. Unquenchable thirst for God? Meaninglessness? Hell is the life of people that separate themselves from God, the source of life and all that is good? Nah, sorry guys, that's not what we're dealing with here.

Well, it's sort of a truism to say "I don't believe in God and therefore the conception of Hell as the absence of God is meaningless to me." I don't think you believe in the existence of Hell, either. But my own handwavey interpretation of what I think the theological rationale for this would be is that, assuming God and Hell exist, you are experiencing God in some way right now by virtue of existing within His creation, even if you are rejecting a deeper spiritual relationship. And Hell would be the complete absence of even that limited presence of God, and that would somehow be painful for you. Or at least, worse than the alternative.
posted by AndrewInDC at 12:02 PM on December 18, 2015


And Hell would be the complete absence of even that limited presence of God

What would that even represent?
posted by Hoopo at 1:37 PM on December 18, 2015


Non-existence. Same as in town.
posted by wabbittwax at 2:23 PM on December 18, 2015


Metafilter: wanton tree-felling leads to this hell
posted by sammyo at 4:49 PM on December 18, 2015


Stop stalking my Insta, Hindu hell-creators!
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:19 PM on December 18, 2015


I feel like some of these more modern interpretations of Hell sound like they come from people who don't know any atheists. Unquenchable thirst for God? Meaninglessness? Hell is the life of people that separate themselves from God, the source of life and all that is good? Nah, sorry guys, that's not what we're dealing with here.

But I think we all know what it feels like to have desires we can't fulfill, and some more than others know what it's like to try and fail to satisfy a particular desire with an unfulfilling substitute.

And our desires are kind of a given. We can modify them to some extent, but at some level, we want what we want and we can't just arbitrarily choose what to want.

If we lived a very, very long time, would our desires keep changing? Or would we discover some basic desires and learn in great detail what does and doesn't satisfy them? Might we have some desires that simply can't be satisfied? If so, could we accept that, or would we grow increasingly frustrated?

Christians, some of them, believe that we would all eventually discover that our most basic desire, just part of the way we are, is to be connected to the person who made us. Some by establishing that connection and others through perpetual dissatisfaction with substitutes.
posted by straight at 10:59 PM on December 18, 2015


I myself have a very hard time believing in a God who would be less horrified than I am about the idea of some of the people he's made living in eternal dissatisfaction, much less eternal torment.

But I also notice that, as this article points out with the story of the Bosnian cross, the idea of Hell and divine judgment seems a lot more acceptable to people who've watched their children starved and killed by men who lived and died fat and happy in their beds.
posted by straight at 11:08 PM on December 18, 2015


.... the idea of Hell and divine judgment seems a lot more acceptable to people who've watched their children starved and killed by men who lived and died fat and happy in their beds.

Yes! This observation adds another wrinkle. For many people who feel wronged (justifiably or not), Hell is necessary so that they can believe "Divine Judgement" will give their oppressors or tormentors (or liberal neighbors) what they so richly deserve. PUNISHMENT. But this way of thinking requires a belief in a "Just World." I can't think of anything I have read in the last 20 years that made me "grow up" quicker than wrestling with Melvin Lerner's writings on the "Just World Fallacy."

To really contemplate the possibility, that no matter what you or anyone else calls GOD, there actually is no "cosmic justice" and therefore, no Hell, is life altering. And once you see the fallacy, you cannot UNsee it! It is extraordinary to me how easily Americans today rationalize other people's misfortune to "well, they must have done something to deserve it." And how readily oppressed people take refuge in the idea that evil people will one day "get what's coming to them."
posted by pjsky at 8:36 AM on December 19, 2015


I myself have a very hard time believing in a God who would be less horrified than I am about the idea of some of the people he's made living in eternal dissatisfaction, much less eternal torment.

Of course if we go by classical theology and the Summa Theologica, Heaven is somewhere where the people will find watching those suffering in Hell to be a spectator sport and won't find this at all uncomfortable to watch. The Heaven in the Summa Theologica is to me far more horrifying than the Hell.
posted by Francis at 6:12 PM on December 20, 2015


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