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ARCHIVE for Thursday 18th October 2001 - Hell

Last week in a newspaper two photographs were printed side by side. One showed an American placard with the face of Osama bin Laden as a target riddled with bullet holes. Above it was written, Rot in Hell.

The other picture was of an Indonesian girl with Go to Hell USA written across her headband.

It is a hateful thing to wish someone to hell. It wishes that person a far worse punishment than anything that could be suffered on earth. And it does no good to the person who wishes it.

If there is such a thing as hell, it is not for us to decide who goes there. But is there really a judgment after death, with souls sent to hell or heaven?

People have always believed so. Socrates, the star of philosophers, said that, if you do wrong, it is better to get your punishment over in this world - rather than wait till after death.

The reason for his certainty must have been that he had passed through the final stage of initiation. Those who were ready for it were led underground, into the darkness of the earth. By drugs or vapours they were put into a state of trance, and experienced a trip to Hades, the Underworld. When they returned to the surface they were wiser than before and lived better lives.

The most frightening thought about hell is that you may never get out of it. Some religions have threatened that. But they also say that God is merciful, so there cannot really be an eternity of torture. There are different levels of hell, according to the degree of your wickedness. In Dante's Inferno swindlers and traitors are thrown into the lowest pit. Socrates said that great tyrants, who have murdered thousands and caused widespread misery, are confined in the very centre of hell. You are lucky, he said, if your tyranny is only on the domestic scale. But you have to pay for the evil you have done - and ten times over.

Not even clergymen talk much about hell these days. Most of us in the West probably do not believe in it. And it is not popular in the New Age. I have read several books on the 'near-death experience' and found only a few mentions of hell in them. Mostly they tell about a tunnel with a light at the end, and a divine being who forgives you everything. I hope it is like that.

An entrance to the Underworld
A famous place of access to the Underworld was St Patrick's Purgatory on an island in Lough Dergh, Ireland. According to chroniclers of ancient pagan rituals, the journey of initiation down into the earth and the experience of hell were so awesome that some people did not survive it. The island is now a holy place of Catholic vigils.

John Michell

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Unexplained Phenomena, A Rough Guide Special
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Who Wrote Shakespeare?
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