3. The “Hell” of the Pagans, described and dramatized by the poets of antiquity, is the grandest of the forms that have been assumed by the idea of a place of punishments for the souls of humanity, although its principal features have been perpetuated in the “Hell” of the Christians, which, also, has been sung by their poets. On comparing these two conceptions of the infernal regions, we find them to be closely allied, notwithstanding their differences of names and details; in both, physical fire is the basis of the tortures of the damned, because it is the cause of the most excruciating suffering. But, strange to say, Christians have made their hell, in many respects, still more horrible than that of the Pagans. The latter had their hell in the Sieve of the Danaides, Ixion’s Wheel, the Stone of Sisyphus, etc.; but these were merely torments of individuals, whereas the Christian hell has its boiling cauldrons for the vast majority of the human race, and the Christian “angels” lift up the covers of those receptacles to feast their eyes upon the contortions of the damned, * which are also watched by the “elect” with lively satisfaction, ** while their God hears, unmoved, the groans that will ascend, throughout eternity, from the bottomless pit! The Pagans never depicted the dwellers in the Elysian Fields as gloating over the horrors of Tartarus.
* A sermon preached, in 1860, by an eminent Catholic divine, at Montpellier, seat of a University Faculty.
** 8 “The blessed, without quitting the place they occupy, will yet quit it in a certain manner—through the intelligence and the distinctness of vision with which they are endowed—in order to contemplate the tortures of the damned; and, on seeing these, they will not only not feel any sorrow, but they will be overwhelmed with joy and will give thanks to God for their own happiness in witnessing the unutterable misery of the impious.”—SAINT THOMAS AQUINAS.
4. Like the Pagans, the Christians have their king of the Infernal Regions, Satan; with this difference, viz., that Pluto, while governing the gloomy realm which had fallen to his share, was not malicious; he retained as captives those who had done wickedly, because it was his mission to do so; but he did not seek to draw humans into evil in order to give himself the pleasure of seeing them suffer; whereas Satan recruits his victims everywhere, and takes pleasure in having them tortured by his legions of demons, who are armed with pitchforks for the purpose of stirring them about in the fire. Christian theologians have gravely discussed the nature of the “fire,” which burns the damned incessantly, and yet does not consume them; some of them have even gone so far as to inquire whether that fire may not perhaps be of bitumen.* The Christian hell is, therefore, in no respect less horrible than the Pagan hell.
* In a sermon preached in Paris in 1861.
5. The same considerations which led the Ancients to localize the realm of felicity led them also to imagine a place of torment, like the former, fixed, localized, and circumscribed; and, having placed their heaven “on high,” they naturally placed their hell “down below,” that is to say, in the center of the Earth, of which certain dark and gloomy caverns were supposed to be the entrance. The Christians, also, for a long time, placed the region of perdition in the center of the Earth. Nor were these the only analogies between the Pagan and the Christian conceptions of hell.
The hell of the pagans contained, on the one hand, the Elysian Fields, on the other, Tartarus; Olympus, the dwelling-place of the gods and of deified men, was in the “upper regions.” According to the letter of the Gospels, Jesus descended into Hell, into a region below the surface of the Earth, on a mission to rescue the souls who were awaiting his coming. The hell of the Christians, like that of the Pagans, was, therefore, in the beginning, not simply a place of torment, but, like the latter, included “the lower regions.” And the Christian heaven, the abode of the angels and the saints, was also, like the Pagan Olympus, up “on high,” somewhere beyond the region of the stars, which, as previously remarked, was supposed to be limited.
6. This mixture of Pagan and Christian ideas should cause us no surprise. Jesus could not, at once, destroy beliefs that had taken firm root in the human mind. The people of this day lacked the scientific knowledge that alone could enable them to conceive of the infinity of space and the infinity of worlds. The Earth was, for them, the center of the universe. They knew nothing of its form or of its internal structure; for them, the universe was limited to what they saw around them, and their notions, in regard to the future, could not extend beyond the narrow circle of their knowledge. It was, consequently, impossible for Jesus to initiate them into the truth of things; and being unwilling, on the other hand, to give the sanction of his authority to the prejudices of his hearers, he abstained from touching on subjects for which they were unprepared. Leaving to time the work of rectifying their ideas, he confined himself to vague allusions to the future happiness of the good, and to the punishments that await the wicked; but we nowhere find, in his teachings, the distinct pictures of corporeal tortures which the Christians churches have made an article of their creed.
We have seen how it is that the ideas of the Pagan hell have been perpetuated to the present day. The diffusion of knowledge, which is the characteristic of modern times, and the general development of human intelligence, were indispensable to the clearing away of those ideas. But as, up to this time, no sound and rational basis of belief has been substituted in place of those old ideas, the long period of blind belief has been followed by a transitional period of unbelief, to which the new revelation is destined to put an end. It was necessary to demolish the old belief before bringing in the new; for true ideas are more readily accepted by those who have no belief and who feel the need of some sound basis of conviction, than by those who cherish a robust belief in absurdities.
7. Owing to their having localized their idea of “Heaven” and of “Hell,” the various Christian sects have been led to admit the existence of only two situations for the souls of the departed—viz., perfect happiness and utter misery. Purgatory, according to the Catholic dogma, is only a temporary and intermediate position, where the soul goes without any other transition into the abode of the Blest. It could not do otherwise, according to the belief that assumes that the fate of the soul is decided forever at death. If there are but two abodes for souls, —viz., that of the elect and that of the damned, —and if the fate of the soul, as belonging to the one or the other category, is definitely settled at death it is impossible to admit the existence of degrees in either of those abodes; for, if such degrees existed, it must be possible for the soul to pass through them, and, consequently, to progress: but, if the soul can progress after death, its state, on dying, is not definitive, since, if it were definitive, progress would be impossible. Jesus settled this weighty question when he said, “In my Father’s house are many mansions.” *
* Vide “The Gospel According to Spiritism,” chap. III