October 2010

Halloween approaches, and the usual round of “it was a cold and rainy night” stories of haunted buildings and cemeteries, ghosts, evil spirits, and other other-worldly phenomena will once again circulate on campus.  So it seems to me this is as good a time as any to say something about hell.  Heaven knows, any attempt to wed beauty and hell is a bit of stretch — well, to be honest, it is more than a bit of a stretch — nonetheless, in the thought of Anselm hell has a distinct place in the universe as created by God and further hell is necessary so long as those who have been granted intellect and free will ultimately and definitively choose not to follow the commandments of God, who, in other words, rebel against the goodness and loving kindness of God.  Hell is a necessary part of God’s eternal design.  When all things are made new at the end of time, the rebellious angels and humans have to be “somewhere” that is not heaven, and thus it is necessary for the good order of the universe that a place be set aside for them.  Literary accounts of hell, the underworld, Hades, abound from the classical narratives of Homer and Virgil in the voyages of Odysseus and Aeneas to the medieval masterpiece of Dante’s Inferno to Milton’s grand vision of Pandemonium in Paradise Lost to Jean Paul Sartre’s No Exit.  But none of these describe hell as beautiful or as an aspect of the beauty of creation.  Rather the image is at least one of hopeless desolation, barrenness, and complete deprivation of all that is good, if not of fire and brimstone or the frozen lake that precludes all movement of limb or will.  All that remains that might have any semblance to beauty, it seems, is the basic metaphysical good of existence.

It seems to me that Anselm’s view of hell as having beauty can only be understood in the context of his understanding of heaven, and from that perspective, hell as a place of eternal punishment does have, as strange as it may seem, a necessary beauty.  For Anselm heaven is the model of right order.  There are three kinds of order in heaven: first, heaven is a moral order in that sin and punishment are precluded from being there; second, heaven is a salvific order in that heaven is the reward granted to those who persevere in the faith; third, heaven is a mystical order in that it is inhabited by a perfect number of beings.  You can read my remarks about these three orders of heaven in The Saint Anselm Journal Vol. 6, No. 1 (Fall2008) at:


The sharpest contrast between the saved and the damned in the writings of Anselm I think is found in De humanis moribus. In this work Anselm set out four-fold conditions to which human nature was susceptible: to be miserable [miser], the condition of those who live in the world; to be most miserable [miserrimus], the condition of those who are permanently fixed in the fires of hell; to be happy [beatus], the condition of those who enjoyed the earthly paradise before the fall, viz., Adam and Eve; to be most happy [beatissimus], the condition of those who reside with the saints in heaven.  The beatus condition no longer obtains and the miser condition is limited to this life.  Thus at the end of time, all rational beings will exist either in a state of beatissimus or miserrimus.  Those who order their lives according to the will of God will enjoy the condition of beatissimus.

Earlier in the same work, Anselm had set out fourteen opposed pairs of beatitude and misery.  The first set of seven belongs properly to the body: beauty and ugliness; agility and slowness; strength and weakness; freedom and servitude; sanity and insanity; calmness and anxiety; long-lived and short-lived.  The second set of seven belongs properly to the soul: wise and foolish; friendly and unfriendly; agreeable and disagreeable; honorable and shameful; powerful and impotent; peaceful of mind and fearful; joyful and sad.  Those in heaven will enjoy the fullness of all fourteen beatitudes and are most blessed, while those in the underworld will be cursed with the fourteen miseries and will be most miserable.

With this brief background, let us try to approach Anselm’s understanding of hell.  Anselm offered no tour through hell à la Homer or Virgil or Dante.  Except for one instance he did not describe what awaits those who deserve eternal death.  With the exception of two occasions in which Anselm spoke of hell as the place where all souls went prior to Christ’s redemption act, all other references to hell simply referred to the place of eternal damnation.  Anselm used three terms to refer to hell: the most frequent term was infernus, but in a few instances he used the Scriptural term Gehenna and the pagan term Tartara.  While the three terms are scattered throughout his writings, it is in Meditation II: A Lament for Virginity Unhappily Lost that one finds his most concentrated references to hell and in which, incidentally, all three terms are used.

This meditation is, as the title indicates, a lament on his own failings as a sinner despite his religious profession (i.e., his virginity).  Anselm opened the meditation with a pitiful statement of his present condition as a sinner, and not only a sinner, but a sinner who had professed religious vows: “Once I was washed with the whiteness of heaven,” he wrote, “given the Holy Spirit, pledged with the profession of Christianity; I was a virgin, I was the spouse of Christ.”  But now because of his sins, the one to whom he had made his pledge and vows was now longer “the kind spouse of my virginity, but the terrible judge of my impurity.”  He derided himself who was once “the spouse of the king of heaven and with alacrity you have made yourself the whore of the tormentor of hell [tartarorum].”  Anselm continued to develop this rhythmic and balancing effect in his prose between what he once was and what he is now with similar metaphors.  For example, he declared that he wanted nothing to do with consolation, security or joy unless the forgiveness of sins brought them back to him: “Be far from me before death, so that perhaps mercy will give you back to me after death.”  He meditated on hell, “the land of darkness and the shadows of death,” in order to exhort himself to return to the Lord.  Here, and only here in Anselm’s works, do we have some brief graphic description of hell: sulphurous flames; flames of hell, eddying darkness, swirling with terrible sounds; worms living in fire; devils that burn with us, raging with fire.  The meditation ends with a plea to the Lord to hear his prayer for mercy and forgiveness as he takes full credit for his sins:

Lord, you do not lie; would it be truly not “to desire the death of a sinner” to bury into hell [Gehenna] a sinner who cries out to you?  Is to thrust down a sinner into hell [infernus] to “desire not the death of a sinner”?  Surely it is rather that “I will that the sinner turn and live.”  Lord, I am indeed the sinner….  Good Lord, do not recall your just claims against your sinner, but remember mercy towards your creature.

Hell was what it was, in Anselm’s thought, and as that which was the absolute rejection of divine grace and beatitude was not deemed worthy of any more than what one might call almost casual mention.  It was the epitome of the disorder and chaos caused by disobedience toward and rejection of the reign of God and his Christ.   As such it was the opposite of heaven, wherein right order reigns.  Heaven being the only logical goal of every rational being, hell’s beauty in the plan of creation then lay in providing a place for those who chose total disorder and irrationality.  In the eternal design of God, whom truth and beauty surround, hell had its proper place.  Lacking the rebellious sin of angels and humans, hell need not have existed.  But given sin, hell takes its place, however unfortunate that is, within the beauty and order of creation.  Right order requires that rational creatures who have utterly and completely rejected God cannot abide where there is perfect moral, salvific, and mystical order.

Thus hell is, by inference, disordered in all three modes.  It is moral disorder because there can abide in those who inhabit it grave sinfulness and moral turpitude along with a desire to have nothing to do with the grace that could set them free from the slavery of sin.  They will to be separate from the will of God and the order of life and love.  Further, hell is salvific disorder in that the promises of God for the eternal happiness of his rational creatures have been rejected and thus cannot be realized or experienced by those in hell.  They choose to be outside the order of salvation which was open to them and generously offered to them in the saving action of Christ.  Finally, hell is mystical disorder, because there can be no perfection there.  There cannot even be perfect suffering for the suffering in hell had no goal or purpose beyond itself; it is conceived of as a timeless and utter separation from all that is perfect and perfecting of angelic or human nature.

But hell, like sin, cannot lie outside the purview of God’s power and justice and mercy, for God’s omnipotence and omniscience cannot allow that to be.  Thus it is part of the created order, however internally disordered it be, and thus has a beauty in that it was fitting and right and true for those who fully and completely in both intellect and will abandon (dare one say “hate”) the God who had created them for the joys of heaven.

So, what do you think?  Should we speak of hell as having some necessary beauty or is such a concept just plain wrong-headed?  Discuss this next to your favorite carved pumpkin “on a dark and stormy night.”  And Happy Halloween!

Peter Godfrey-Smith

Department of Philosophy Harvard University

The Evolution of Meaning

Bean Lecture

and 2010 R. Peter Sylvester Keynote Address of the Northern New England Philosophical Association (NNEPA) Meetings on October 15, 2010 at Saint Anselm College

Click the above link to listen, or right click to download to your computer.