Richard Amesbury
Assoc. Professor of Ethics
Claremont School of Theology

Near the end of Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter, Major Scobie, a principled colonial police officer and devout, if adulterous, Catholic, knowingly forfeits what he believes to be his last chance at salvation, willing annihilation upon himself out of a love he regards as wrong, but for which he cannot bring himself to repent. Partaking unworthily of the sacraments, he attempts to pray: "O God, I offer up my damnation to you. Take it. Use it for them." But Scobie is "aware of the pale papery taste of an eternal sentence on the tongue."

That, like a defiled Eucharistic wafer, Scobie's dilemma is apt to stick in the throats of contemporary readers may be some indication of how much has changed since 1948 (though Greene was not exactly in step with the spirit of his own times either). Have we lost our appetite for eternity?

To be sure, hell remains an object of belief for some and of fascination for many — does anyone, by contrast, read the Paradiso? — but it has ceased for most of us to be an object of dread. Indeed, it would seem that almost no one who believes in hell believes that he or she will end up there. Hell, as Dante so successfully demonstrated, is where you imagine other people.

Why is this? One reason is that the proliferation of worldviews in the modern period, and their presentation as elective "options" for belief, has made it possible simply to opt out of metaphysical predicaments, in much the same way Midwesterners weary of winter weather relocate upon retirement to more hospitable climes. Like Scobie's lover, for whom his Catholicism is "all hooey," the contemporary reader is apt to see Greene's character as a tragic figure, not because he is trapped between irreconcilable but imperious demands, but because he is in the grip of an inflexible ideology that ought to have been thrown off as an impediment to his personal happiness and psychological wellbeing.

A second reason is that the Protestant reformers' predication of salvation on faith, and the gradual identification of faith with having religious beliefs, has narrowed the space available within a Christian cosmology for those who believe themselves to be damned. Moreover, while the fear of damnation may still serve to keep some within the fold, the awful consequences of apostasy are visible only to those who still believe, and the damned are by definition unbelievers. Hell thus holds little immediate terror either for the believer, who is saved by his or her belief, or for the unbeliever, for whom it does not exist. When it comes to believing in hell, apparently, you are damned neither if you do nor if you don't.

A third factor in the decline of dread is the increasing shift in attention toward this-worldly, immanent concerns — from the making of Faustian bargains and Pascalian wagers to the management of more mundane risks. Indeed, for a privileged class, death itself is beginning to seem as negotiable as taxes. It surely is no accident that a recent Time magazine cover story raising the question "Is Hell Dead?" is followed immediately by an article titled "Amortality," which notes that, in coping with aging, "we haven't lost faith; we've just transferred it, to scientists and celebrities."

But flattening out the moral universe has resulted not in the dissolution of heaven and hell, but in their relocation to this world, and often the difference between the two is a matter of perspective: what appear at first glance as gardens of earthly delights frequently turn out, on closer inspection, to function as hothouses for the cultivation of previously unimaginable forms of misery. "Hell is empty,/ And all the devils are here" (The Tempest, 1.2.214).

As the poetry anthologized here demonstrates, the language of "heaven" and "hell" is far from depleted. In these poems, salvation and damnation are reclaimed, not as postmortem carrots and sticks related only externally to the business of living, but as real states of the soul, and of society — matters of eternal, even if immanent, significance. As the three-story universe of earlier generations folds in on itself, the old answers seem increasingly obsolete, but the questions remain. We are not out of Dante's dark wood yet.