Recently, I published an article on the Epoch Times about the story of Cain and Abel and how it tells us a great deal about human nature, evil, and spirituality. One of the principle things that inspired me to write this article is the frightening rise of murders and shootings (especially in America), combined with increasing secularism. Furthermore, a denial of hell, even among religious circles. 

Whilst I made many theological arguments for hell’s existence, there is a more ‘relate-able’, shall we say, argument that I did not fully cover. That is: whether we believe hell exists on some kind of metaphysical or spiritual plain is, in actual fact, largely irrelevant. Hell most certainly exists psychologically for millions of people. 

I’ve spoken before on how the ancient Greeks depicted a hell that is wrought with psychological implications. Tantalus, for example, tortured by the inability to satisfy his thirst (which might well be a representation of addiction). Sisyphus, trapped in the meaningless, automatic behaviour of rolling the boulder up the hill (how many people do we know with their own “boulder” that they ceaselessly roll?). However, Dante also depicts a very psychological hell. The adulterers, Francesca and Paolo, are trapped in the whirlwind of their own emotions. A fitting image. Their murderer, however, the jealous husband Giancotto, lies deeper in Caina, the infernal plain whereon those who murder their own kin are sent (named after Cain, who is of course the first murderer).

This is what is called in Italian contrapasso, where the punishment fits the crime. But, to quote the great Buddha: “You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger.” In other words, metaphysics aside, the very nature of our crimes wreaks havoc upon our mind, bodies, and soul. We are not punished by an external force as much as we are punished by our own psyches. And the power of our own psyches to destroy us should never be underestimated! 

Dante constructed a cosmology of hell, where his cruel and unusual punishments are strikingly imaginative and harrowing to read about. But, in some ways, the nature of the crimes are not the product of imagination, so much as of empathy. He senses the turmoil that each crime or “sin” creates and raps into that to give us a window into what it feels like to be that person.

We might see this illustrated in an infinite number of stories, including Edgar Allan Poe’s paranoid tale The Telltale Heart, which strikingly portrays the psychological torment of covering up a murder. However, we also see it reflected in reality. Ted Bundy, one of the worst killers in history, escaped confinement twice. The first time, after a few days hiding out in the mountains, he willingly returned and effectively handed himself in to the police. This in itself is disturbing in the extreme. He had killed many women and was destined for a life sentence. Why hand himself over unless he knew, deep down, that he had done something unforgiveable? He was, in his own warped way, perhaps punishing himself. 

He later escaped prison a second time (crawling through a narrow tunnel he had dug much in the vein of The Shawshank Redemption). Rather than disappear, never to be seen from again, he killed three more women, including a twelve year old girl. He had every chance to get away, but his decision to kill again meant that police were able to locate him. He finally received the electric chair in 1979. 

Like Sisyphus, Bundy was compelled by his own terrifying behaviours. Given a second opportunity for freedom, one in which the authorities were very unlikely to catch him if he laid low, he decided instead to repeat his horrific crimes. If this isn’t hell, I don’t know what is. And just to be clear: I’m not, in any way, justifying or sympathising with Ted Bundy. There are very few human beings who deserved the unfiltered appellation of ‘evil’, but he is surely one of them. He suffered, and brought suffering to others. 

The real problem with people in hell, is that they bring hell with them.

Becoming a Whole Person: the Journey Down and Up

It is very human indeed that we spend so much time thinking about Hell when we could be thinking about Heaven, but in the words of Agent Smith from The Matrix: “I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from.” We are fascinated by the concept of eternal suffering because, in some way, it is more within the grasp of our imagination than bliss is.

But there is more to it even than that. Hell has deep psychological roots. Carl Jung, the eminent disciple of Freud, and who largely contradicted much of his research, is a bridge between Dante and Atheists in the modern world. From a Jungian perspective, the tripartite division of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven represent psychological states on our journey to self-actualisation.

So, to be in Hell is to be in a state of complete denial about reality.

Denial… this is our most understandable, most primitive defence, which, if continued indefinitely, proves to be the only truly pathological state of being” – James Hollis

In Hell, no meaningful communication is possible; the damned merely talk to themselves or to each other, repeating the same cyclical stories of pain (in the same way that the Ancient Mariner from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem repeats his woe-begotten tale) but despite their re-iterations, these hell-bound souls never to develop in any meaningful way. This is very psychologically true of many people in the real world, trapped in cycles of addiction, trapped in cycles of behaviour, unable to progress because they lack the ability to to accept reality and to accept their own fault. Many souls in Hell waste much of their breath justifying their decisions and actions to Dante rather than actually accepting their own fault. Auden puts it startlingly:

We would rather be ruined than changed.

We would rather die in our dread

Than climb the cross of the present

And let our illusions die”

– W. H. Auden, The Age of Anxiety

Notice the metaphor of ‘climbing the cross’, or in other words, accepting punishment for our sins. Whether you believe in the concept of ‘sin’ in the spiritual, metaphysical sense, it applies psychologically too. We all, at times, make mistakes, or bad decisions, and we can either change or be ‘ruined’ by them. Most, unfortunately, would rather be ruined, as Auden harrowingly observes, than admit they’re wrong.

The classic symptom of this state is repetition of pointless activities. Sisyphus rolls the boulder up the hill. Tantalus reaches for water he can never access. Again, we can observe these traits in real life: people who perform the same self-sabotaging tasks, who stick to the same debasing jobs, trapped in psychological compulsions.

Purgatory is where self-awareness begins to occur, and repentance for what one has done awry or failed to do. Work still needs to occur in order to progress further:

It has kept them stuck in the meaninglessness of purgatory and so they finally let go of the idea that someone else is to blame and look inside” – Dr Alan Watkins

In therapy, they say that the first step is self-awareness before healing can occur. We have to recognise that we have a problem in order to get rid of it. Returning to the ‘hell mindset’, so often people in hell-states deny that there is a problem, which is part of their denial of reality. They are the kind of people who might say: ‘I can quit smoking any time I want’, when in fact the opposite is exactly true.

When we reach Purgatory, however, we begin to see self-awareness. Therefore, we suffer, but in a different way. In, perhaps, a therapeutic way. Carl Jung observed:

Meaninglessness inhibits fullness of life and is therefore equivalent to illness. Meaning makes a great many things endurable – perhaps everything” – Carl Jung

Meaning, and discovering meaning, is only possible when we confront reality. However, it empowers us to do so and make the pain ‘endurable’.

Yet each of us is obliged to find out personal path through the dark wood. In the mediaeval Grail legend the knights, having seen the Grail, and intuiting that it symbolised their search for meaning, undertook the challenge and began their descent into the dark wood. But the text tells us that each one chose a separate place of entry ‘where there was no path, for it is a shameful thing to take the path that someone has trod before.’ Your journey is your journey, not someone else’s. It is never too late to begin it anew” –James Hollis

This chimes beautifully with Dante, whose journey also begins in the ‘dark wood / wherein the straight road no longer lay’ (Peter Dale translation).

But what is meaning? James Hollis remarked that: “The gods want us to grow up, to step up to that high calling that each soul carries as its destiny”. Yet, destiny is a slippery thing, something we have wrestled with as a species for millennia. Do we have free-will? Can we choose? If we can choose, then how can we also have a pre-determined destiny? How can we know our own destiny? These philosophical debates tend to go round and round, in themselves like hellish cycles. The reality of our weird, wonderful world is that both are likely true simultaneously.

But the important lesson is that we are all on a journey, and that there is an ‘end point’ to that journey. That, perhaps, can be what we call ‘destiny’. And what is the end point of any psychological journey? Catharsis.

When we have accepted this journey, truly accepted it, we will be flooded with a strong, supportive energy the carries us through all the dark places. For this energy we have an appropriate word. It is called ‘love’. It is love not only of the other, but love of this life, this journey, and love of this task of soul” – James Hollis

So, through suffering and self-awareness, Hell and Purgatory, we might finally arrive at Heaven. Heaven is where the shadow side of our selves or our soul is fully integrated into our personalities. This means not that we purify ourselves and shed the ‘bad’, purging it, but actually that it becomes an accepted part of who we are. Rather than self-condemning, we use the negatives of our personality as strengths and to feed other strengths. Writers commonly say that they use their negative emotions: anger, shame, lust, to fuel their work. They don’t deny the emotions exist, that would be a Hell-state, but rather embrace them and harness them. The same is true, I’m sure, of top athletes, musicians, dancers, actors, you-name-it.

So, Dante’s journey can be understood not just as a spiritual one, but as a psychological one too towards self-actualisation and wholeness.