The theological doctrine of hell has been a topic of vigorous debate for millennia. Augustine offers a vision of bodily torment where those in hell are “pounded by perpetual pain.” Dante warns of the psychological horror of the place, instructing those who enter to “abandon all hope.” But T.S. Eliot presents a more philosophical view: “Hell is oneself, hell is alone, the other figures in it merely projections. There is nothing to escape from and nothing to escape to.”
In contrast to images of fire and brimstone, Eliot’s portrayal does not warn of physical pain and suffering. Instead, it offers a foresight of existential terror — a prospect more awful than torture. Man’s deepest longing is neither the experience of pleasure nor the aversion of pain, but rather a sense of meaning and belonging, the knowledge of the truth and the love of another. Therefore, heaven would be best characterized as divine community, and hell by the privation of the same. To be in hell is to be in cosmic isolation.
In hell, the individual is unsatisfied because he lacks place and purpose. He is utterly alone, capable of defining himself only by himself and only for himself; any association with other condemned souls will quickly fall apart. In short, he does not fit in anywhere because there are no institutions within which to fit.
Consider, then, some interviews of those in hell. “I honestly don’t know anyone who likes it here,” one impoverished soul said. “Everyone is waiting to get out.” Another soul complained about the selfishness of others: “People can’t form real friendships because everyone is so concerned with their own stuff that they don’t have time for you.” And a poll conducted in hell revealed that “48 percent felt things were hopeless.”
Indeed, it seems that most of those in hell are unhappy. Nevertheless, one soul reports an unexpected disposition: “Most people, even those that are unhappy, wouldn’t leave.” Now this is truly a quandary. How is it that “most people … wouldn’t leave,” yet “everyone is waiting to get out”? What are all of these souls waiting for? What is keeping them in hell? One final interviewee provided the answer in the form of a personal philosophy: “Get your degree and hope it’ll all get better.”
Hold on a second. Hell doesn’t offer degrees, does it? And can one really conduct interviews and surveys in hell? Lucifer would not allow it. Nevertheless, the comments certainly seemed plausible. What poor souls would have said such things, and about what pitiable place could they be speaking? Oh my — no one will ever believe it: They are students who speak of their college, Harvard.
The comments quoted above appeared in a publication of the Harvard Crimson. In a headline, the editors asked, “Should We All Just Have Gone To Yale?” If, as the article claimed, “Harvard may fall far short of Yale in one very important respect — the happiness of its students,” then yes, they probably should have come to Yale.
But no Harvard student would belong at Yale. A student who is accepted to both schools but chooses to attend Harvard is, by virtue of his depraved choice, not Yale material. The preference of a Harvard diploma over a Yale experience is indicative of a selfish and vain character. And a selfish and vain character is likely to land one in hell.
C.S. Lewis has said, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: Those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell choose it.” It is the same with those unhappy souls up north. Sorry, Harvard. You have no one to blame but yourself.
Peter Johnston is a freshman in Saybrook College.