Last week the Guardian requested an article from me for their 'Comment is Free' section on the subject of Hell, in the wake of the recent publication of Rob Bell's new book. The article can be found here, with the usual acclaim from readers in the comments that follow ;-(. I would like to point out to them and to others, that there is a word-limit for these things of around 600 words (I once went well over that with a piece which then wasn't published which is a bit of a waste of my time.) So this is not a grand over-arching thesis, just a piece to (hopefully) raise some points and provoke thought.
‘Justice must be done.’ That is virtually an axiom for any understanding of human nature and society. Of course, the principle is not quite straightforward. As has been pointed out in other contexts, moral guidance is not to be found in the study of geology or astrophysics. And just what constitutes right and wrong or ‘the good’ has long been a matter of discussion.
Nevertheless, just as the youngest of children have a keen sensitivity for what is ‘fair’ (especially with regard to themselves), so it would seem that a ‘passion for justice’, however elusive a definition remains, is part of the makeup of any morally sentient being.
Certainly the diminution of religious faith entails no necessary lowering of this expectation. All around us we find ready examples of those for whom, or to whom, it is asserted that ‘justice ought to be done’: ‘greedy bankers’, ‘the underprivileged’, ‘benefit cheats’, ‘paedophiles’, ‘homophobes’, ‘global capitalists’ — the list goes on.
Yet the list is also coloured by personal taste. There is surely a strong correlation, for example, between newspaper preference and moral priorities, which perhaps suggests that whilst the ‘moral instinct’ is strong, its focus is less precise.
Moreover, our demand for justice is often less than adequate. Take, for example, the campaign for the release of the ‘Birmingham Six’, accused of the 1974 IRA pub bombings.
Certainly the insecurity of their convictions meant an injustice had been perpetrated. But it did not stop there, for if the Birmingham Six were innocent, then others were guilty — and had not only committed a terrible crime but had allowed the innocent to suffer imprisonment in their place. They, it would seem, have escaped justice twice over. And what of the victims of the pub bombings? With no one finally convicted and punished for the crime, will justice ever be done for them?
And the circle gets ever wider, for there are also the police, the prison officers, the judges, the witnesses, the politicians, the fund-raisers and supporters of the IRA, and a multitude of others to take into account. If justice were truly done for the twenty-one killed, the hundred and eighty-two injured and the six wrongly imprisoned, the final list of those implicated might run to hundreds or even thousands.
One reaction to this is to shrug our shoulders — to admit that total justice is impossible, and that therefore we should be satisfied with the limited things we can achieve: the vindication of the innocent, for example, and the punishment of at least some of the guilty. It seems reasonable, if not inevitable. Yet if we are content with this, are we not treating those who get caught and punished as a kind of social scapegoat?
What if justice could be done absolutely? Would we not welcome the prospect? Or would we throw our hands up in horror, and say that such a thing would implicate far too many people?
The doctrine of hell is not about where and how people are tormented for the entertainment of gods or demons — though it must be admitted that this theme has fascinated generations of artists and authors. Rather, it is about justice, but justice being done to everyone, for everything, for ever.
Given our readiness to demand justice where we perceive that an injustice has occurred, we surely ought to find that more appealing than we do.
14 March 2011Please give a full name and location when posting. Comments without this information may be deleted.