Hell & Damnation

6 September 2019

Hell and Damnation: A Sinner’s Guide to Eternal Torment
by Marq de Villiers
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Madonna Hamel
$24.95 ISBN 9780889775848

“Did you know,” I phoned my friend with urgent information, “there is a special hell reserved just for people who borrow books and never give them back?”

“What are you getting at?”

“I’m reviewing Marq de Villier’s book Hell and Damnation: A Sinner’s Guide to Eternal Torment,and in it he describes the thousands of hells depicted by everyone from Dante to Christopher Hitchens and in everything from the Bible to Chinese Buddhism, where it turns out the afterlife is divided into ten courts and one of those ten courts in called The Mirror of Sin-”

“ Sin? Isn’t that a Christian concept?”

“Oh no, Christians have no monopoly on ‘sin’. Nor, it turns out on ‘hell’. But let me get to the point: The Mirror of Hell allows you to look back at your wasted life, at all the things you could have done but didn’t. It also affords you a view of several courts where the unfortunate dead are pierced and flailed by their own failings, including everything from ‘lying about one’s age when getting married, complaining about the weather’ and keeping ‘other people’s books, pretending to have lost them’!”

“Does it include phoning friends in the middle of the night to accuse them of theft?”

“Not sure. I’ll get back to you.”

The more I delve into Hell and Damnation, the more I realize that hell has functioned in one way or another for all of humanity. Influenced by its many threats and appearances throughout history, there is no tradition untouched by hell. “The Christian furnaces are the hottest of all hells,” writes de Villiers, but “many hells freeze over.” Hell is not just a fiery pit. And not just a place of punishment. Hell is ruled by the once jailed, now jailer. For some it is stoked by our own tormented psyches. It is a “form of social control” as well as a handy form of revenge. For others hell “explains why wrongness is always with us.” Poignantly, hell is “watching a child die.” Whatever its source or function, De Villiers manages to be both respectful and irreverent, giving every version of hell its moment on the page.

And there are so many ways to get there, from “wasting away in the Mourning Fields”, where unrequited lovers go, according to Virgil, or by to succumbing“ the disease of curiosity”, according to St. Augustine. And if you have sex before marriage, according to Rebecca Brown, author of Prepare for War, the result is almost always demonic infestation, a hell on earth.

Despite clever title headings like: “Once you’re in, what’s it like? A survey of A-list hells” and “The peculiar physics of hell: how long is forever”, de Villiers doesn’t just urbanely skim the surface, pulling catchy quotes from here and there. He plumbs the thinking of authors who have dedicated their lives to theological questions, including the novelist and essayist C.S. Lewis, who was forced to consider the question of hell and free will when his young wife died. “Free will,”writes Lewis, “though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.” Hell and Damnation is a joy worth reading.


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