This process of changing context, of moving from faith to doubt to skepticism, has been long and gradual. There was a time when I was thoroughly immersed in the belief, when I was a young boy, terrified of Satan and his wood-fired brick ovens, all cranked up and crammed with the burning flesh of axe murderers and also people who had forgotten to go to church one Sunday and then stepped out into the street without looking both ways.
Hell was but a single option out of the three open to an expired Catholic, and by far the worst. It was a terrible place, which was probably how it got its name. Had it been just moderately unpleasant, it might have been called Heck, or Sam Hill Station, or maybe the Hades Motor Lodge, with the ferrymen on the rivers to the underworld offering light refreshments to their passengers.
Instead we got a dungeon of flames, pools of sulfur, and three-headed dogs. Being sentenced to eternal damnation meant you were in for a miserable existence, where mere agony and anguish would be things to look forward to. In fact, if Hell were listed on one of those travel websites today, most of the reviews would be pretty negative:
”Dinner burnt every night and air conditioning never worked. Mini-fridge stocked with hot sauce. Fire alarm blaring constantly. Worst of all, ad said free breakfast, but we were charged anyway. Manager and staff all extremely rude.”
And yet, my most secret desire was to see it with my own eyes. I wanted to wander around for a while, an afternoon jaunt, the way you might stroll into a cemetery just for that sense of relief that comes with being able to stroll back out. But visitors’ passes, I suspected, were not available to the general public. Tickets were one-way and non-transferable. All sales were final.
For me, Hell was something like the basement of a long-condemned warehouse, a dark and acrid pit overflowing with evil shadows and the screams of the hopeless. That impression was a composite of what I had learned in religion class and the images and feelings I collected when my cousin and I ventured to the lowest depths of his apartment building. It was all dust and decay and dim piles of death and desertion down there. And, of course, the incinerator – a massive metal door concealing a blaze that burned without end. Anything put into the chute would fall into that merciless heat and be converted to ash, just as the holy martyrs of early Christianity had been tortured and killed by the Romans. And just as all sinners who died without grace were destined to be consumed forever.
This picture was reaffirmed in countless films, all depicting relentless suffering and howling wickedness. According to the movies, the road to Hell was mostly paved with signed contracts – bargains the greedy and the gullible would make with the devil, pledging their immortal souls in exchange for a few years of wealth and influence, or for another taste of youth.
Those souls were valuable assets. I was never quite sure what gave them such worth, but the devil hoarded them the way wealthy celebrities collect antique sports cars, or the way struggling writers stockpile paper clips and old computer cables. He could never have enough.
The devil was also a skilled salesman and was always trying to get people to write their names on sheets of paper. These would become legal documents, which he would fold up and put into his pocket, only to pull them out later when it was time to collect. Sometimes the wording would change after the signature had been inscribed, so that the person was unaware of what they had agreed to. This added to the devil’s reputation as a ruthless liar, a hideous creature who had horns and a tail and carried around a pitchfork, but who also happened to be a snappy dresser.
In school, we were allowed to use only fountain pens. I prayed that Satan’s was a ball-point, because that would help me resist him, even if he were waving a new model train set in front of my face, or a ten-year supply of Milk Duds, or free pizza for life. My soul, apparently, could command such a price.