The torments of hell, from a frieze at Lincoln Cathedral
‘Ye miserable, crawling worms, are ye here again, then? Have ye come like Nimshi son of Rehoboam, secretly out of yer doomed houses to hear what’s comin’ to ye?’ The sermon delivered by Amos Starkadder in Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm is surely one of the great comic moments of the twentieth century. ‘Have ye come, old and young, sick and well, matrons and virgins (if there is any virgins among ye, which is not likely, the world bein’ in the wicked state it is), old men and young lads, to hear me tellin’ o’ the great crimson lickin’ flames o’ hell fire?’ he enquires of the suitably oppressed congregation. And, of course, they have. They have come to be threatened with the hereafter: to learn of the ‘endless, horrifying torment’; to be reminded of their ‘poor, sinful bodies stretched out on red-hot gridirons’ while demons mock them by waving ‘cooling jellies in front of ye’.
Amos is a caricature. But he is a terribly accurate one. Throughout most of the history of Christianity, preachers have prophesied doom to their congregations. As early as the second century, the theologian and apologist Tertullian declared that one of the great pleasures of the End Times would be the opportunity for the saved to watch the damned ‘groaning in the lowest abyss of darkness’. Muslim tradition is likewise full of the most lurid descriptions of the afterlife – be it the boiling, burning hell for unbelievers or the fine clothes and fine foods of a promised paradise. And it is not just the great monotheistic faiths that threaten a grisly time after death. One tradition of Chinese Buddhism apparently envisages no fewer than 96,800 hells, in which victims are variously skewered, dismembered, fried, mauled, or minced to make dog food.
In focusing on the afterlife, religions might seem to be playing to their strengths. Death is not only an existential question. Life after death is an insoluble conundrum – at least for the living. The promise of salvation or threat of damnation are two of the very few things that a belief system can offer without fear of direct contradiction. Prayers may fail, invocations may seem fruitless, worship may be boring – or worse; but death is an inevitability and a threat hanging over all of us all the time. Put this way, Pascal’s wager – his suggestion that it was worth losing some pleasures in the here and now just in case there was a hereafter – seems to speak to a universal desire, a commonplace fear of what happens after it’s all over.
Or so you might think. In their ambitious and scholarly study, Death Anxiety and Religious Belief, Jamin Halberstadt of the University of Otago and Jonathan Jong – who somehow manages to combine academic posts in psychology at Coventry and anthropology at Oxford with life as an Anglican priest – seek to explore whether religious belief and fear of death are inevitably, inextricably intertwined. It is a book that began life as a doctoral thesis and, to some extent, still reads like one. There are a lot of citations, a huge literature survey, a bevy of statistics, and the most wonderful collection of macabre acronyms: from the DAS (Death Anxiety Scale) to the FOPDS (Fear of Personal Death Scale); from the Existential Death Anxiety Scale (EDAS) to – my personal favourite – the MODDI-F (Multidimensional Orientation Towards Dying and Death Inventory). At its heart, however, is a remarkable series of claims which challenge convention, Pascal, and Amos Starkadder.
Drawing on a tremendous array of research, the authors argue that fear of death is less powerful and prevalent than one might have thought. Nor does the fear of death seem to push people consciously towards belief. Instead, a rather more interesting process is at work, in which religious people facing death become somewhat more religious and sceptics tend to become rather more confused, forced to believe both in their own immortality and in their non-religious worldviews, an intriguing contradiction. Most remarkably of all, this study suggests that such an experience is all but universal, even if people struggle to articulate it and scholars are puzzled about how to investigate it.
There is, it’s clear, much more work to be done on the subject, not least by exploring whether these findings are quite as generally applicable as the authors imply. As a historian, too, I wonder whether they are right to downplay the fear of death. Historically, people have been very frightened about eternity. A dread of hell has inspired great charity and conspicuous architecture, as well as ostentatious piety. One of the remarkable changes in Christianity, at any rate, has been a decline in the power of that fear. Hell isn’t what it used to be – indeed, it has been a failing concern for years.
In that sense, it seems that psychologists may need to be a little more attentive not just to belief, but also to the nature – the content – of that belief. Amos Starkadder was funny because he seemed a character out of time, threatening credulous people with yesterday’s fears. For most of history, however, his threats seemed all too real and compelling. Why that changed is, of course, another story. In the meantime, we are left with an intriguing work of psychology, a paradoxical conclusion, and the knowledge that, for most people, fear of public speaking far outweighs any fear of death today.
The Reverend William Whyte is Professor of Social and Architectural History at St John’s.
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Jacket image courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing. Panel from The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch and photograph of Lincoln Cathedral frieze by Rock drum are both reproduced from Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons licence.