The most desolate place in your soul: Marilynne Robinson on the nature of hell

by Kim on August 14, 2009

Here is the Revd. John Ames, from Marilynne Robinson’s preternaturally wonderful novel Gilead, reflecting on a discussion in his catechism class about damnation.

“Two or three of the ladies had pronounced views on points of doctrine, particularly sin and damnation. I blame the radio for sowing a good deal of confusion where theology is concerned. And television is worse. You can spend forty years teaching people to be awake to the fact of mystery and then some fellow with no more theological sense than a jackrabbit gets himself a radio ministry and all your work is forgotten. I do wonder where it will end.

“But even that was for the best, because one of the ladies, Veda Dyer, got herself into a considerable excitement talking about flames, that is, perdition, so I felt obliged to take down the Institutes and read them the passage on the lot of the reprobate, about how their torments are ‘figuratively expressed to us by physical things,’ unquenchable fire and so on, to express ‘how wretched it is to be cut off from all fellowship with God.’ I have the passage in front of me. It is alarming, certainly, but it isn’t ridiculous. I told them, If you want to inform yourselves as to the nature of hell, don’t hold your hand in a candle flame, just ponder the meanest, most desolate place in your soul.”

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (London: Virago Press, 2005, ©2004), p. 237.

As a good Barthian, of course, Ames will pray and hope that, finally, hell will be empty, that if anyone is there it will be Christ alone. (Cue DH, Chief of the Perdition Police, to put us straight with a few well-chosen, if occasionally misspelled, words from GOD’S WORD.)

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