Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 12.djvu/647

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To one or other of these places, it was held, all men are bound to go after death; but to which depended—and here the office of the priesthood assumed a terrible importance, for they knew all about it, and had the keys. It is impossible to conceive any other idea of such tremendous power for dominating mankind as this! It raised the priesthood and ecclesiastical institutions into despotic ascendency, brought it into unholy alliance with civil despotisms, and became the mighty means of plundering the people, crushing out their liberties, darkening their hopes, and cursing their lives. So productive an agency of unscrupulous ambition could not fail to be assiduously cultivated, and the conception of hell, the most potent element in the case by its appeal to fear, was elaborated with the utmost ingenuity. Language was exhausted in depicting the terrors of the infernal regions and the agonies of the damned. We by no means say that these ideas were mere priestly inventions, but only that they grew up under the powerful guidance of a class consecrated to their exposition, and incited by the most powerful worldly motives to strengthen their influence. In order to enforce belief, to compel obedience to ecclesiastical requirements, to coerce civil submission, and to extort money, people were threatened with the horrors of hell, which were pictured with all the vividness of rhetorical and poetic fanaticism. As the hierarchical spirit grew in strength, and became a tyrannical rule, obedience to its minutest rites was enforced by the most appalling intimidations. To neglect some trivial ceremony was sufficient to incur damnation. Alger says, in his "History of the Doctrine of a Future Life:" "The Brahmanic priest tells of a man who, for neglecting to meditate on the mystic monosyllable Om before praying, was thrown down into hell, on an iron floor, and cleaved with an axe, then stirred in a caldron of molten lead till covered all over with the sweated foam of torture, like a grain of rice in an oven, and then fastened, with head downward and feet upward, to a chariot of fire, and urged onward with a red hot goad."

In noticing the causes of the extent, influence, and perpetuity of this sombre belief, we must not forget that the future life, being beyond experience and inaccessible to reason, offers an attractive play-ground for the unbridled imagination. It opens an infinite realm for sensuous imagery and creative invention, stirs the deepest feelings, and concerns itself with the mystery of human destiny. It accordingly offers a favorite topic for poetic treatment, and this is more especially true of the darker aspects of the future world, poets having ever taken with avidity to delineations of hell. From Hesiod to Pollok, pagans and Christians have vied with each other in their poetical representations of the tortures and terrors of the infernal state. The mythological form of the doctrine figures largely in the great epics of Greece and Rome; the Italian "Inferno" pictures the Christian hell with terrible intensity, and the grand poem of the English language, "Paradise Lost," has hell at the root of its plot, and hell's master for its hero. Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Milton, working through poems of immortal genius that have fascinated mankind, some of them through thousands of years, and others through centuries, have thus combined to familiarize countless millions of people with the conception, and to stamp it deep in the literature of all countries.

Yet the doctrine of hell is now growing obsolete. Originating in ages of savagery and low barbarism, and developed in periods of fierce intolerance, sanguinary persecutions, cruel civil codes, and vindictive punishments, it harmonized with the severities and violence of society, and undoubtedly had use as a means of the harsh dis-