A ZENIT DAILY DISPATCH

One Man's Visit to Hell

Interview With Author Paul Thigpen

SAVANNAH, Georgia, 17 SEPT. 2007 (ZENIT)

Those who don't believe in hell are living with a very dangerous kind of wishful thinking, or a comfortable fantasy, says author Paul Thigpen.

In this interview with ZENIT, Thigpen discusses his new book "My Visit to Hell," published by Creation House.

Thigpen is editor of The Catholic Answer, director of the Stella Maris Center for Faith and Culture, and an award-winning journalist and best-selling author of 34 books.

Q: You have written a novel, "My Visit to Hell," about just that a young man's visit to hell. What prompted this?

Thigpen: The Holy Father recently lamented the fact that so few people in our day ever talk about hell. Maybe this book can contribute in some small way to changing that situation.

Why should people talk more about hell? Many of our contemporaries, including some Catholics, refuse to believe that hell truly exists.

And several surveys show that even among those who believe in the existence of hell, the great majority think they have little or no chance of ending up there.

Nevertheless, in the Gospels Our Lord has warned us solemnly and repeatedly about the terrors of hell. So what we have here is a very dangerous kind of wishful thinking, a comfortable fantasy that needs to be challenged.

We should be thinking about hell, and heaven as well, because our destiny profoundly shapes our identity.

The more we know about our possible destinations, the more we'll know about who we are, why we're here, and which way we should be headed.

I certainly don't enjoy thinking and writing about sin and its tormenting consequences, but given the widespread denial of hell in our day, and the avoidance of any discussion about it, the time seems right for a book such as this.

Q: How has your book been received? Do you think it has appeal to those who do not claim to be Catholic?

Thigpen: Catholic readers often comment that the book has sent them running to the sacrament of confession, and for that I'm grateful.

It's not intended to condemn people for their sins, but rather to encourage them to flee to God for forgiveness and healing.

As for non-Catholic Christians, I've had an enthusiastic response from readers representing a variety of religious backgrounds.

The main themes of the story the horror of sin, the hope of grace, the dignity and danger of human freedom lie at the heart of the Gospel that all Christians embrace.

As for atheists, agnostics, and other non-Christians, my hope is that they can identify to some degree with several characters in the book who share their situation.

The main character is in fact an agnostic who must reconsider his position in light of what he encounters on this terrifying journey.

Anecdotal evidence encourages me that the book is stirring readers to think seriously about the matters it touches upon.

One reviewer said he plans to make the book a part of his annual readings for Lent. Another reader composed a series of songs about the story.

Some book clubs are choosing it to read and discuss. It's required reading in at least one college course, and a new scholarly study of contemporary Christian fiction devotes a chapter to it.

Q: Why did you choose the novel as a format, over poetry or simply a theological discourse on the topic?

Thigpen: Dante's "Inferno," the 14th-century poem about an imaginary visit to hell from which my account draws heavily, convinced me that a narrative approach to this subject could be quite powerful in ways that a straight theological discourse could not.

This isn't to say, of course, that Dante's vision isn't theologically informed; his portrait of the infernal regions actually embodies the moral theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, as does mine.

Dante's book was only one in a series of what are known as "tours of hell" that go back to ancient times, all using narrative fiction to paint a chastening portrait of sin and its eternal consequences.

Even Our Lord himself spoke of hell using a parable whose stark imagery awakens in us a sense of dread: see Luke 16:19-31.

Few people today will read lengthy poems of the sort Dante wrote; they prefer novels.

So the contemporary genre of speculative fiction seemed especially appropriate for this subject matter. You might think of it as a book-length parable.

Q: In some ways your novel is like Dante meeting Walker Percy, put in a contemporary setting. Is this partially what you had in mind?

Thigpen: You're right or even more precisely, Dante meets Flannery O'Connor, who is one of my literary heroes.

She and I are from the same hometown, Savannah, Georgia, and my mother went to college with her. So I've always felt a certain kinship with her and with her vision of the world.

O'Connor masterfully portrays sin in all its revolting ugliness. Yet always she reveals a "moment of grace," a divine light that shines all the more brightly because the surrounding darkness is so deep.

My intent was similar: to show that even though sin deforms us into something grotesque, God still labors to reconcile and heal us.

Q: In your depiction of hell, you describe layers of it rapidly filling up from sins more readily committed in our cultural climate, for example, abortion, destroying fetuses for scientific or medical research, assisted suicide, striving for bodily perfection. In what ways do you categorize and describe some of these?

Thigpen: What I call the "moral topography" of hell its structure of descending circles, each one punishing a sin worse than the one above it I borrowed from Dante, who based it on St. Thomas' moral teaching.
Below "limbo" lie the circles of "upper hell," which punish sins of weakness.

Next is "middle hell," punishing sins of the intellect; and finally "lower hell," punishing sins of malice, both injury and fraud.

The lower you descend, the more serious the sin and the worse its punishment.

When I considered the sins you've noted, I realized that they are simply more contemporary versions of ancient sins already identified and positioned in Dante's hell.

Like abortion, destruction of embryos for research is murder of a particularly loathsome type a betrayal of the tiny innocents that God has given us to protect.

So those who are guilty of this sin aren't punished with other murderers; they end up much farther down, in the lowest circle with some of the fiercest punishments, where traitors are tormented.

Or consider the idolatry of bodily perfection: It's actually a form of gluttony, a narcissistic addiction to the pleasure of looking physically attractive.

So those who are guilty of this sin are ironically punished alongside the gluttons, whom they detest as undisciplined slobs.

Of particular interest to many contemporary readers, I think, is the circle punishing sins of the intellect.

Those holding to the popular notion that sincerity of belief is all that counts will find plenty here to challenge their assumptions.

Q: You mention in the preface that you were reluctant to write this book given the gravity of the topic. Are there ways in which meditating about hell has changed your own life?

Thigpen: Spending several months thinking deeply about hell, and writing down the fruits of that reflection for others, cultivated in me a healthy fear of the Lord, and "the fear of the Lord is hatred of evil": Proverbs 8:13.

I came to a new understanding of how repugnant, how despicable, how corrosive sin truly is, with the result that I wanted all the more to avoid it and cling to God instead.

It also made me more deeply grateful for divine grace.

I deserve the everlasting misery of hell because of my sin, but God sent his son to make it possible for me to live with him forever instead in the joy of heaven.

I can never cease to marvel at such a gift!
 

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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