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
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
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
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
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
So the contemporary genre of speculative fiction seemed especially
appropriate for this subject matter. You might think of it as a
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
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
borrowed from Dante, who based it on St. Thomas' moral teaching.
Below "limbo" lie the circles of "upper hell," which punish sins of
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
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
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
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":
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!