By LORRAINE V. MURRAY, Commentary | Published March 13, 2008
MY VISIT TO HELL; by Paul Thigpen; Realms, 2007; 304 pp; paperback; $12.99.
Many people like to fantasize about what heaven will be like. Maybe there will be streams and lakes and big lush trees. Maybe there will be huge banquet tables with delicacies we can devour without ever getting fat.
Oddly enough, though, these same folks may spend little time pondering hell. In fact, many people who believe in heaven will claim that hell is just a symbol.
Pope Benedict XVI, however, didn’t mince words about the reality of hell, when he noted about a year ago that hell truly exists, “even if nobody talks about it much any more.”
He might be relieved to know that a novel with the intriguing title “My Visit to Hell” definitely will fire up a few discussions.
Savannah resident and theology professor Paul Thigpen has updated the topography and inhabitants of Dante’s 14th century “Inferno” and the result is a chilling page-turner of a book.
One that may have some Catholics—including this reviewer—pulling out their to-do lists and writing “go to Confession” at the very top.
The book opens with Waycross native Tommy Travis, 33, lost in downtown Atlanta and pursued by a vicious gang. He tries to hide in the cellar of a deserted building, but the stairs give way and he falls a long way down.
In that mysterious place, he sees a sign reading “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.” Travis is a seminary professor who doesn’t believe in the soul or afterlife, so even with that big hint from the “Inferno,” it takes a long time for him to realize the truth.
He is not hallucinating. He actually is in hell.
The story line heats up when Travis meets a woman who becomes his guide, answering questions while protecting him from the demons that fiendishly torture hell’s inhabitants.
And as the tour of hell unfolds, readers soon realize that the author has peppered the horrendous scenes with plenty of humor.
For example, when a demon shows up with spiked hair, his hands bearing tattoos of skulls and his ears pierced with fishhooks, the guide deadpans: “Many of the fads in your generation were … first conceived (in hell).”
And what is hell like?
Well, according to the author’s fiery imagination, there are people in Lazy-boy recliners, numbed from watching endless hours of TV, which in hell features nothing but static.
These are the folks who wasted their lives on mindless diversions like video games, soap operas and spectator sports.
In hell, there are blasphemers and atheists, which is no surprise, but also many intriguing twists, such as people who sinned against art by creating hideous paintings and sculptures, and all the TV script writers who have died since the 1960s.
Some sections of hell have bubbling rivers of blood, while others are freezing. Demons flog inhabitants mercilessly and even roast them for dinner. No one ever sleeps, but nightmares are endless.
As the shocking tour continues, Travis starts to see his own sins. Some are garden variety, such as boozing and wild parties. But he also sees the students in his classes who dropped out of seminary after he “played with their minds and gutted their convictions.”
Many of hell’s inhabitants, the guide explains, consistently chose something else over God, whether that was food, sex, wine or money.
The punishments suit the crimes, so food gluttons spend eternity gnawing on bare chicken bones while a demon chortles, “Have it your way—forever!”
There are also exercise gluttons, who thirsted for the perfect body while alive. In hell, they are chained to weight machines, bench pressing forever while saying, “No pain, no gain!”
Travis is fortunate because he is only a visitor in hell, rather than a permanent resident. And lest readers should despair of getting to heaven, his guide reminds Travis that there were two thieves who died beside Jesus.
They made a choice: One called out for grace, while the other scorned it. One went to heaven, and one to hell.
During Lent we are called to make choices as we make amends for our sins. After reading this book, readers may find themselves grateful they are given that chance.
Lorraine Murray’s new book “Confessions of an Ex-Feminist” was recently published by Ignatius Press. She also is the author of “Grace Notes” and “Why Me? Why Now?”