The dead seem awfully lively this time of year. A bloody ghoul or ethereal ghost adorns every other Canadian porch at Halloween; in Mexico, mischievously grinning skeletons are dressed in ballgowns and decked in marigolds for Day of the Dead celebrations. These are not the angelic hosts who get to loll about the clouds polishing their halos for all eternity. These are creatures who have left this world for some dark and disruptive afterlife.
Many Canadians believe in God and have some notion there will be another life after death, but does anybody still believe in Hell, the sulphurous pit, the fiery lake, the frozen wastes, the place of torment, torture and eternal punishment administered by devils with pitchforks?
Statistics on religious belief in an increasingly secular society vary depending on who is reporting them: The religious tend to stress that a majority of Canadians still identify themselves as members of a faith or believers in God; others point out that actual adherence is weak. A 2011 poll by Ipsos Reid found that 53 per cent of Canadians believe in God but only 34 per cent said religion defined them. Twenty-nine per cent said they believe in heaven; only 19 per cent believe in hell.
Of course, the pollsters did not ask them, "When you say you believe in hell are we talking fire and brimstone?" Or: "Are you one of those you subscribe to some wussy idea that hell is more psychological state than physical geography?"
Current theology in the mainstream Christian churches often makes hell sound like a bad case of depression: It's a place of isolation and separation from grace.
"It's like being in a candy store and not being able to smell or taste the sweet, cut off not by some external source but by one's own unwillingness," said Eric Beresford, an Anglican and president of the Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax.
Beresford seems a bit surprised to be taking questions about church doctrine on hell: It's not a trendy topic with theologians.
"It's not that the word hell has no currency, it is that it is loaded up in a different way," adds his colleague David Deane, a Catholic theologian who teaches at the same school. "Theologians will be very squeamish about the hell thing, and want to distance themselves from it … but they would do themselves a disservice if they don't say there are consequences for a lack of a relationship with God."
Deane explained that the Catholic Church is absolutely clear there is immortal life for those who have been saved by entering into a relationship with God, but that the details of the afterlife are a mystery rather than a doctrine. It's only in modern times – and by that he means post-Enlightenment times, the 18th century and onward – that we demand firm rules and ask the Bible to play the role of a constitution rather than a literary text.
Originally, the word hell was a biblical metaphor for the horror that awaits the wicked at death: It is derived from a Hebrew name for a valley outside Jerusalem where pagans burned their children as offerings. Contemporary parents aren't throwing their kids on the bonfire to appease angry gods, but dressing them up as princesses and superheroes and tripping them around asking for candy the little angels are only too eager to taste.
Does our growing enthusiasm for all the witches, ghosts, ghouls, devils and skeletons of Halloween suggest the mainstream churches' lack of interest in hell is out of sync with popular belief?
Not at all, says Deane, who argues that the commercialization of Halloween is an indication not of folk belief in the otherworldly but rather of our scientific materialism, the philosophy that only the material world exists: "The mystery of our world is being commodified and sold," he said.
In short, if we can joke about a dark and mysterious place inhabited by the living dead, it's because we don't really believe in anything beyond this physical life. We believe in Darwin and Walmart, not heaven and hell.
There is still, of course, a vocal minority of literalists for whom not even a psychological version of hell is enough. Kevin Miller, a filmmaker based in Abbotsford, B.C., has interviewed many of them for his new documentary Hellbound?, a film he made in part because he wanted to investigate the fearful brand of Christianity he imbibed as an impressionable boy at an evangelical Bible camp.
His film includes one American religious group that believes converts should be scared straight: It sets up a "hell house" in which volunteers dressed as screaming demons terrify young participants. Miller wants to offer more complex, humane views of the afterlife, but he does understand all the (mainly American) fundamentalists in his film who preach fire and brimstone: "The minute you open the door to the afterlife, you have to have hell," he said. "Hell exists in our mind because we all want justice. What does a family want when they confront a murderer who has killed their daughter? They want him to know what he has done, to know it is damnable. It's natural: You do the crime, you do the time."
It's the psychological logic of the Hitler argument: If eternal bliss is on offer, there are some people who clearly shouldn't qualify. As the many thoughtful theologians who soon take over Miller's film argue their kinder, gentler views of the afterlife, an atheist wading into this debate may just throw up her hands in disbelief. After all, if you cut the fairy tales about immortal life, you don't need to explain hell.
On the website for his film, Miller is running a poll: So far, 41 per cent of the 3,500 respondents say they believe in eternal torment; 21 per cent say hell doesn't exist, but others are choosing different options, including the 9 per cent who have voted for annihilationism. The belief that those who are not saved will cease to exist at death was a new one for me, but I find the philosophy compelling. For a pluralist society it seems the solution that is going to send everyone home happy. Those who choose to believe will be given their eternal reward. And those who don't can be certain that death is the end of it.
This is the first in an occasional series on dying, death and the beyond.