Tag Archives: visions of hell

The Secular Theology of “Lucifer” (The TV Show)

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What happens when you die?

Does our consciousness live on in some form?

Is there a way in which people who escaped punishment in life ultimately face it in death?

These are distressing, but profound questions that form the backbone of nearly every major religion. From the major Abrahamic faiths to the lore of ancient civilizations, there are many ways to approach this question. We all contemplate our mortality at some point and wonder/dread what will happen after our mortal bodies fail us.

Even some non-believers have mused about it at some point. Whereas religion tends to speculate wildly on the possibilities, an secular view of the afterlife isn’t too different from how it views deities. In the same way there’s no evidence for any gods or supernatural forces, there’s no evidence that consciousness exists outside the human brain.

That’s what makes the recently-canceled, but saved by Netflix show, “Lucifer,” such a compelling contributor to this age-old question. Beyond Tom Ellis flexing his uncanny charm, the show achieves something remarkable in how it approaches gods, angels, demons, and the afterlife. I would even go so far as to say that it crafts a theology that affirms secular values over those of any religion.

By that, I don’t mean that “Lucifer” glorifies atheism or non-religious worldviews. If anything, one the show’s common themes is that glorifying any worldview is pointless. It’s surprisingly balanced in how it portrays religious and non-religious characters. The show contains respectable believers like Father Frank Lawrence and deplorable non-believers like Jimmy Barnes.

When it comes to addressing those age-old questions about deities, the afterlife, and morality, though, the show crafts a mythos that doesn’t play favorites. In the world of “Lucifer,” it doesn’t matter whether you’re a Christian, Muslim, Scientologist, Buddhist, or Pastafarian. Your life and your afterlife are subject to the same standards.

To understand those standards, it’s necessary to understand the influences of the show. Before Tom Ellis put on an Armani suit, the story of Lucifer Morningstar emerged in a the critically-acclaimed graphic novel, “The Sandman.” Even if you’re not a comic book fan, I highly recommend this book. There’s a good reason why it’s in Entertainment Weekly’s 100 best reads from 1983 to 2008.

While there are many differences between this comic and the TV show, the core tenants are the same. Lucifer Morningstar once ruled Hell, but decided to abandon that role and set up shop in the mortal world. Much like Tom Ellis’ character in the show, this version of Lucifer resents the stereotypes and misunderstandings surrounding him.

He’s not the source of all evil. He’s not the Lord of Lies, either. In fact, Lucifer has his own personal code of conduct and chief among that code is not lying. It goes beyond just telling the truth, though. Lucifer doesn’t sugarcoat anything, nor does he tell only part of the story. He tells the truth in the clearest, harshest way possible.

The show captures many of these elements. In the first episode when he meets Detective Chole Decker, he says outright who he is and isn’t coy about it. While she doesn’t believe he’s the actual devil, he sets a similar tone in how wields the truth. He’s not afraid to shove it in peoples’ faces and let horrifying realizations do the rest.

That emphasis on hard truth, both in the show and the comics, closely mirrors a secular approach to reality. It doesn’t matter how strongly you believe or don’t believe in something. The truth doesn’t change. People can spend their entire lives avoiding it, making excuses or crafting elaborate mythologies.

Whether someone identifies as atheist or agnostic, the premise is the same. If there’s no verifiable evidence, then you can’t say something is true. That leaves a lot of uncertainty about the nature of life, the afterlife, and everything in between. For many people, that’s just untenable and that leads to all sorts of contemplation and speculations.

It only gets worse when there’s considerable evidence to the contrary, which those who cross Lucifer often learn the hard way. While the comics touch on this to a limited extent, the show is much more overt. It often occurs when Lucifer flashes his true form to others. Most of the time, their reaction is one of unmitigated horror and understandably so.

These people, whether they’re cold-blooded killers or schoolyard bullies, just got a massive dose of exceedingly heavy truth. They just learned that the devil is real. Hell is real. Angels, demons, and deities are real. That also means it’s very likely that there’s some form of life after death. For those who have done bad things, that’s a genuinely terrifying prospect.

The details of that terror are explored throughout the show, especially in the first and second season. It’s here where the show distances itself from the fire and brimstone of the Abrahamic faiths. It even differs considerably from the hellish visions of Eastern religious tradition. To some extent, it takes the ethical concepts of secular humanism and crafts a prison around it.

That prison doesn’t involve pitchforks, fire, or monsters who chew on the souls of history’s greatest traitors. In the divine world of “Lucifer,” Hell is dark domain in which the souls of sinful mortals are punished for the misdeeds they committed in life. How that punishment plays out varies from soul to soul.

In the first season, Malcolm Graham spends a brief time in Hell, relatively speaking. He describes it as a place that takes everything someone loves and uses it to torment them. In his case, he freely admits that he loves life. As such, he is starved and isolated so that he cannot experience it or its many joys. It’s an extreme form of solitary confinement, which is very much a form of torture.

On top of that, time flows differently in Hell. Even though Malcolm wasn’t there for very long, he conceded that 30 seconds felt like 30 years. That doesn’t necessarily mean it moves slower, though. Time is simply a tool with which to ensure the effectiveness of the punishment. Lucifer, himself, finds this out in Season 2, Episode 13, “A Good Day To Die.”

For him, time becomes an endless loop of sorts. In that domain, he continually relieves the moment he kills his brother Uriel, one of the few acts in which Lucifer feels genuine regret. It keeps on happening again and again, evoking the same anguish. It’s like the movie “Groundhog Day,” but one in which people constantly relieve the worst day of their life.

These kinds of punishments are certainly worthy of Hell. They’re harsh in that they’re customized torture that’s specific for every damned soul. It’s a lot more flexible than the elaborate Hellscape described in “Dante’s Inferno.” However, there’s one important aspect to this punishment that puts it into a unique context.

The specifics are revealed in Season 3, Episode 7, “Off The Record.” Lucifer reveals to Reese Getty that the devil isn’t the one who decides which souls end up in Hell. No deity decides that, either. Ultimately, it’s the individual who makes that decision, albeit indirectly.

When humans transgress in the world of “Lucifer,” there’s no cosmic judge keeping track of their misdeeds. What sends them to Hell is the weight of their own guilt. Even when they pretend they don’t feel it, like Malcolm Graham, it’s still there. They’re just ignoring it or avoiding it. When they die, though, it ultimately comes back to weigh them down.

This means that punishment in Hell isn’t technically eternal, which I’ve noted is critical if the concept is to have any meaning whatsoever. Lucifer even says in the same episode that there’s no demon army guarding the gates of Hell. The doors are opened and unlocked. Those damned souls are free to leave, but they never do. It’s their own choices, guilt, and regret that keeps them damned.

That means the deeds that send people to hell are subjective and contextual. It’s an outright rejection of the universal morality that many religious traditions favor and an affirmation of the more nuanced ethics espoused by secular humanism. Both the morality and the theology of “Lucifer” depends heavily on the situation, intent, and consequences of someone’s action.

In the world of “Lucifer,” a priest and a porn star can both go to Heaven. It’s strongly implied that Father Frank Lawrence went to Heaven after his heroic actions in “A Priest Walks Into A Bar.” It’s also implied in “City Of Angels?” that there’s a distinct lack of porn stars in Hell due to all the good works and joy they bring to people in life.

At its core, “Lucifer” frames damnation as an underlying consequence of individual actions. Everything begins and ends with the individual. What they do, why they do it, and the consequences they incur are primary criteria for how souls spend their afterlife. In both the comics and the TV show, Lucifer is a champion of individual choices and all the implications that come with it.

This emphasis on the individual effectively tempers the influence of any deity or supernatural force. Even though gods and angels exist in the world of “Lucifer,” they don’t make choices for anybody. Granted, they can have major influences, as shown in episodes like “Once Upon A Time.” At the end of the day, it’s still the individual who is ultimately responsible.

This secular approach to theology works because individual actions are the only deeds we can truly quantify. It creates criteria under which neither atheists nor believers have any clear advantages. How they live their lives and how they go about making choices is what determines whether they face punishment after death.

It still has some problems that the show has yet to address. It doesn’t indicate how Hell handles people who are incapable of feeling guilt or otherwise mentally ill. It also doesn’t reveal how Heaven differs from Hell, although Lucifer implied to Father Frank that it’s more boring than Hell. Hopefully, that’s just one of many other themes that get touched on in Season 4.

Whatever the flaws, the unique take on theology and morality give “Lucifer” a special appeal for both believers and non-believers. It presents a world where those profound questions I asked earlier have answers. No one religion got it right and atheists aren’t at a disadvantage for not believing. That may not sit well with some, but it affirms a brand of secular justice that judges every individual by the choices they make.

More than anything else, Lucifer Morningstar is a champion of deep desires and hard truths. He opposes anyone who tries to dictate someone’s decision or fate, be they a devil or a deity. People who do bad things are ultimately punished, but not by him. In the end, he really doesn’t have to. An individual is more than capable of creating their own personal Hell.

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Filed under human nature, philosophy, religion, television, Villains Journey

How The Concept Of Boredom Subverts The Concept Of Hell (And Heaven)

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When we’re kids, we tend to exaggerate how tortuous a situation is. To us, the first day of school, a dentist appointment, or a 10-hour road trip in a car with a broken radio is its own circle of hell. As adults, we exaggerate too. There are times when being stuck in traffic or in a house with poor wi-fi is considered hell. Sure, there’s no fire and brimstone, but that doesn’t make the experience any less hellish.

The takeaway from that kind of exaggeration is that our concept of torture tends to be exceedingly relative. It’s one thing to be in constant pain, which is torture at its most pure. It’s quite another when it strains our psyche, our sanity, and our willingness to endure it.

I highlight this disparity because it’s important to consider in any discussions about Hell. By that, I don’t just mean the feelings we have when we’re sick, hung over, or working overtime on a weekend. I’m referring to the actual religious, philosophical, and literal concept of Hell that fuel our worst nightmares.

I get that this is not a very sexy topic. You could argue that it’s the least sexy topic anyone could discuss and probably win. However, there’s a reason why I’m bringing it up. It has less to do with religious connotations and more to do with the larger implications. To some extent, it may even alleviate some of those distressing sentiments surrounding hell.

That might be hoping for too much because few issues make people more uncomfortable than Hell. Even among the deeply devout, the idea that there’s this terrible place full of unending, unparalleled torture that people consciously experience second after second for eons on end is extremely distressing. By definition, it’s the ultimate form of torture that nobody can hope to escape, resist, or endure.

It’s for that very reason that a literal Hell is often seen as a problem among atheists and theists alike. The very idea of eternal torture doesn’t just clash with the idea of a loving deity. It also conflicts with every notion of justice. We are, after all, finite beings living in a finite world. How can any finite person do anything to warrant infinite torture?

The debate over the merits of infinite punishment for finite sins is one of those theological and ethical debates that has been going on for centuries. I’m not smart enough or spiritual enough to resolve it so I’m not going to try. Instead, I want to highlight a particular detail about the concept of hell and it’s a concept I have discussed more than most theologians.

That concept is boredom, a force that may be more powerful than any fiery sermon about hell. It has already led some to murder and I’ve argued that it could be a plague of the future. In contemplating and studying the power of boredom, though, I’ve noticed that it has a very peculiar effect when applied to the concept of Hell.

Simply put, boredom renders Hell, even the eternal variety, utterly ineffective and ultimately meaningless. That’s not to say eternal torture, or torture of that extent, is justified ethically. My point is that when you inject boredom into the equations of Hell, then all the tenants surrounding it break down.

To illustrate this point, think back to an experience in your life that you considered tortuous. Maybe it was an injury. Maybe it was a relationship. Maybe it was just a family reunion that you couldn’t wait to end. However bad it was, physically or mentally, there’s usually a point where you become numb to it.

It’s not just a function of our brains, which has actual mechanisms for adapting and adjusting to all sorts of torment. It’s a product of perception itself. Experience something so often for so long and it suddenly doesn’t become the aberration. It becomes the norm. When you think about the implications of that, then the concept of Hell breaks down.

Take, for instance, your current state of being. Assuming you’re not sick or in any significant discomfort, you don’t consider this state as painful. From your perspective, it’s a normal state of being and one with which you’ve become familiar over the course of your life.

Now, imagine for a moment, that everyone in the world sees your state and is aghast. They’re horrified that anyone could live, like you do. They see your current state as pure torture, one that they wouldn’t wish on anyone. You’re understandably confused, but can only do so much to grasp it because from your point of view, your condition is normal.

In a less theatrical example, consider those who live in what we might classify as extreme poverty. According to the World Bank, about 10.7 percent of the world’s population lives in extreme poverty. To these people, imagine what their concept of normal is. Torture to them is not being able to eat for days on end whereas torture for some is having to eat at McDonald’s five nights a week.

When it comes to suffering, eternal or otherwise, perception matters. You could argue it’s the only thing that matters. Someone who grew up rich and affluent may consider living in a mid-level apartment in Detroit torture whereas someone who grew up poor might see it as an upgrade. It all depends on how someone’s sense of normal develops.

When you add eternity to the mix, then things get somewhat paradoxical and boredom is at the heart of it. Imagine, if you can, that first moment when a hapless soul is condemned to Hell. Moments after they die, they descend into that horrible lake of fire that many religious texts and famous poets describe with such vivid detail.

Naturally, it’s torturous, plain and simple. Whatever kind of torment Hell offers, be it constant burning or being forced to watch “The Emoji Movie” for all eternity, is exceedingly painful to that poor soul. There’s no getting around that.

However, after a good long while though, such torment loses its impact. Remember, we’re dealing with eternity here. Time tends to obscure our frame of reference. It doesn’t matter how long we lived or how well we remember that life. After enough time, that whole experience will become a minor blip.

That’s a critical reference point because everything we think we know about pain, pleasure, and boredom are derived from those life experiences. Given that those experiences are finite while hell is infinite, it’s literally only a matter of time before Hell ceases to become a place of torment and just becomes our sense of normal.

Beyond normal, though, even the extremes of Hell that holy texts and poets describe lose their luster once boredom enters the picture. Do anything long enough and often enough and chances are, it’ll get boring to some extent. Why else would there be so many kinks and fetishes surrounding sex?

It’s true. Even I, an aspiring erotica/romance writer, don’t deny that sex can become boring. If something as inherently pleasurable as sex can become boring, then anything as pleasurable or painful could become boring as well. Given enough time, repetition, and inanity and it’s inevitable. Add eternity to the mix and, invariably, everything becomes boring.

It doesn’t matter if you’re burning in a lake of fire for trillions upon trillions of years. Eventually, it becomes so mundane that it ceases to become torture. At that point, Hell isn’t even a punishment anymore and it completely loses its purpose.

There are some forms of Hell that try to work around this. In the Fox TV show, “Lucifer,” the torment in hell technically isn’t eternal. In the show, Hell is a domain in which the damned are forced to relive the worst parts of their life over and over again. Even Lucifer himself endured that in one episode.

This isn’t eternal, though, because from the perspective of those being tortured, it isn’t an eternity. From their point of view, it’s just one really bad day. It doesn’t matter if the loop goes on for a trillion years. From their perspective, it’s still one day. If anything, the only one really suffering is Marcus “Cain” Pierce, who actually seeks death because, like Vandal Savage, an immortal life becomes unbearably boring after a few centuries.

That’s not just an irony. It highlights the underlying problem of applying eternity alongside boredom. After a certain amount of time, any experience, be it torture or euphoria, is going to lose its effect once boredom takes hold. In that sense, even Heaven loses its appeal because like pain, pleasure is not immune to the corrosive effects of boredom.

Now, some theologically minded people might still argue that an all-powerful deity would find some way to ensure boredom doesn’t undermine the punishment of Hell or the ecstasy of Heaven. However, doing so would require a total subversion of our mortal perceptions, which would in turn undermine the very experiences that are used to justify sending us to Heaven or Hell in the first place.

The fact that those perceptions are what we use to understand these places is the biggest flaw in the concept. Even an evil, vindictive deity would have to be exceedingly indifferent to standards of judgment and justice to even organize such a scheme.

The fact that so few holy texts or visions of Hell reference the power of boredom is a sign that there’s a disconnect between how the infinite effects the finite. It might also explain why visions of it have to be so terrifying to begin with. It even explains why Heaven has to be so appeal. In the context of eternity, the experience loses purpose eventually.

To some extent, we can take comfort in the idea that no matter how horrible Hell may be, if it even exists, boredom will eventually undermine those horrors. Granted, that means the pleasures of Heaven will be subject to the same effect, but it all evens out in the long run. Given enough time, we’re all subject to the same fate. It may seem grimly nihilistic for some, but I also think it’s comforting in how it binds us.

It also proves that, however powerful a deity may be, even the holiest of power pales in comparison to the might of boredom. Like erosion and entropy, boredom is the experience that overpowers us all eventually.

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Filed under religion, War on Boredom