Heaven and Hell
Who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings? (Isaiah 33:14)
No one knows of the Beyond. Still men throughout history have seen visions of it. These visions have informed their faith and galvanized them to the words and deeds by which they have lived. Look now at Blake's visions of Heaven and Hell:
For Isaiah (and Blake) 'everlasting burnings' had connotations opposite to those of conventional thinking.
Indeed throughout the Bible fire symbolizes God more often than the Devil: "our God is a consuming fire".Note also the burning bush seen by Moses and the forks of flame at Pentecost. In Eden every bush burns and flaming tongues fill the air; Blake referred to them as burning arrows of thought.
Blake's eternity, both here and hereafter, is characterized by two intense activities, War and Hunting (Milton: Plate 35:2), "the Two Fountains of the River of Life". Both are intellectual in nature and aimed at growth into Truth. In this world they have been prostituted into "corporeal war" and the killing of the innocent. War and Hunting of course exhaust the eternals, so periodic rest is provided in what might be called Lower Heaven; Blake called it Beulah:
- "There is from Great Eternity a mild & pleasant rest Nam'd Beulah, a soft Moony Universe, feminine, lovely, Pure, mild & Gentle, given in Mercy to those who sleep, Eternally created by the Lamb of God around, On all sides, within & without the Universal Man."
4Z (Night 1 5:29-31)
Blake tells us relatively little about Eden, but in his larger poems he had a lot to say about Beulah. He described it as a sort of way station between Eden and Ulro, which we might roughly translate as this vale of tears. Two way traffic passes through Beulah. Those who reach it from Ulro are in good shape and headed for something better. Those coming from the other direction are also okay for the moment but in deadly peril if they go farther.
We could also call Ulro "this world". In a sense "this world" is as close to the conventional hell as Blake got. In Blake as in the Bible, especially in Paul, "this world" has a technical meaning. It does not mean the present stage of life as opposed to a heavenly (or hellish) existence beyond physical death. Basically "this world" means a level of consciousness that sees only the material, which Blake called the corporeal. Ulro is the state in which "Reality was forgot, and the Vanities of Time and Space only Remembered and called Reality" (Vision of the Last Judment; Erdman 555; his comments on an astounding canvas; it concerns Revelation 20:11-15).
Ulro, Blake's hell, denotes a form of blindness or sleep, from which one may awaken:
"Of the Sleep of Ulro! and of the passage through Eternal Death! and of the awaking to Eternal Life....(Jerusalem Chapter One)"
This is his theme, Blake tells us. Students of the New Testament know that sleep and waking are thoroughly biblical figures for the spiritual realities which concerned Blake here. He envisioned Eternal Death as the fallenness of "this world" through which we pass before "awaking to Eternal Life". Blake thus saw hell as man's fallen state before the coming of Jesus to awaken us and set us free.
The biblical writers as they are generally understood had not adequately grasped the fullness of Jesus' power to rescue mankind totally from the darkness which Blake called Eternal Death. They wrote most of the New Testament in a time of persecution. In their effort to stiffen the spine of the believer in the face of that persecution they retreated into a degree of thralldom to the Old Testament God of Wrath, in the spirit of Jonathan Edwards' sermon,"Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God".
One can readily understand why the worldly ecclesiastics who followed Peter and Paul picked up on the angry God. All too often he became their primary weapon; the image of hell is the ultimate form of coercion. Blake made no such mistake, probably because of the ten years which he had spent confronting and subduing that "shadow from his wearied intellect", years of suffering, but it turned to glory.
In those years he laid to rest the Punisher who has afflicted the minds of believers through the centuries, but he retained the creative possibility which represents the best of the Christian faith. The rationalists and deists had thrown out both and confined us to Ulro, which today threatens to engulf mankind. The reader must decide for himself whose hell is most real--the place of unending punishment or the sleep from which man may awaken.