I've recently been spending my spare time as a minion of the Devil. Well, I've been portraying one during rehearsals for a play. When my boyfriend, currently a receptionist by trade and a writer and actor by passion and talent, said he wanted to put on a production of Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, I jumped at the chance to play Mephistopheles, the agent of Lucifer who secures foolish Faustus's soul. He reworked the text, bringing it back to its probable original form while also lending his own pen to fill in some gaps. We decided that he would play Faustus and I would play Mephistopheles, if only so that we could rehearse our scenes all the time. (Nothing like waking up and spouting off some lines about hell to start one's day.)

Immersing myself in this Elizabethan text about eternal damnation puts the nature of hell on my mind more frequently than normal. The play's take on hell is that it's not so much a specific place as the restriction from being in God's presence. Faustus conjures up Mephistopheles but still refuses to acknowledge that hell is a reality, until his final hour. Before that, he has thousands of chances to repent and turn to God. The trick of the play is that Faustus signs his soul over to the devil and believes it to be a binding agreement, but Mephistopheles knows that God's forgiveness is greater than any contract - if Faustus simply asks forgiveness, he will be allowed into heaven. In turn, however, a person's free will still trumps all, and God all but appears to Faustus to plead with him to abandon his commitment to the devil and avoid eternal damnation, but Faustus is too arrogant and foolish to listen until it is literally too late.

As a cast, we volley back and forth about the nature of hell, in reality and in the world of the play - not because we're concerned about the afterlife, but in order to create the right blocking and build theatrical moments. When we leave, though, the haunting verses of Faustus's dying lines linger in the brain, and I can't help but think of the reality.

In the world of blithe disregard for consequences, do people still believe in hell? I've always thought that it's difficult to believe in heaven if you don't believe in its antithesis.

Catholics are supposed to believe in hell as a very real place - just as heaven is also a real place. New fangled conceptions of heaven as a "state of being" or another stage in the cycle of life are officially rejected by the church, though these ideas are embraced by many individual Catholics. It's not that the Church pretends to know exactly what heaven is like - this is one of the few areas where they let mystery reign. Hell, then, is even more mysterious. We know, ostensibly, what sins earn us a ticket to the fiery amusement park - murder, rape, deception, theft, cutting in line at Duane Reade - but every ticket issued isn't necessarily cashed. God can save us at any time of our choosing, so we're told.

A description of hell that I like (if that's possible) is that it is a real place - not physically, not River Styx or anything - but real for souls, and that there are very few people there.

Evangelical Christians talk of Satan casually, as if he were some sinister cartoon villain who they've got all figured out. He cackles and twirls his mustache, and you can easily spot him and vanquish him with a heavenward eye roll. Catholic myth and dogma render the devil much more elusive and terrifying. You can't always pinpoint him, but he could be anywhere. We have holy water and exorcisms and a very solemn regard for evil.

Sometimes, as when Pope Benedict wrote of the evil that must have been present in priests who abused children, the idea of evil as an embodiment, as a distinguishable entity like a demon, is a convenient excuse. No, I did not choose to fondle that defenseless boy. The devil made me do it! The devil is probably sneakier than that anyway. As I go through my script again and again, I find myself writing transitive verbs around my lines, as we were taught to do as theatre students, to give myself an action to perform on the other characters: To persuade. To convince. To satiate, to cajole, to entice, to threaten, to seduce. NOT to damn. Faustus does that all on his own.

As I continue to contemplate the nature of hell - is it simply the absence of God? Is it forever? It is escapable? Is it hot like the Bahamas or hot like an electric stove top? - I can't say for sure that it exists. I wonder if what matters is the plain old fear of hell, more than its existence. I'm not one for fire and brimstone. But the idea of eternal darkness, of never seeing the face of God - that alone, I think, is enough to make one realize the importance and power of God. I hope that's enough.


Faustus: Come, I think hell's a fable.

Mephistopheles: Think so still, 'til experience change thy mind.