In the genealogy of morality, Nietzsche describes the intensity of glee that second-century author Tertullian experienced when he imagined what might go on in hell. “What there excites my admiration? What my derision?” Tertullian writes. “Which sight gives me joy? Which rouses me to exultation?” Well, it turns out that for him, it’s the sight of actors, poets, playwrights, even a poor charioteer, and of course some philosophers “tossing in the fiery billows,” glowing in “the dissolving flame” – that is to say, a collection of his fellow humans literally roasting in hell.

Nietzsche finds Tertullian’s exultation to be a perfect example for one of his more trenchant critiques of Christianity, based on Nietzsche’s notion of the kind of slow-burning ire he dubs “ressentiment.” The trouble with ressentiment, Nietzsche thinks, is that it is a species of anger that comes from a negation, saying no to what is outside, other, and different from one’s self. Ressentiment wants scapegoats to pin all our shortcomings on, to have something to destroy to try to make ourselves feel a little better, like the angry neighbors in Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), or for that matter, the Nazis justifying mass murder of the Jews.

If Nietzsche were correct that this is simply the sum and substance of the Christian view of enmity and sin, of the wicked and of sinners, he would certainly have a point. If ressentiment is not just an occasional failing of individuals who didn’t quite get the message, but really at the root of what we Christians say when we reach for truisms like Augustine’s “love the sinner, hate the sin,” something would be amiss in the very nature of the love expressed in the Gospels.

Manuscript artwork, public domain.

Fortunately, Nietzsche is not correct. The overwhelming divine love that, as Dante puts it, moves the very stars can be experienced and expressed even by mere mortals. But there is a problem here that remains, both for the human and the Christian, about what to do in the face of things we honestly want to name as, well, bad – and not just kind of bad, but really and truly wicked. We can safely say that Tertullian’s enjoyment of poets glowing in the flames, especially given that he himself eventually renounced Christianity proper for the prophecies of Montanus, is simply not a good example. But is renouncing evil enough, or is there a way in which anger or even hatred could be appropriate?

Is there a way to hate without falling into the trap that Nietzsche identifies, where ressentiment becomes not just the source of our indignation but the substance of what we claim to love as well?

In Psalm 58, the psalmist writes of the wicked, saying wistfully:

   Let them vanish like water that runs away;
   Like grass let them be trodden down and wither.
   Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime.

There’s something deeply appealing in this description of the snail – the satisfaction of imagining a wicked person reduced to a smaller and smaller trail of glistening snail snot. It’s touching somehow, or at least bathetic, even if stronger images precede and follow it; earlier on in the psalm, the human voice prays for God to break the very teeth of the wicked; later, the psalmist has the righteous “bathe their feet in the blood” of the same.

But perhaps because the psalmist’s descriptions are more baroque, or at least more human-scaled than Tertullian’s fire, with things like grass, teeth, feet, water, and snails – and crucially, set on the earth we know rather than the hell we imagine – they at least rescale the problem into something easier to investigate. Unlike consigning enemies to cosmic fire in an unknowable afterlife, they allow us to begin to understand the right response to evil by thinking about the psychologically recognizable moments of individuals.

One human phenomenon that the psalmist returns to again and again in his prayers is the strange experience of one human taking another for an enemy.

Deliver me from my enemies, O my God
Protect me from those who rise up against me.
Deliver me from those who work evil;
From the bloodthirsty save me.
For even now, they lie in wait for my life.
(Psalm 59)

Is not the devil the true enemy, and our fellow human, as the saying goes, our neighbor? And yet, who has not been at least tempted by something like the following absurd progression? Picture a person on the floor above you making too much noise – so annoying! – and unneighborly, too, it might seem. But now consider the shift where you begin to regard this neighbor not as a cause of anger, but the focus of anger, not just a person who occasionally wears heavy boots indoors, but someone who works evil. To me, what makes someone, a hitherto ordinary person, into an enemy is the difference between a “no big deal” and what my children and students might call “drama.” An enemy is no longer simply a person, but a Public Nuisance. The small anger you experience becomes steady and starts to take on that inveterate quality of hatred. 

Of course, real enemies, even within peaceful times, do exist; and although it may sound sophistical to say so, you could hardly attempt to love your enemies if they were not around for you to do so. Perhaps the person with the boots has decided for some reason to hate your guts; or one thing you said on day one pissed off your freshman college roommate forever.

These examples are purposefully trivial in order to highlight that no one involved is necessarily wicked. But once you have made an enemy, his or her presence even at a distance is undeniable, and unforgettable. When your enemies are elsewhere, you imagine that they are really lying in wait for you, as the psalmist describes, on the other side of the telephone, the internet, the island. That they would be bloodthirsty only in a metaphorical way is hardly a full consolation.

Aside from neighbors and roommates, consider also the notion of the professional enemy. There is no better lighthearted poem about this species of enmity than Clive James’s poem “The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered,” where the profession is that of the professional author, and his enemy, the literary sort.

The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I am pleased.
In vast quantities it has been remaindered
Like a van-load of counterfeit that has been seized
And sits in piles in a police warehouse,
My enemy’s much-prized effort sits in piles
In the kind of bookshop where remaindering occurs.
Great, square stacks of rejected books.

If you are not an author yourself, this kind of bookish rivalry might seem somewhat odd. Yet as Plato’s Diotima notes, poets are even more attached to their poems than parents to their children. And the funny thing is, once you are willing to take up the author’s conceit, it becomes somehow not unpleasant to imagine the book, specifically of someone you have run afoul of, to have been rejected to the extent that it no longer makes sense to even try to sell a new copy at full price to anyone, at all. In fact, there would be a certain dishonesty to not admitting the sort of pleasure that James’s poem records. And certainly, it’s obvious enough that this sort of professional rivalry extends to many a profession; as Aristotle invokes the Greek proverb, potters never agree. But who is this book-enemy of the poem, and where did he come from? And most importantly, what did he do to deserve the title of enemy? 

In James’s poem, the enemy has no whence or whither; he simply arrives full-fledged, which is part of the satisfying whimsy involved. You’re asked to imagine an enemy with no strings attached. In fact, this imaginative act reveals that a certain amount of the enjoyment of the professional enemy comes from an aestheticization of the experience. It’s a dream-image of some light-hearted evildoer, whose crime is unimportant and slightly unreal, like having a villain with an overdone mustache and a silly hat.

Hatred reifies things as it goes, creates demons where there are none, animates evil from situations where there were only mistakes or even simply ordinary ambiguities.

Indeed, I have even heard it argued among authors of my acquaintance that it is pleasant to do a certain amount of conscious cultivation of this sort, taking an ordinary human with whom you have a vague rivalry, and enjoying the sensation of imagining this person into something of more importance, someone to scheme about, to rejoice or moan at any failure or triumph. Partly, this is a way of keeping yourself on your toes, particularly if other people happen to have picked you to cultivate as their own cheerful enemy-project. It also gives you a sense of importance, as someone distinguished enough to have an enemy, as you might own a particularly expensive watch. (Of course, this elevates the importance of the enemy as well.)

But amidst all this comedy, it should be obvious that it is terrible, actually, to have a real enemy, and probably worse than having a testy neighbor. It is no fun to get a nasty email, or even to be cut from a party, not to mention if someone tries to get you fired, or spreads malicious gossip.

This shift from the comically desirable to the truthfully unpleasant is even clearer when real, physical violence comes into play. No one forgets the real school bully, and not because it was fun to be pinched when the teacher wasn’t looking, or glamorous of the bully to do the pinching. Once you’re faced with wounds, death, and corpses – as, for example, soldiers are – the cuteness of violence immediately dissipates, as if there has been a sudden departure of a little haze. In Iris Murdoch’s 1961 novel A Severed Head, after one character punches an incestuous psychoanalyst in the face, as hard as he can, Murdoch as narrator remarks that “violence, except on the screen, is always pathetic, ludicrous, and beastly,” and this is true, even though the incestuous psychoanalyst was not exactly without fault. It’s just that, the thing is, there’s nothing actually glamorous about being punched in the face. My bet is that this goes for the wish of the psalmist to bathe his feet in the blood of his enemies as well: sounds good in a poem, but in practice unlovely, and also kind of gross.

So why then does that temptation to invest in something as really dangerous as an enemy remain? Consider what making an enemy out of someone concretely does to the shape of your soul. In a sense, to pin the tail on the donkey of a rival in this way animates something that was not, strictly speaking, alive before. Hence the saying to “have an animus” for someone, so much does hatred seem to be creative in its energies. This creative energy even extends to actual inanimate objects – when something as banal as a toaster or the kitchen sink doesn’t act as you like it, you treat it as though that toaster had a self, a self you could blame for your burnt toast.

In this way, hatred makes something out of nothing – the stranger irony being that hatred itself, as Aristotle notes, is the very wish that something would vanish from or be destroyed out of existence, forever. In fact, the phenomenon is deeply self-contradictory: hatred is aggrieved at the very existence of what it hates; but to cultivate enmity for the sake of having an enemy is to create the very thing you claim to wish to destroy.

And so the feeling goes around and around, without human end. To contradict Graham Greene, hatred is not a failure of the imagination, it is the imagination’s creative act, and it fills the mind so strongly that no rival image or imagining will put an end to it. We are continually creating golems of whom we must live in fear.

This is why it’s very important for Christians not to pin too much on Augustine’s wildly popular maxim that one way out of the difficulties of enmity is simply to hate the sin, yet not the sinner, “with due love for the persons, and hatred of the sins.” The trouble is, that’s not how hatred works. Hatred reifies things as it goes, creates demons where there are none, animates evil from situations where there were only mistakes or even simply ordinary ambiguities. Hatred makes fake persons; it therefore also makes the real person harder to see. It cements a picture of human life that renders the fundamental ambiguities of ethical life nearly invisible. Like the fancy villain with his mustache and cloak, it aestheticizes the violence with which an entire culture is assigned to the grave by the grave.

Wicked deeds are real, and people can on occasion commit enough of them to be wicked themselves. But the logic of hatred appeals to our wish to avoid the burden of careful judgment; indeed, it turns imprudent human judgment into an upside-down simulacrum of what God alone can see, let alone decide.

But what happens when Christians have been persuaded that it is best to avoid enmity toward persons and sins, but still want to do more than dissent from the large-scale evils of the world? In allowing in your heart any hatred of abstract principles, false metaphysics, or even your least favorite Christian denomination, I still think there’s a risk of conjuring enemies where there were none. To renounce the devil and all his works will involve more than vivifying new cosmic devils, lest we become devils ourselves.

This risk was remarkably well dramatized in an off-Broadway play I recently saw, though this meant that the story ended up being almost more terrifying than I could handle. Samuel D. Hunter’s A Bright New Boise (original production 2010, revival 2023) is about a man who left his church and started a new job at Hobby Lobby, where as it happens, his teenage biological son also works, whom he has not known but intends now to befriend. His former church was built around the imminence of Armageddon, and despite his departure, he still agrees that something about the modern world will be solved by its destruction. He prays for this, repeatedly. He is upset that it does not happen right away.

For most of the play, it is not quite clear what the man thinks about his old church. Sometimes he lies a little bit about it, and sometimes he does not. The actor did an extraordinary job of portraying someone whose mind is always a little elsewhere; and who, it emerges, is captivated by a cosmic metaphysic that he does much to conceal. But in the end, he can’t help but fully express his true contempt for the world, for Idaho, and for the people who inhabit it. At one point he yells at a Lutheran, right in her face: she’s going to hell, he says. (It is because she is too nice.)

There’s a way in which humanity has become a new sort of vessel once God introduces himself in human form to the world, but plenty of moments of natural man remain. We pray the psalmists’ prayers because they are often our prayers too.

When the man finally openly prayed for Armageddon, for the light of the earth to be put out forever, so that a few elect souls would turn into souls of eternal light, it was as though he wanted in some sense to become demonic and almost achieved it.

This moment is painfully far from the way I was raised, though it did remind me a little of a Baptist tent revival I went to with a friend in middle school. The preacher drew little souls falling into hell that we couldn’t see while he talked, until other lights being dimmed, he finally shone a black light upon them. Nothing says the aestheticization of retribution better than black light manifesting the neon blue of the silvery soul; it was a moment indeed of general relish. In A Bright New Boise, however, no one relishes destruction quite like the main character, except perhaps his son, the only one who’s been willing to listen to his theories. The play ends when the man refuses to see his son after the son attempts suicide; he prefers to continue to pray for universal fire, by himself.

Watching the audience, which after a point I was fairly scared of doing, I wasn’t sure what they were thinking. We were all rapt by the action on stage; but something in our common experience left me unsettled. How many times have I heard people on the East Coast wish Idaho didn’t exist? Or Alabama, or you name it, or Louisiana, where I’m from? The audience has to reckon with the fact that they in no small part identify with the almost-demon: they too hate flyover country, they too hate the company that the characters all work for, and they too wish the meaningless (as they think) lives of these people into oblivion. Sitting there in New York, by some views the pinnacle of civilization, I wondered if the audience got the joke.

What kept me up at night when it was over was the hollow look in the man’s eyes in the moments he was still pretending not to have contempt for what he saw in front of him. Love would not look like that, even or especially love that was honest. But then, what would it look like instead?

What the play left out of the story is that there is an option left between the beauty of a country where, as the store manager puts it, one can make a hundred percent profit selling quilting materials and silk flowers to bozos, and the desire to put an end to this misery as quickly as possible. This absent alternative has something to do with God’s love, which is neither hateful nor “nice,” and which doesn’t wish us to keep our cosmic thoughts hidden until they explode.

But attempting to channel our hatred into even the most abstract principle – say, for example, secularism or, for that matter, bad urban planning – ends up in the same place as the attempt to hate “the sin.” It volatizes the desire to point the blaming finger into a madness that spares nothing from being wrapped into our thirst for destruction. Needless to say, “love” that is based on some ostensible opposition to the hated principle is no true love at all.

If God’s indescribable love does not permit us to consign our fellows to the flames, or wish to destroy the earth, where does our smaller but lingering, all-too-human enjoyment of snail slime leave us?

If we are to avoid the smoldering danger of Nietzsche’s ressentiment, one of the most immediate practical things we can do is not to ignore these moments as they happen, or to pretend they come from more noble feelings, let alone Christian ones. As Kierkegaard puts it in Philosophical Fragments, there’s a way in which humanity has become a new sort of vessel once God introduces himself in human form to the world; but on the other hand, plenty of moments of natural man remain. We pray the psalmists’ prayers because they are often our prayers too.

On the other hand, the admission of this truth is the beginning of greater love, not its natural limit. In recognizing the comedy in our lust for snail slime, anger can spark off and dissipate lightly, without becoming subterranean or animating small things into zombie-hates. In the Gospel of John, when the authorities come to arrest Jesus, Peter gets mad. He takes a sword and cuts off one of the men’s ears, his burst of anger taking an absurd turn. An ear here is a relatively small act of human revenge, an image of pure pettiness, an ear in exchange for the betrayal of the Savior of the world. But what does Jesus do? He puts the ear right back on, an impossibly small but loving miracle, a comedic act of beyond-the-human human love.

The author would like to thank Dan Walden, Veery Huleatt, and Paul Kirkland for their helpful conversations.