Issue #27 sees a resolution to the Hell plotline as Dream finally gets his out from having to pick who to give the key to Hell to among all the delegations that have shown up on his doorstep. It comes in the form of the observing angels Remiel and Duma, who get a direct message from God that they’re supposed to take over Lucifer’s responsibilities.
It’s a pretty rapid conclusion, and we won’t get to see the fallout from this decision until the next issue, which ties up all the dangling plot threads. Besides that big development, the only other really interesting thing is that Dream schools Azazel on precisely why it’s a bad idea to challenge him in the middle of his own realm (the moment’s a nice callback to Dream’s own misgivings about challenging Lucifer back at the start of the arc; don’t mess with immortals in their places of power). You also get a few more fun gags with the various mythological figures (Thor has a little storm cloud over his head to represent his hangover from the previous night’s partying).
But the really interesting bit to me is that early scene where Dream talks with Remiel about what God wants to tell him regarding the disposal of Hell. This scene tells us a lot about the way God operates within Gaiman’s universe. There’s a really fun bit where Remiel has to wait for God to flash the message into his mind (angels, before we glommed all the other cultural bits onto them, were imagined as simple messengers who were essentially conduits for God to speak to people), and then we get to see the breakdown of Remiel as he realizes the import of what he’s been told. It’s a great twist on the dissonance between older concepts of angels and newer, Miltonian ones. Remiel’s role is to be an extension of God’s will, and the sudden revelation that he’s being denied all the implied benefits of that role drives him to have a moment of acute rebellious despair. It’s pretty heartbreaking.
Now, the thing about this scene that I remember the first time that I read it was that I assumed that there had to be something wrong with Remiel that God would give him this job and he’d react so badly. The combination of a Calvinist understanding of sin (utter depravity and predestination) and existing in a subculture that’s exceedingly comfortable with victim blaming forced me into a position where I was totally unwilling to consider that maybe Gaiman’s version of God is just a jerk.
We’ll see in a couple of future issues that Remiel does have some real personality flaws (even here, Duma’s easier to admire just because he accepts his fate with equanimity while Remiel rages and plots rebellion; it’s not that the response isn’t understandably human, it’s that these are angels so we shouldn’t expect this kind of autonomy from them), but here you do feel kind of bad for him. If the life of an angel involves being always blissed out in Gaiman’s version of Heaven when they aren’t running messages for God, it’s understandable that having all those perks taken away for not doing anything wrong stings.
Beyond the personal injustice that Remiel and Duma get caught up in with God’s decision, we also get to see some weird justifications thrown out for why God wants Hell to remain in operation. It’s important to remember here that Gaiman’s writing from the perspective of popular conceptions of Heaven and Hell, and not necessarily thinking in theological terms. A universalist reading of Christianity holds that hell is not only unnecessary, but impossible in the context of God’s love, which is endlessly patient and willing to reconcile with all people, but that’s not the perspective being explored here.
It’s more accurate to say that Gaiman’s vision of Hell, which is consistently portrayed in The Sandman as a place for people who believe they deserve infinite punishment, is more in line with a more Arminian understanding where salvation is a matter of personal volition (people only go to Hell because they prefer it over the alternative). Hell is necessary as a contrast to Heaven, which pulls in more dualist ideas about the balance between good and evil.
This is all pretty standard popular theology, but the bit that really throws me is that God justifies Hell’s existence at a moment when there is real potential to change the established system. This move strikes me as more a case of the dominant deity of this version of the universe (remember “Dream of a Thousand Cats”) enforcing the status quo to maintain hegemony. Hell exists within The Sandman because people believe it exists, and it exists in a pseudo-Miltonian state, which is built as a distinct contrast to Heaven. Gaiman’s God is on top because that’s the narrative with the most cultural capital, and he’s aware of it (I’m assuming this version is male, because it fits the dominant narrative). My read now is that he doesn’t really care about the theological implications of shutting Hell down; he just wants to keep it in business in order to keep things from shifting so much that people stop believing in him.
So yeah, this is the issue where we find out God is a jerk.
On the art front, this is also the last issue we get with Kelley Jones on pencils for a while. He’ll return for one more issue later on in the midst of the Delirium driven story arc Brief Lives, but that’s a long way off, so it’s a good time to wish farewell to he of the incredibly creepy teeth.