Contents Realms Forbidden to the Living: Ancient Greece and Rome
• Tartarus, Prison of the Titans: From Hesiod’s Theogony
• Netherworld Megafauna: From Seneca’s The Madness of Heracles
• Odysseus at Death’s Door: From Homer’s Odyssey
• Socrates Ponders the Punishment of Souls: From Plato’s Phaedo
• Into the Realm of Shadows: From Virgil’s Aeneid Early Christian Hellscapes (c. 100–500 CE)
• The Fire and the Worm: From the Apocalypse of Paul
• The Rich Man and Lazarus: From the Gospel of Luke
• Death’s Defeat: The Harrowing of Hell from the Gospel of Nicodemus On the Lip of the Abyss: The Early Middle Ages (c. 500–1000 CE)
• Beyond the Black River: From the Dialogues of Gregory the Great
• Behold, the Fire Draws Near Me: From Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People
• Dryhthelm Returns from the Dead: From Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People
• The Island of the Fire Giants: From The Voyage of Saint Brendan Into the Deepest Dark: The Vision of Tundale (c. 1150)
• Welcome to Hell
• The Punishment Fits the Crime
• The Great Below Teaching the Torments: The High Middle Ages (c. 1000–1300)
• Lessons in Horror: From the Elucidarium
of Honorius of Autun
• Preaching Pain: From a Medieval Priest’s Manual
• Three Tales of Torment: From Caesarius’ Dialogue on Miracles
• Warnings from Beyond the Grave: From Caesarius’ Dialogue on Miracles
• The Abominable Fancy: From Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica Abandon All Hope: Dante’s Inferno (c. 1320)
• Through the Gates of Hell
• The Filthy Fen
• The Boiling Blood
• The Forest of the Suicides
• Trapped Under Ice A Heartbreaking Consort of Woes: Early Modern Afterlives (c. 1500–1700)
• The Sharp Pangs of a Wounded Conscience: From a Sermon by William Dawes
• Into That Eternal Furnace: From Giovanni Pietro Pinamonti’s Hell Opened to Christians to Caution Them from Entering into It
• A Living Death Shall Feed Upon Them: From John Bunyan’s The Resurrection of the Dead and Eternall Judgement The Dread of Hell Peoples Heaven: The Nineteenth Century
• Hell Is for Children: From John Furniss’ The Sight of Hell
• A Place at Odds with Mercy: From Austin Holyoake’s Heaven & Hell: Where Situated? Hell of Our Own Making: The Twentieth Century and Beyond
• The Death Factories: From Vasily Grossman’s “The Hell of Treblinka”
• Fire in the Sky: From the “Testimony of Yoshitaka Kawamoto”
• The Sum of Suffering: From William Blake’s “A Sentence Worse Than Death”
• Guantánamo Mixtape: Music from American Detention CampsIntroduction
Hell, the punitive afterlife of the Christian religion, is arguably the most powerful and persuasive construct of the human imagination in the Western tradition. A subterranean realm of eternal suffering, a prison for sinful souls governed by a fallen angel who surpassed all other creatures in wickedness, Hell has inspired fear and thereby controlled the behavior of countless human beings for more than two thousand years. Despite advances in scholarship that have called into question the authority of the Christian scriptures and scientific developments that have changed the way we think about the human race and our place in the cosmos, the idea of Hell has remained tenacious in Western thought. In modern discourse, “hell” serves as an all-pervasive metaphor for any kind of difficulty (“hard as hell”) or extreme (“hot as hell”), but the word has lost none of its religious currency in our so-called age of reason. A 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 58 percent of American adults still believe in the existence of a place “where people who have led bad lives and die without being sorry are eternally punished.”
The tenacity of the belief in Hell in the modern world invites inquiry into its long history. Depictions of a punitive afterlife are as old as writing itself. Ancient Mesopotamians imagined a grim otherworld in “the house of dust,” while ancient Egyptians trembled at the thought of the judgment of the death god Anubis, but these traditions did not exert as much influence on Western culture as the realms of shadow and gloom awaiting the dead as portrayed in the Hebrew scriptures (Sheol) and in Greek and Roman literature (Hades). The account of Aeneas’s descent into the underworld and the descriptions of its landscape and megafauna in The Aeneid of the Roman poet Virgil (70–19 BCE) were especially formative; the poem would exert an enormous influence on medieval intellectuals and poets, especially Dante Alighieri (1265–1321 CE). The earliest Christians thus inherited a rich tradition of thoughts and images about the afterlife from their Jewish and pagan contemporaries, but they were not slavish imitators of other religions in their thinking about the underworld. In the centuries between the time of Christ and the triumph of the Church in the lifetime of Saint Augustine (356–430 CE), Christian thinkers began to delineate the contours and function of a distinctly Christian Hell, informed by ancient models yet particular to their own understanding of original sin and God’s inscrutable mercy.
During the first millennium CE, early medieval authors invented a punitive underworld with distinctive features and dire inhabitants and articulated its details in popular stories unauthorized by the Church, including the apostle Paul’s guided tour of Hell in the company of an angel and the tradition that Christ descended to the underworld during his three days in the tomb in order to rescue the virtuous Jewish patriarchs from the prison of Hades, the so-called Harrowing of Hell. They also composed vivid and fanciful visionary tours of Hell, its inhabitants, and its torments written with didactic intent to help monastic readers avoid the sins that would bar them from Heaven. The articulation of these beliefs as official Church doctrine took almost a millennium to work out, but by the High Middle Ages (c. 1000–1400 CE) theologians like Thomas Aquinas were explaining with detached reason the kinds of punishments that evil persons could expect in Hell and the relationship between the blessed and the damned. At the end of the Middle Ages, Dante Alighieri wedded medieval popular beliefs about the punitive afterlife and the reasoned deductions of scholastic thinkers about the workings of divine punishment in his towering poem The Divine Comedy
. His poetic portrayal of Hell (Inferno) represented the apogee of the punitive underworld in the medieval imagination.
Early modern thinkers challenged medieval understandings of Hell during the Protestant Reformation. In the sixteenth century, Protestant reformers agreed with their Catholic rivals that Hell was the destination of the wicked, but they were much more likely to couch the punitive afterlife in abstract terms of remorse and wounded conscience rather than in concrete terms of torment in Hell-fire familiar from the Catholic tradition. New scientific knowledge and social change in the nineteenth century brought the concept of Hell to the center of debate once again, as Victorian Christians cast doubt on the merciless perpetuity of infernal punishment, while defending their belief in the afterlife in the face of evolutionary theories forwarded by Darwin and other scientists. During this period, secular criticism of the very concept of Hell abounded. Surely, the idea of a punitive afterlife had no place in a world governed by science and reason?
Despite the erosion of traditional religious beliefs in the modern era, Hell has survived and prospered. While the belief in Hell as an actual place has declined in recent centuries, the idea of Hell has endured as a dominant metaphor and, frighteningly, as an inspiration for how to treat other people. From the world wars and the Holocaust to the plight of prisoners and detainees, the political calamities of the modern world have increased the currency of the concept of Hell as a metaphor for torment and suffering. Although many modern people have turned their backs on a literal understanding of Hell as a place of future punishment, they nonetheless draw inspiration from imaginative traditions about the punitive afterlife to cause suffering to others in this present life, to “give them hell.” The modern technologies and rational ways of thinking that supposedly mark our progress over earlier generations now allow us to commit mass murder and replicate infernal landscapes at the touch of a button; in an ironic reversal, we have become the very demons our ancestors trembled to meet when death foreclosed on their lives.
In this book, the reader will discover the many forms that the torments of Hell have taken in the Western imagination, with sinful souls immersed in rivers of fire, gnawed away by giant worms, bound up in fiery chains, trembling in intense cold, and devoured whole by hellish monsters. The landscape of Hell is as diverse as its torments. In medieval visions, monks and knights traversed towering mountains, dark valleys, and fetid swamps filled with demons and mythological creatures. In modern accounts, Hell became a vast prison of red-hot iron and choking smoke with great gates built to withstand the seething tide of furious, tormented souls who crashed inexorably against them in their futile attempt to escape their suffering. The literature of Hell boasts famous villains, but most of the damned are ordinary people like you and me, each judged to be deserving of eternal punishment for their own private sins. Stories about Hell were almost always didactic and hortatory; they were written to teach the reader by evoking fear and thereby to persuade the sinner to seek absolution through confession or, better yet, to avoid sin altogether. This does not make them any easier to read. More frightening still, even as Hell has begun to lose its grip on the modern imagination as a place of eternal punishment, it has persisted as a dominant metaphor in Western society and has played a formative role in the ways that we treat one another. Despite all of our recourse to reason and compassion, the power of Hell has not been undone.
Copyright © 2018 by Edited by Scott G. Bruce. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.