Fire Down Below

Keith Hopkins

  • The Formation of Hell by Alan Bernstein
    UCL, 392 pp, £25.00, December 1993, ISBN 1 85728 225 6

Hell is not just God’s vengeance on humanity, nor is it only, in Sartre’s sardonic phrase, other people. To be sure, it can be the tortured, persecutory visions of a few psychotic madmen. But the most troublesome, pervasive hell is the nightmarish world which each of us constructs, unconsciously, in the sweat of unconfessed, unconfessable fantasies. Hell is that private world of shame, fear and terror, that we have all sometimes felt, and have hoped to forget in the public daily world of post-breakfast conventionality. Hell, for modern liberals, whether atheists or believers, is the vulnerable undercurrent behind the mask of respectability.

For orthodox Christians, ancient or modern, and for many believers of other religions, hell is everlasting punishment for the wicked. It is a place of public torture for broad categories of wrongdoers: thieves, murderers, liars, adulterers, oppressors, whether rich, poor or princes. Punishment in hell is appealingly democratic, but collective. No private Room 101 for specially selected terrors. Instead, hell has huge racks of living carcases, strung up by the offending organ: adulterous men hang by their genitals, seductive women by their nipples or hair, liars by their lips. Sinners are submerged to their necks in communal pits, inexhaustibly capacious, of boiling pitch or shit. Devouring animals, snakes, dragons, rats, gnaw at resurrected bodies, while water or food comes tantalisingly near, but remains ever out of reach. Angels of punishment, God’s emissaries in hell, watchfully ensure that suffering is severely eternal.

This standard version of fiery and eternal punishment is deeply problematic, not least for those who believe in a God who is good, omnipotent, just and lovingly redemptive. The lines of debate have long been worked out. If God is indeed good and omnipotent, why is there so much evil in the world? One standard answer evolved by ancient Jewish visionaries and Christian church fathers is that God gave humans the freedom of moral choice. It is, of course, only a partial answer, since much evil is the result of natural forces, rather than human decisions. A second standard set of answers is now deployed: puny humans are in no position to question God’s divine purpose and besides, every evil gives the opportunity to display extra fortitude and virtue. Even so, eternal punishment for sin in a fiery hell (the ancients knew no intermediate purgatory) seems inconsistent with a loving and redemptive God. Punishment after death, one might well argue, comes too late for reform, and in its eternity seems disproportionately long and severe. Most modern liberal Christians play down the old centrality of eternal punishment, and see hell either as a reformative prison, or as a neutral holding zone, where the punishment consists in deprivation: sinners cannot share in the bliss of uniting with God in paradise.

Such theological debates have a long history. In the third century, Origen, who castrated himself in the hope of frustrating temptation, kindly thought that, at the end of time, all God’s creatures would be saved. So powerful is God’s mercy, even the Devil would be forgiven. His merciful attitude toward others proved anathema to the orthodox Christian Church. If all sinners were to be saved, what is the reward of virtue? John the Baptist would be treated no better than the Devil. If the mildly good were to be confused with the very good, the favoured status of ascetic monks would disintegrate. Under Origen’s regime – horror of horrors – brothel-keepers would eventually enjoy the same salvation as consecrated virgins. St Jerome’s indignation is audible even now. Far safer to stratify the rewards of the relatively virtuous in heaven, and to condemn all sinners to everlasting punishment. Some people, Augustine claimed, falsely believed that God would listen to the pleas of interceding saints, and would be merciful to sinners after due punishment. Augustine knew better: God’s punishment is eternal; these people were merely chasing an imaginary impunity to foster their own depravity. ‘The more merciful the theory,’ Augustine declared, ‘the more it contradicts the words of God.’ Harsh truth must take precedence over hopes for loving forgiveness.

Alan Bernstein has written a sturdy book on the history of hell in Antiquity; sturdy, in that there is no negotiation here between orthodox rigorism and soft liberalism: for him, history is the objective study of the past – making judgments is not appropriate. He starts with Gilgamesh in the third millennium BC and passes very rapidly through Egypt. The main body of the book, however, is devoted to attitudes towards the after-life in Greco-Roman, Jewish and early Christian literature, stopping with St Augustine. The spread is enormous; the treatment is necessarily selective: for example, ten pages on Homer, six on Hesiod, nine on Plato, 12 on Virgil, 20 on Enoch, 17 on St Paul, two and a half on the Gospel of John. Bernstein’s task is easier, and he does understandably better, when his author has a coherent and argued view. But his prose accounts of heroic verse are irredeemably prosaic, and it would be difficult to gauge from his description that the satires of Lucian are funny.

Bernstein’s stated aim is to discover how the idea of a fearful hell got its hold on people; but it is impossible to answer that question by brief and disembodied resumés of secular and sacred texts. We do not even know whether or to what extent the idea did take hold, except among a small set of surviving writers. Bernstein’s method and the whole structure of his book presupposes that there was an evolution in the conception of hell in the Mediterranean basin over the last millennium BCE and the first few centuries CE, and that successive writers from the three religious cultures were consciously or semi-consciously negotiating a position in response to their predecessors.

It is an arguable and interesting position. But I suspect that very few of the authors whom Bernstein quotes knew as much about their selected predecessors’ views as Bernstein now does. The symphony of similar but evolving attitudes towards punishment in the after-life is a function of his own collected citations. Or put another way, this book has none of the inventive polemical bite of Jacques Le Goff’s The Birth of Purgatory, or the philosophical incisiveness of Kvanvig’s The Problem of Hell, or the detailed scholarship of Martha Himmelfarb’s Tours of Hell. The very range of Bernstein’s ambitions makes it impossible for him to know enough about the cultures whose authors he quotes. This is not to launch an ultra-conservative defence of specialised scholarship, but rather an attack against index-hunting, decontextualised and apparently dispassionate, intellectual history. Bernstein set himself the task of writing a non-judgmental history of hell. Such objectivism in Anglophone ancient history is the dominant convention. But is it sensible?

Hell is a subject which involves judgment and passion. And talk about hell and heaven in the Ancient World was, or became, the stuff of passionate politics. In modern industrial societies, politics often revolves around the redistribution of a disposable social surplus. Not much (except in the long run and on the surface) usually happens, but the possibilities and the rhetoric are absorbing, at least to visionaries and politicians. In complex ancient societies, by contrast, the redisposable surplus was too small to make much difference to most people. Internal politics, therefore, by and large concerned the selection of élite personnel, and the protection of élite status. Intellectual passions were directed more to divine than social justice; understandably enough, since divine justice (in spite of religious rhetoric) is much more under human control. Admittedly, the oppositions here are too crudely drawn, the arguments are too compressed and, as we know to our cost, religious enthusiasms are by no means all materialistically driven. Even so, in gross, I think that these rough distinctions hold.

In order to preserve their privileges, élites in complex ancient societies practised what can be called a theodicy of good fortune: they assumed, thought, ensured that the powerful, rich and successful were powerful, rich and successful because they were favoured by the gods. Their success was simply natural. They did not necessarily theorise this embodied superiority and good fortune. Instead, they acted it out, in the forum, in their appearance and in their posture, and in the civic religious rituals which they themselves funded. Counter-élites – rebellious Christian priests, pagan visionaries and Jewish prophets – who suffered from and perhaps envied the high status of civic worthies, theorised their opposition by claiming that god(s), tradition and divine justice were all on their side. God was for the oppressed and against the rich; the clerisy’s constant refrain was that the virtuous suffer and the wicked flourish.

Religion was one of the main para-political arenas in these societies, and religious ideology expressed the sectional interest of intellectuals who wished to undermine and subordinate a powerful civil authority. In this view, Hell and Heaven are imaginative weapons in a constantly replayed, para-political battle. Impotent visionaries licked their wounds and prayed that, in the end, God would exact his vengeance; at the very least, they hoped that such threats would constrain the oppressors from their worst excesses.

One story nicely illustrates my point; it is found with suitable variations in the Palestinian Talmud, in demotic Egyptian tales of the Roman period, and in the New Testament, in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. The political battle was fought with similar variations in each society. In the Jewish version a pious man dies on the same day as a rich man. The rich man has an elaborate funeral with many people attending and weeping; the pious man has almost no one to mourn his death. An equally pious friend remarks the difference and is grieved by it. But in a dream he gets to see that each has received his just deserts. The pious man had once sinned in his life (he had put on his phylacteries in the wrong order), and so he suffered; but in the next world, he lives strolling in gardens and orchards. The rich man, too, had done one good deed in his lifetime: he charitably fed the poor. So he lived well in this world, but for eternity his thirsty tongue stretches out over a river from which he can never drink. Like Tantalus he is always trying, never succeeding. The moral is made clear in rabbinical commentaries: in this world the virtuous are punished for every sin they commit, so that in the next they may have uninhibited bliss; but the wicked receive any reward which they deserve in this world, so that they may suffer fully for ever. The social inversion may be appealing to the powerless, and perhaps to some idealists. But even here, to my untutored eye, the system of justice implied appears rough, and untempered by mercy. How can one, why should anyone try to write a dispassionate history of hell?

How do we know so much about heaven and hell? The answer is surprisingly simple. A few people, with divine help, were lucky enough to go there and to come back, and revealed what was in store for us. St Paul was one of them. During his own lifetime, he went up to the third heaven (out of seven) ‘whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows’ (2 Corinthians 12). Like many of Paul’s sentences, this has been variously interpreted, but the canonical Paul refused to describe what he saw in heaven. Others were more helpful. Some three centuries later, the apocryphal ‘Apocalypse of Paul’ was discovered, allegedly as the result of a dream revelation, in an inscribed marble box hidden in the foundations of the house in which Paul had lived in Tarsus.

Since the detailed geography of heaven and hell, pace Dante, is still little known, I make few apologies for recounting what this apocryphal Paul tells us. Heaven has golden gates, with golden pillars inscribed in gold with the names and faces of the righteous few. There are angels with shining faces, and loins girt with golden girdles, on which was written the name of the son of God; and they were filled with gentleness and pity. Outside the gates, minor sinners, those whose hearts were filled with pride, even if outwardly they were humble worshippers, wait patiently (like cowed earthly beggars). Inside the gates, angels, a thousand thousand of them, sing mightily as with one voice, ‘Hallelujah’, so loud that the foundations of Christ’s city are shaken. Everyone must join in; not to do so is sin.

Heaven has four rivers flowing with honey, milk, wine and oil, and the trees are laden with fruit; each tree has ten thousand branches and each branch has ten thousand clusters, and each cluster has ten thousand dates. This fruitfulness compensates those who afflicted themselves and went without for Jesus’ sake while they were in this world. When the righteous have left their bodies and see the promises which God has prepared for them, then they will sigh and weep, in regret that they ever said a single word to irritate their neighbours. And the highest heaven, which we only hear of but do not see, is reserved for those who have remained sexually continent all their lives; there, the rewards are seven times greater than for the ordinarily virtuous or for repentant sinners.

So far, the pleasures of heaven seem comfortable enough, though unimaginatively preoccupied with food and eternal inequalities of rank. And in general, this heaven seems very much less attractive than, for example, the paradise in which humanity was first created, especially as described by Gnostics. And for my taste, the author is overcommitted to gold, large numbers, flashy uniforms, massed choirs, compulsory participation in group activities and a restricted diet.

Heaven and hell, paradise and chaos, reality and dreams, politics and religion are symbiotic, necessary complements to each other. Bernstein may intuit all this, but in a book on hell alone, organised serially by author, never comes to terms with it. The apocryphal Paul fully realised that ego’s enjoyment was enhanced by alter’s regret, and enlivened his trip to heaven with visions of the damned. And his angel tour guide kindly explained the meaning of what he saw. To summarise crudely, four paradoxical principles operate: God is omniscient (he knows everything before it happens; and just to make sure, angels render a report on each human after sunset); for our own good, God gives us the power of free will, the capacity to sin and to repent; he is merciful but strictly just (mercy will be shown to the merciful, no mercy to those who in life showed none); and finally, the wicked will be cruelly punished for eternity, and the virtuous rewarded for ever and ever.

Given God’s omniscience, the day of judgment has an element of inevitability; but even in death the wicked may still have the illusions of mortals, and try to cheat their way past accusing witnesses and omniscient judgment. One soul who had left his body barely a week was asked to confess his sins: he claimed he had committed none; God burned with (ungodly) anger: ‘Do you think you are still living in the world, where each of you sins and hides it from his neighbour?’ The good and evil of each is known. The recording angel says he has the list of this soul’s sins since birth, and volunteers to go through all those he had committed since the age of 15. But God is merciful, and wants to hear the sins of only the last five years, and comments that even a short period of repentance before death could have induced forgiveness. The court of God works like a super-efficient Roman bureaucracy, with a perfect spy network, a threatening rhetoric and in the end the hint of a surprising lenience.

The eternity of hell is no excuse for an overlong review. St Paul’s vision of hell is fairly standard, except in its special vindictiveness against negligent officials of the Church, false monks and inattentive parishioners (for example, those who pay no attention to the word of God in church eternally chew tongues). The cumulative horrors of fiery torments move Paul to tears. But he is swiftly rebuked by his guiding angel: ‘Do you have more compassion than the Lord God?’ After all, what he has so far seen is relatively kind. Heretics suffer seven times worse. But the Lord is merciful. In response to prayers, and the intercession of the archangel Michael, Jesus appears in a blaze of light, recounts his own suffering on earth (small beer, one would have thought, by these hellish standards), and allows the wicked in hell an everlasting concession. They can have one day and one night off per week. I had always surmised that an eternity of pain or pleasure would be timeless and therefore relatively free of sensation. But this intercession changed the whole calculus of pain: sufferers in hell now had both remission and further pain to anticipate.

Heaven and hell constitute an eternal arithmetic of pleasure and punishment. They are the invisible correctors of visible injustices. For each sin you think you have got away with, eternal punishment awaits. For each virtue, which no one else has noticed, eternal reward may be yours. But heaven and hell are also mighty weapons in the empowering ideology of a Judeo-Christian clerisy. In Paul’s apocryphal vision, it is the ascetics who come off best. And back on earth, it is the monks and clergy who say: do not sin, or if you do sin, repent; and we know how to get you forgiveness. Or, we are the virtuous, you are the sinners; but you prosper, and we are oppressed. In the end, our God will put things right, with a vengeance. Yet in spite of their protestations, both the clergy and the virtuous desperately needed sinners.