David Brown

In contemporary English, ‘hell’ is almost always used to refer either literally or metaphorically to a place of post-mortem punishment. However, in a longer perspective, the term was once commonly used to allude to the underworld more generally. In the latter sense in the Catholic West it became part of the Latin Apostles’ Creed (‘he descended into hell’), and as such the image was reinforced by the popular apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus. In the Orthodox East, it even became the dominant image within Orthodox Christianity for the resurrection, symbolizing the release of this and previous generations from the tyranny of Satan. However, worried by the mythological-sounding character of the language, later Western theologians such as John Calvin and Hans Urs von Balthasar deployed the imagery instead to speak of the extremes of Christ’s suffering. The merits or otherwise of such changes are explored in this article.

In its other, now more familiar sense, ‘hell’ became the place of post-mortem punishment. In this article, rather than providing an historical survey, key conceptual and imaginative issues are addressed. Under the former heading (conceptual) six questions are considered: (1) hell as part of a search for justice; (2) the issue of proportionate suffering; (3) punishment as eternal or otherwise; (4) the role of Satan; (5) tension between human freedom and divine defeat; and (6) the appropriate reading of religious imagery. The imaginative section then explores the paradox in medieval judgments of condemnation and encouragement; strategies for moral engagement; the integrity of choice in Milton and Mozart; and, finally, the uses of damnation in contemporary contexts, either to indict society generally or else to highlight the way in which damnation is self-generated.

1 Meaning

In the two principal examples of classical English religious prose – the Authorised Version of the Bible (1611) and the Book of Common Prayer (1662) – hell carries two meanings: one to represent the Hebrew term Sheol, the place of the dead, and the other to translate Gehenna, a place of separation and punishment. This English usage is unusual, following neither Jerome’s Vulgate nor Martin Luther’s translation where different words are deployed. In Acts 2:27, for example, Luther talks of leaving souls with the dead (bei den Toten), Jerome of those in the world below (in inferno). Indeed, in most contemporary English translations of the Bible, the word Hades or some other such periphrasis is now used for the New Testament occurrences of Sheol (e.g. Acts 2:27; 1 Cor 15:55; Rev 20:13). In this article, we consider both usages, with the broader reference considered first.

Both terms, Sheol and Gehenna, began in the Hebrew Bible as a literal reference to a specific place. The spatial location of Sheol (‘Hades’ in the Greek Septuagint translation) was identified quite generally as ‘beneath the earth’ (e.g. Job 11:8; Prov 15:24; Ezek 31:15–18). However, it is important to note that the righteous were seen as present there as well (Ezek 32: 21, 27), though with God able to deliver them – where appropriate – from its grip (Ps 49:15). By contrast, Gehenna, or ‘the valley of Hinnom’, originated as a specific place, a ravine to the south-west of Jerusalem which had gained a bad reputation for idol worship and child sacrifice (2 Kgs 23:10; Jer 32:35). It then graduated to the wider notion of ‘a valley of slaughter’ where Yahweh would punish his people (Jer 7:30–32; 19:2, 6; Joel 3:2, 12, 14; Isa 30:29–33; 66:24). While such ideas were still part of what the word was taken to mean in Jewish literature roughly contemporaneous with the New Testament (e.g. it is called ‘the accursed valley’ in 1 Enoch 17:1), Gehenna appears also to have acquired a more symbolic meaning. In this sense it was seen as a place to burn the bodies of one’s enemies (2 Esd 7:36), though the once popular idea that in the time of Jesus it was used as a rubbish dump has now been shown to lack foundation (Bailey 1986). While the later, broader references still speak of literal actions, it is worth observing that they also functioned symbolically, the negative value of what was destroyed underlined by where it was destroyed.

The gospels thus inherit a range of possible meanings, some more metaphorical than others. Is the primary meaning for Gehenna still as a place of condemnation and punishment? Or does the prominence of the image of fire now function as a more general metaphor for divine rejection? Some New Testament scholars argue that the eternity concerned was only ever intended to refer to the extent of divine rejection, and not to the quality or length of any accompanying punishment (e.g. Ehrman 2020: 147ff). Most, however, emphasize a (not very prominent) allusion in the teaching of Jesus, intensified in Matthew’s Gospel, where physical punishment is clearly in play. ‘Weeping and gnashing of teeth’ occurs six times in Matthew (8:12; 13:42; 13:50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30) and only once elsewhere (Luke 13:28). Likewise, ‘outer darkness’ (8:12; 22:13; 25:30) occurs three times in Matthew, and nowhere else. However, the possibility that these references go back to Jesus himself cannot be entirely discounted as an innovation by Matthew, because of the relevant verse in Mark (9:48). Even so, Matthew clearly considerably develops what is only a passing allusion in the other evangelists’ accounts of Jesus’ teaching.

Since the latter position is an aspect of Christianity which has frequently been subject to criticism, it will make sense to devote most attention to consideration of that aspect. While the more negative features are not denied, due note is taken of a possibly more nuanced account of the actual history of conceptual and imaginative treatments. This is an issue of pressing importance, given the way in which the more literal interpretation came to dominate the history of Christianity. But first something needs to be said about the Christian use of Sheol to refer to the more general place of the dead.

2 Hell as the place of the dead

Both the Hebrew Sheol and the classical Hades were envisaged as rather shadowy, inadequate forms of existence. Not surprisingly, the Hebrew scriptures pray for delay in suffering any such fate, while the New Testament promises release from such a condition for those who believe. The idea becomes pertinent theologically in its use to raise more general issues, about the fate of those who have died before Christ’s own salvific life, death, and resurrection. The ‘live’ character of the issue is nicely demonstrated by Paul’s mention of how some Christians at Corinth were being baptized on behalf of the dead (1 Cor 15:29), a practice which Shakers adopted for Native Americans in the nineteenth century and which continues today in the Church of Latter-Day Saints. Drawing on a rather obscure passage in 1 Pet 3:18–22 that alludes to Christ after his death visiting ‘the spirits in prison’, Christians came to believe that Christ visited the dead in the interval between his death and resurrection and thereby delivered some of them (cf. Eph 4:8–10; John 5:25). That notion, known as the descent into hell, became generally accepted in the early patristic period. The initial, narrower Petrine reference was expanded to include all the faithful dead.

The matter was somewhat differently treated in Eastern and Western Christendom. In the East, the iconic form of the story became the primary symbol for Christ’s own resurrection. As such, it was included in earlier representations of the traditional twelve Feasts of Orthodoxy, and the relevant icon is usually labelled Anastasis or ‘Resurrection’. A particularly dynamic example can be found in the Church of the Saviour at Chora in Istanbul (now known as Kariye Müzesi). However, while this was the usual Byzantine pattern, contemporary Orthodoxy tends to treat Easter (Pascha) as a special feast on its own, and so there are now twelve icon images for major feasts apart from Easter, where additional ones have also been added to the one traditionally labelled as Anastasis. Next most popular in representing Easter tends to be the icon of the Myrrh-bearing Women at the Tomb, though the appearances to Mary Magdalen and Doubting Thomas are also found (perhaps under Western influence) (Quenot 1997: 69–112, illustrations 20–31). In the West, in the meantime, the notion entered the Latin Apostles’ Creed, and remained a constitutive part of the interpretation of the events surrounding Christ’s death and resurrection until Calvin advocated an alternative meaning which was to be widely followed in the twentieth century. Each of these interpretations will now be explored in turn.

2.1 The Orthodox descent into hell

Initially, this particular icon of Christ’s descent into hell may seem a rather odd way of representing the resurrection of Christ. Orthodoxy, however, would offer two main counter arguments by way of defence. First, as with the gospels – which do not describe Jesus in the course of his emergence from the tomb – a focus on the descent into hell avoids directly representing a holy and mysterious action of God. Secondly, it is in any case a better way of indicating the event’s universal significance. Borrowing imagery from Ps 24:7–10, in reproductions of this icon the doors of hell are usually seen lying flat with Christ pulling Adam and Eve (symbolizing humanity as a whole) out by either hand. However, a number of issues remain unanswered by the imagery in itself. Are we to think of this salvation of humanity as a retrospective act, that only took effect at the point of Christ’s crucifixion? Or is it rather a symbolic way of saying how the ultimate aims of divine eternity relate equally to all moments in time? There is also the question of what significance attaches to various other figures usually included in the icon, among them the kings David and Solomon. No doubt intended as an allusion to Jesus’ royal ancestry, their inclusion does give the imagery a somewhat hierarchical ambience.

2.2 The Western descent

The notion of Christ’s descent into hell has certainly never been absent in the Western church (Trumbower 2001; Bynum 1995), but the Reformation’s suspicion of images ensured that there are now much fewer surviving visual portrayals. While there are plenty of extant examples in early illuminated manuscripts, sculptural survivals are much rarer, an interesting exception being an Anglo-Saxon treatment in the south transept of Bristol Cathedral. Renaissance examples include Albrecht Dürer’s fine drawing of the scene, now at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. A rare example of a modern artist engaging with the theme is provided by the series of four paintings (Hades I–IV), created in 2011 by the Scottish artist, Peter Howson (b. 1958).

Even so, Western visual versions of the scene never achieved quite the same prominence as they enjoyed in the East. As with Eastern Orthodoxy, the Western church also initially resisted directly representing the events of the resurrection; for instance, on the fourth-century Trinity sarcophagus, the story of Daniel in the lions’ den is substituted, understood as a ‘type’ or foreshadowing of Christ in hell. But direct portrayal was eventually to become the norm, as in the Romanesque reliefs (c.1100) for the Spanish Abbey of Santo Domingo de Silos. That wider visual choice meant that it was more in the literary and dramatic spheres that the idea of the descent continued to flourish. Although probably created in the East, the fourth-century (or earlier) text The Gospel of Nicodemus came to dominate Western interpretation (Schneemelcher 1991b: 521–526 [vol. 1]). Indeed, it was so frequently used that it is not inappropriate to describe the work as having enjoyed a semi-canonical status throughout the medieval period (see Christian Apocrypha). The reasons for this success are not difficult to ascertain. The incident as described becomes an extraordinarily powerful piece of high drama, in which Adam and Eve are relegated to secondary symbols, as the defeat of the devil and the liberation of all is given greater prominence. Hades is even given his own distinct identity as a separate character, in sustained interchanges with both Christ and Satan, mostly centred round a reapplication of Psalm 24. That dramatic character is well reflected in the Old English preferred name for what happened: ‘the harrowing of hell’, literally ‘the despoiling’. The influence of such a more vivid and dynamic an approach can be detected in medieval poetry, in liturgical drama (as part of the elevatio crucis or ‘exaltation of the cross’), and in the English mystery plays.

Meanwhile, a place for the theme had been secured in the Apostles’ Creed’s article: ‘he descended into hell’, a Latin expansion of the Old Roman Creed (Kelly 1972: 378–383). In early discussion, interpretation of the object of the descent varied between an impersonal (ad infera – ‘to the depths’) and a more personal reference (ad infernos – ‘to those below’). It was the latter which eventually prevailed and was to find its place in the Roman Breviary. No doubt, ‘descent to those below’ was seen as better reflecting the ultimate aim of that descent.

2.3 Calvin and thereafter

John Calvin (1509–1564) was deeply suspicious of whatever might sound too ‘mythological’, and this scene was one such example. He interpreted the medieval claim in terms of Christ literally descending to the nether world, and declared such a notion ‘childish’ and ‘nothing but a story’. However, instead of abandoning the idea entirely, he argued that the phrase spoke effectively of the supreme depths of Christ’s suffering: even when physically dead, Christ continued to suffer alienation from his Father for the sake of humanity. Calvin asserted ‘not only that Christ’s body was given as the price of our redemption, but that he paid a greater and more excellent price in suffering in his soul the terrible torments of a condemned and forsaken man’ (Institutes II. Xvi. paras 9–11; 1960: esp. 514, 516).

Whatever similarities there may be between the atonement theologies of Calvin and Anselm of Canterbury (1109–1193), here the difference is at its starkest. For Anselm it was sufficient that Christ die in order to atone for sin, whereas for Calvin it was precisely the extent of Christ’s sufferings that makes the difference. For Anselm’s theory, it was sufficient that Christ suffered a death that was not his due, irrespective of any additional suffering he may also have accrued. All other human beings are bound to death by virtue of their sin. Christ alone as innocent could make a free gift of his death as compensation for others’ sin. Not that Calvin’s rather different approach was exclusively a Protestant sentiment. In the twentieth century, one of the greatest supporters of Calvin’s stress on the extent of Christ’s suffering was the conservative Catholic theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905–1988), in his lengthy study of the triduum, the last three days of Holy Week from Maundy Thursday to Holy Saturday (von Balthasar 1990: 148–189). However, to be weighed against such a line of approach is the fact that Jesus by no means suffered the worst that fate could throw against any particular human individual. Many others have suffered very much worse, for example political prisoners languishing for many years in prison and suffering regular extreme bouts of torture. If the reply is given that the real point behind the position of Calvin and Balthasar is the mental pain of alienation from the Father, it may be noted that this version too is not without its difficulties, not least in suggesting some sort of split within the Trinity. Of course, the mythological character of the alternative may also seem equally problematic. But a sympathetic commentator might reply that the real difficulty lies in a failure of the modern imagination to penetrate beyond the imagery to the reality to which it is attempting to point: the universality of Christ’s offer of salvation, including to past generations and indeed any who have not had an opportunity to hear the gospel.

3 Hell as a place of punishment

Some readers may be puzzled by the inclusion of imaginative considerations as well as conceptual. If so, it is worth observing that much of the power of a doctrine like this, for good or ill, has derived from its capacity to engage the imagination. Despite much evidence to the contrary, imaginative considerations have, far from always functioning negatively, sometimes offered their own implicit critique of earlier conceptual decisions. What conceptual questions were addressed and the sources and reasons behind the answers is the topic to which we now turn.

3.1 Conceptual questions

3.1.1 Hell as part of a search for justice

The idea of human survival of death is as old as humanity itself. Indeed, archaeological research suggests that even Neanderthals may have shared not dissimilar attitudes. It is not hard to understand how such notions might have originated. Partly it was through longing for continuing support from ancestors, and partly through fear of their unwanted influence for ill. However, any idea of such survival taking the form of the more substantial types of existence associated with heaven and hell is, in the main, a much later development (Egypt is an exception). In common with most other peoples of the Middle East, the Hebrews’ earlier assumptions were of a somewhat shadowy existence in Sheol, shared by the righteous and the unrighteous alike. Thus, although earlier references have sometimes been detected, and indeed were sometimes made explicit in the Septuagint translation (Segal 2004: 248–249; 363–367), the most likely first occurrence of a more substantial notion dates from only the second century BC, the time of the Antiochene persecution, and the books of Daniel (12:1–3) and 2 Maccabees (7:13, 31–38).

That change from shadowy to substantial needs to be set against wider patterns of development in Hebrew thought. Earlier approaches to divine justice and human responsibility had assumed a social rather than individual framework, with family, tribe, or nation seen as receiving corresponding rewards or punishments. So, for example, in the Decalogue (or Ten Commandments), God is said to ‘punish children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me’ (Exod 20:5 NRSV). Again, in the book of Joshua, Achan’s whole family is seen as fit for punishment, although he alone had perpetrated the act (7:10–26, esp. 25). While passages endorsing a this-world scheme of justice, meted out on individuals, are to be found (e.g. Ps 37; 71), significant challenges were also raised (Ezek 18:19–20; Job, more generally). However, it appears to have needed the stimulus of persecution and martyrdom to produce an alternative view. Scholars disagree about the extent of Zoroastrian influence on this shift, a question whose answer is in any case complicated by difficulties in dating some of that religion’s key texts (rejected by Bremmer 2002: 47–50; partially accepted by Segal 2004: 173–203). While the position of Judaism and Zoroastrianism on post-mortem existence probably developed relatively independently, it may be that a stimulus to fresh thinking in Judaism was provided by the strong Zoroastrian claim that such a reversal was possible even where only bones were left, after exposure of the corpse. In a similar way, the Jewish hope could now be strengthened by appeal to an even greater miracle, in creatio ex nihilo (‘creation out of nothing) (2 Macc 7:22–23, 28, the first occurrence of the doctrine; Segal 2004: 269–272).

3.1.2 Proportionate suffering

In the New Testament itself no attempt is made to make the punishment fit the crime. However, there are numerous examples in both Jewish and Christian apocryphal literature. Some even attained semi-canonical status. A relevant example is the second-century Apocalypse of Peter, which Clement of Alexandria (d. c.215) certainly regarded as canonical and which after the Shepherd of Hermas and I Clement came closest to inclusion in the New Testament canon. In the Apocalypse, rather than focusing on heaven, significantly more space is given over to the fate of the damned, with punishment clearly made to fit the crime. For example, blasphemers hang by their tongues and the milk of mothers who have murdered their children turns foul as it produces creatures to devour their flesh, while those have neglected the poor receive their punishment, dressed in rags and filthy garments (Schneemelcher 1991b: 620–638, esp. 628, 630, 631 [vol. 2]). While it is tempting to search for earlier precedents, there appears to be no exact parallel. Occasional examples can be given from the classical world, as with the perpetual hunger and thirst imposed on King Tantalus of Sipylus for attempting to serve up his own son at a feast for the gods. But there was no such general pattern in the classical world. Again, the Hebrew principle of the lex talionis (‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’: Exod 21:22–27; Lev 24:19–20) is well-known, but the primary aim of that principle was not to initiate a search for an equivalent punishment but rather to set strict limits on blood feuds. Tit for tat tended to produce an escalating cycle of revenge, whereas forbidding any movement beyond the maximum point of equivalence would ensure the avoidance of such increasing levels of retaliation.

Modern analyses, which detect in these texts no more than a rather general vindictive desire for revenge, may sometimes be right. However, it is possible also to find a concern for justice that is as much directed against one’s fellow Christians as humanity in general. Even where the Apocalypse of Peter seems to deviate from such principles, a plausible analysis has been found that indicates a consistent intention (Bauckham 1998: 160–258, esp. 219–220). As Bauckham observes, ‘they are not just products of a diseased imagination run riot. They are based on certain principles and use recognizable forms of imagery’ (1998: 221). The dominance of retributive theories of punishment in the ancient world could have secured assent – even for the more gruesome details. But it would be a mistake to suppose that there was no resistance to them before modern times when society in general moved away from strict retribution, with deterrence and reform now advocated as adequate substitutes. As we shall see shortly, even in earlier times modifications were sought.

3.1.3 Eternal or otherwise

On the surface, making punishment eternal would seem to fly in the face of any desire for proportionality. That the church was persuaded otherwise was partly a function of the language of the biblical texts, and partly the arguments of the West’s greatest theologian, Augustine of Hippo (354–430). Prior to his writing, various texts had suggested that intercession could moderate the punishment of those in hell, even to the degree of a general principle, as in the weekly sabbath rest proposed in the fourth century Apocalypse of Paul or the annual fifty-day respite from Easter to Pentecost secured by the intercessions of Mary in the Greek Apocalypse of the Virgin, most familiar to modern audiences from the use of the text in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (V. 5; 1994: 309–310). Not that these texts moved entirely in a more compassionate direction. Whereas the Apocalypse of Peter had focused mainly on general ethical issues, the Apocalypse of Paul has a narrower religious aim, in tackling principally ‘sins’ against orthodoxy (Bremmer 2009).

The major representative of this trend from the patristic period is Origen (d. 254). One element in his approach was appeal to the literal meaning of the Greek ‘for ever’ (aiōnion) in the sense of ‘for ages’ rather than ‘everlasting’. But, in reply to his friend Orosius, Augustine objected that ‘everlasting’ must be the meaning if there was to be a proper parallel with what happens to the blessed (Ad Orosium 5.5.130; Bernstein 1993: 310–320). Determining, however, precisely how far Origen was prepared to go in a different direction is complicated by current scholarly arguments regarding the nature of his original text. It used to be thought that Rufinus modified his Latin translation of Origin’s On First Principles in the direction of orthodoxy, whereas the Greek version (where surviving) gave us Origen’s original view. Now, however, the Greek has also fallen under suspicion, modified, it is supposed, to convict Origen of heresy. Many scholars are therefore now disposed to understand Origen as a more biblically-based thinker, whose views showed considerable development across the course of his life (Edwards 2002; Heine 2010). Clearly, this is not the place to arbitrate such disputes. In any case, important to note is that it was the earlier suspect ‘Origen’ whose views Augustine knew, and who stood as challenge also to subsequent generations.

While Origen clearly accepted the notion of punishment, he seems to have thought of it primarily in corrective terms – not least because of his vision of the final apokatastasis pantōn, the restoration of all things. That conception seems at one point even to have included Satan, though a lost letter mentioned by both Rufinus and Jerome mention Origen retreating from this position. Again, whether he ever toyed with the idea of reincarnation, as a means of defending divine justice (as in God’s choice of Jacob over Esau), is now widely challenged, but the accusation in itself illustrates his overall aim. The meaning of ‘outer darkness’ he suggests is that

the wicked, who in this life have loved the darkness of error and the night of ignorance, may be clothed with dark and black bodies after the resurrection, so that the very fog of ignorance, which in this world has taken possession of their minds within them, may appear in the future as the garment of their outward body. (First Principles 2.10.8; Behr 2019: 137)

That educational role is also extended to ‘fire’, which is not seen as externally generated but as entirely a consequence of actions in this life. ‘Every sinner kindles for himself the flame of his own fire, and is not plunged into a fire which has already been kindled by another or existed before himself’ (First Principles 2.10.4; Behr 2019: 134). While the strength of Origen’s presentation lies in its overall coherence, it found relatively few supporters subsequently (though Gregory of Nyssa is an important exception), partly because of his supposed wider deviation from Christian orthodoxy and partly because of his unusual use of scripture. For example, the supporting text for his interpretation of ‘eternal fire’ is Isa 50:11, where the context is quite different.

Set against whichever interpretation of Origen is adopted, Augustine’s discussion of hell in Book XXI of The City of God provides a stark contrast. Most of his discussion is taken up with trying to respond to various kinds of objections in which ‘the compassionate’ try to mitigate the eternity or severity of hell. In the first half of his discussion, ‘the compassionate’ question the very idea of bodies burning for ever (sect. 2–10); in the latter part (sect. 11–27), they suggest hell’s proportionality to offence and the intercession of either saints or sacraments.

In justifying an eternal length for hell, apart from the argument from meaning already mentioned, Augustine appeals to the way in which Adam’s first sin (abandoning an infinite good) merited a corresponding punishment: ‘By so doing he merited eternal evil in that he destroyed in himself a good that might have been eternal’ (City XXI.12; 1972: 989). In subsequent centuries, however, the most common argument advanced was a more general consideration: given our infinite debt to God as creator of life, any permanent offence deserved a corresponding infinite penalty. In understanding the logic of the argument, it is important to note that throughout most of Christian history it was assumed that human beings had no rights in relation to God, only obligations. Other ramifications of the assumption can be seen in widely differing contexts. So, for example, in Anselm’s atonement argument, ‘if in justice I owe to God myself and all my powers even when I do not sin, I have nothing left to render to him for my sin’ (Cur Deus Homo 1.20; n.d.). Again, in considering various actions such as theft and killing apparently ordered by God in the Old Testament, Aquinas argued that divinity had the right to abrogate the moral law as its ultimate source.

The assumption that humans had no rights in relation to God was more pervasive than only in Christianity. It was not just slaves who had no rights in Roman imperial law. The same principles applied to children until they reached the age of maturity. As with slaves, it was maintained that they owed all to the source of their lives, in this case their parents, or more particularly their father as the source of the creative form of their existence. Slaves derive everything from their masters, by virtue of being their property; children by virtue of being their father’s creation (according to classical biology). Accordingly, in Roman law neither were deemed to be persons (personae) – that is, capable of independent representation in relation to the external world. So, inevitably, the different way in which children and their rights are now viewed in the contemporary world (formalized in the language of rights in the UK Children’s Act of 1948) throws up profound challenges to such forms of argumentation for the legitimacy of hell. This is hardly the place to adjudicate between such different forms of how the relationship between humanity and its Creator should be adjudicated. The fundamental point here is rather that, as underlying assumptions change, so too does the extent to which the relative appropriateness of hell might be understood and accepted, or otherwise.

Perhaps the most difficult element to comprehend in the traditional picture is the way in which the joy of the saints was thought to be increased by the sufferings of the damned. In the final part of his main Summa, Aquinas does not hesitate to argue that such knowledge must add to the saints’ happiness – both because such punishment was an expression of divine justice and power and because it heightened awareness of their own state of blessedness (Summa Theologiae III.94.1–3; n.d.). In similar vein, the classic American Reformed theologian, Jonathan Edwards, observes:

When the redeemed shall see the smoke of their torment and the raging of the flames of their burning, and hear their dolorous shrieks and cries, and consider that they in the meantime are in the most blissful state, and shall surely be in it for all eternity; how will they rejoice! (Edwards 1996: 356–357)

While it is hard not to regard such attitudes as excessively self-congratulatory, it is important to note that the joy is supposed to come, not from self-satisfaction, but through glorying in God’s justice.

The already-noted changed attitude to human rights was clearly one major factor that pushed towards a change of view. However, pulling the other way was considerable reluctance on the part of many in positions of power to abandon the account since it was seen as a means of controlling vice among the lower orders of society. It was a position advocated even by an atheist such as Thomas Hobbes (McClure 2011). An extreme instance of this type of approach is a special tract produced for children, The Sight of Hell (2018: 201–221), by the Irish Catholic priest, John Furniss (d. 1865). Included in his depiction are children trapped in ovens and standing on red-hot floors. Although challenges also occurred during the Enlightenment (Almond 1994), it was the nineteenth-century debate which was to prove most decisive. Perhaps the most pertinent factor was changing attitudes towards punishment: that punishment should be proportionate to the real seriousness of the crime, rather than, as in previous centuries, almost entirely focussed on deterring the lower classes from threatening the social order. More radically, the question was raised about what was the primary purpose of punishment in any case. Could even proportional retribution serve any useful purpose, or should the issue be conceived rather entirely in terms of deterrent and reform? The economic dimension should also not be forgotten. In the earlier nineteenth century, under British law, many ended up in debtors’ prison precisely because no limits were set to their financial liability (all sources of their wealth were held to be equally liable). The introduction in 1855 of ‘limited’ liability (applicable only to what had been directly invested in the company concerned) produced further ramifications both in atonement theology and in this particular matter of hell (Hilton 1991). If human law accepted limits to human responsibility, on what basis could divine law be assumed to act differently?

The event that sparked most controversy in nineteenth-century debates over such issues was the dismissal of F. D. Maurice from his chair of theology at King’s College, London in 1854, for challenging the doctrine in his Theological Essays of the previous year (Maurice 1958). Though criticizing severely the idea of eternal punishment, somewhat surprisingly (despite his move to Anglicanism) he refused to countenance any purgatorial role as an alternative means of easing access to heaven. W. E. Gladstone, the onetime prime minister, classicist, and Christian philosopher, observed that by the end of the nineteenth century the doctrine of hell had been ‘relegated […] to the far-off corners of the Christian mind […] there to sleep in deep shadow as a thing needless in our enlightened and progressive age’ (Gladstone 1896: 206). Some Christian scholars, such as the biblical and patristic scholar E. B. Pusey, continued to fight a rear-guard action. J. H. Newman, Pusey’s fellow theologian from the Oxford Movement, is perhaps more typical, despite his besetting preoccupation with the defence of orthodox belief. In various ways he sought the doctrine’s mitigation, suggesting among other elements the idea that ‘the sense of succession in time is not logically involved in the idea of eternity; there is nothing to show but that, in a multitude of cases, the only punishment will be […] the loss of heaven’ (Rowell 1974: 162).

3.1.4 The role of Satan

While belief in Satan is not essential to the idea of hell, the two ideas did develop roughly over the same period, with important implications for how the relationship between good and evil was conceived. In the Hebrew scriptures the term satan is indeed deployed, together with its Septuagint Greek equivalent, diabolos (from which the English ‘devil’ is derived); but for the most part it functions there as merely as ordinary noun that can be applied indifferently to human beings or angels – usually with the sense of ‘adversary’, as with David (1 Sam 29:4) or David’s enemies (1 Kgs 5:40), or the accusing angel at God’s court in the opening chapter of Job. It is really only in intertestamental literature that the angelic figure from Job 1 grows into a prince of darkness and is provided with troops of subordinates, as well as a great variety of names, among them Asmodeus, Beelzebub, Belial, and Mastema. In the New Testament, Beelzebub occurs in Mark 3:22 and Belial in 2 Cor 6:15.

Scholars continue to seek for a single explanation for this change, for example in the projection of evil onto others (Pagels 1995). However, it is more likely there is a range of factors involved, among them the loss of Judean independence – resulting in a greater sense of divine transcendence or otherness – and increased contact with dualistic religious perspectives such as Zoroastrianism and Gnosticism. Notable features of the change are not only an increased sense of battling against a hostile environment but also a clear move away from attributing disease directly to God. This is the way leprosy had been seen in Leviticus (14:34), with its requirement for sacrificial purification (14:20). It is only much later that demons are accorded the decisive contribution. Likewise, Paul and the New Testament evangelists adopt various intertestamental interpretations of the Old Testament that strengthened the devil’s role, among them the identification of the serpent in Genesis with the devil (2 Enoch 31:3; Rom 16:20). Luke 10:18 (‘I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning’) is based on Isa 14:12–15, as reinterpreted by 2 Enoch 29:4–5 and Life of Adam 14:16.

Even so, apart from the book of Revelation, it is really only in subsequent history that there emerges the fully developed account of war in the supernatural realms which was to dominate Christian perceptions until challenges from the seventeenth century onwards. These challenges can be seen in the work of philosophers such as Francis Bacon and John Locke, and the playwright Ben Jonson’s The Devil is an Ass (1616). However, perhaps because of all its own horrors, the twentieth century could be said to have witnessed something of a revival, not only in popular films such as The Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976), and The Witches of Eastwick (1987, based on the John Updike novel of 1984), but also in material such as C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters (1944) and Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away (1960).

The more important question here, though, is the conceptual one. For some theologians the very idea of the devil introduces an unacceptable level of dualism into Christian theology. But these concerns need to be balanced against the presence of such terminology within the New Testament itself. Without undue simplification, the key issues may be reduced to two: that of Jesus’ own experience, and the temporal issue of when the devil might be said to be defeated.

In the past, New Testament scholars commonly interpreted the temptations of Jesus as a mythological rewriting of what had been more ordinary experience. Now, however, there is increasing recognition among believer and non-believer alike that such experience can occur in cultures where belief in the power of the devil is strong (e.g. Pilch 2011). While, as with experience of angels, there will be details that have been entirely conditioned by one set of antecedent beliefs rather than another (as for example the extraordinary beauty of angels’ wings in medieval art), this is not to deny the experience any objectivity whatsoever. The more difficult question to determine would be whether what is seen externally is solely a product of internal reflection or whether engagement with an external agent might also constitute part of the experience concerned. Certainly, it would seem odd to insist that no reality closer to the divine form of existence than humanity could possibly exist. Perhaps the most we can say is that Jesus’ experience of battling with evil was so intense that it did take this objectifying form.

On the other hand, it would violate a basic principle of monotheism to suggest that such beings could act independently of the wishes of either God or human beings in imposing their will. It is presumably this latter insight which has been enshrined in the notion, found in the mythology of the descent into hell, that in some sense the devil is already defeated and enchained. The book of Revelation offers a rather different sense to the notion of defeat: that this will only be completed at the eschaton (Rev 12:7–12). A possible response might be to suggest that such an ‘already’ and ‘not yet’ are logically incompatible. But another would be to urge that quite different rules apply in the use of such imagery. Two alternative perspectives are offered, both of which are true, because one adopts a linear perspective (Revelation), whereas the other provides an all-embracing eternal or timeless view (descent into hell).

3.1.5 Tension between human freedom and divine defeat

It is sometimes claimed that an eternal hell cannot possibly exist, since its very existence would imply that God had been ultimately defeated in his objectives. Whereas the younger Karl Barth seemed to imply that hell’s central content was separation from God (Barth 1949: 118), in later writings he declares that hell ‘is not a dissolution of our existence, but a contradiction of our not-to-be destroyed existence’ (Barth 2017: 76 [vol. 1]). So, a few pages later he observes:

One cannot say about hell that it exists. One can only say that it looks as though it does. The heavenly places are full of principalities and powers of darkness (cf. Eph 2:2; 6:12). But it also says in Scripture that hell is locked, overcome. It is now Christ’s. (Barth 2017: 131 [vol. 1])

Although earlier he had denied any belief in universalism, Barth also asserts that ‘I should certainly not uphold the converse […] since we can only say there is full salvation for all men in Christ’ (Barth 2017: 76 [vol. 1]).

However, on the other side needs to be set hell’s witness to the extent of human freedom, an ability to act otherwise than as God would wish. Of course, that could be equally affirmed by something less than eternal punishment, in the simple option of saying ‘no’. The free offer of divine grace would then stand side by side with its rejection in human folly. This is a position not only adopted by several mainstream theologians but also more recently by a number of prominent conservative evangelicals, among them C. H. Pinnock in the United States and John Stott in England. Scripture is now interpreted as intending the annihilation of the incorrigibly wicked rather than their punishment (Stott and Edwards 1988: 312–320). While there are quite a few scriptural passages to which appeal could be made (e.g. John 10:28; Rom 9:22; Phil 3:19; 2 Pet 3:7; Jas 4:12), others might seem more problematic, even when ‘eternal’ is taken to indicate the absolute character of the judgment rather than its duration. Can expressions such as ‘wailing and gnashing of teeth’, for example, really be interpreted as no more than vivid metaphor? This is not the place to pronounce definitely on biblical interpretation, nor on the authority of particular scriptural texts. Suffice it to say that, however interpreted, these biblical images witness to a seriousness about the direction of human life that even many contemporary Christians seem to have lost. How one decides to live, and the sort of virtues or vices one chose to cultivate, do have an eternal dimension.

Universalism is nowadays quite a common position adopted among more liberal Christians. Schleiermacher is an obvious example from the nineteenth century, John Robinson and John Hick from the twentieth (Bauckham 1978). Hell has become instead the expression of an existential warning. Of course, it is entirely legitimate to hope and pray for such an eventuality, as indeed ‘Origen’ recommended even in the case of the devil. But it is quite another to insist that this must happen, as otherwise God’s power or love or both are compromised. Part of the traditional response in theodicy has always been to observe that even omnipotent power could not rig the result such that good always wins, or pain for the innocent be avoided. Equally, to suggest that love must always eventually prevail ignores the question of how entrenched an opposing perspective may be. Is not greater respect to the other shown by letting them in the end decide against subscription to the Christian vision?

3.1.6 Appropriate readings of religious imagery

Determining the right hermeneutics for interpreting religious imagery is no easy matter. In the previous section we saw how assuming consistency in the New Testament allows some conservative evangelicals now to jettison hell in its traditional sense. But what if the relevant texts are essentially exploratory, and so a degree of inconsistency is only to be expected? It is so easy to assume a single meaning, but does any successful piece of imagery not open up possibilities, rather than necessarily close them down? In some recent theological writing there has been a marked tendency to interpret biblical bodily imagery as applied to God literally (e.g. Wagner 2018; Markschies 2019; Stavrakopoulou 2021). But, however literal such allusions to a divine body may once have been intended, why should subsequent application of the imagery in new and surprising contexts not have immeasurably broadened reflection on what it might mean to be divine, for example where God is described as all-seeing or omnipresent? The result was increasing pressure towards jettisoning the restraints of body even as the imagery continued to be used.

Similarly, then, with the fire of judgment. Principally under pressure from Augustine, later Christianity assumed a single literal interpretation of everlasting, unquenchable fire. In particular, Augustine argued that, if not interpreted literally, the positive promise of eternal life would then also be under threat where bodily continuity is also in play. However, somewhat inconsistently, he also maintained that ultimately the blessed would participate in a different sense of time, in God’s timelessness (City XXII.1; XXII.30). But, even if there is no conclusive argument the other way, at least three factors suggest pause for thought. First, Jesus did not invent the language concerned. Instead, he borrows the terminology from Hebrew apocalyptic literature (Isa 66:24), and so it looks as though the real concern is to highlight the seriousness of the issue rather than any specific scenario. Secondly, the fact that references to ‘outer darkness’ are allowed to run alongside ‘eternal fire’ (three times in Matthew) is most naturally taken to conjure symbol rather than fact, since fire prevents total darkness. Finally, there was no consistency of interpretation until the time of Augustine. Although some became more gruesome in their accounts (e.g. The Apocalypse of Peter), Origen was by no means alone, as we have seen, in exploring more compassionate alternatives. What all this suggests is the terrible alienation implied, rather than any particular way of it being realized. Hopefully, this point will become clearer as we turn to the imagery’s application across Christian history.

3.2 Imaginative considerations

Undoubtedly, across the course of Christian history, the imagery of hell was frequently used as a device for controlling the conduct of others, with a literal interpretation assumed to be essential in securing such an objective. But that is certainly not how the image has exclusively functioned. Throughout the centuries, an alternative account of the significance of the doctrine was being forged. To see how this was achieved, this article will explore the issue under the following four headings.

3.2.1 Paradox in medieval judgments: condemnation and encouragement

It is perhaps natural to assume that Last Judgment or Doom Paintings in churches and cathedrals were intended (like the sermons to which reference was made earlier) to bludgeon people into frightened obedience to the Christian establishment. Although this was no doubt sometimes part of the motivation for their prominent position, close examination of the available material suggests a more complex picture. Earlier iconography had been mainly dependent on the book of Revelation; but such imagery proved too complex to handle on a large sculptural scale and so largely retreated into the manuscript tradition. In its place came variants on the Matthean tradition (Matt 25:31–46). In the case of medieval French cathedrals, these were commonly placed as a tympanum over the north or west door, while in English churches the more usual location for what came to be known as Doom Paintings was on the west interior wall or else on the upper wall dividing the nave from the chancel. Although most of such paintings were destroyed or covered up at the Reformation, forty have survived, with for most part the French pattern of iconography retained (Tristram [n.d.]). In both cases such positioning is most naturally read as providing reassurance of the positive advantages Christian faith could bring. In the French case, believers moved from the outside world into the bosom of the church. In England, they either perceived, beyond the image, the saving work of the Eucharist being once more enacted, or else were reminded of its saving impact as they departed. So there was also an element of promise: that through membership of the church and appropriation of Christ’s sacrifice one could indeed be saved from such a terrible fate.

Equally, the constituent images brought reassurance. Rather than the distant and terrible Judge of Revelation, the central figure now became the Son of Man, commonly depicted showing his wounds (Male 1984: 351–392). While, again, this could be interpreted as a threat (‘this is what you did to me’), more naturally it may be seen as an appeal to the compassion which had led Christ to act in the first place. That message was quite frequently reinforced by the presence of angels on either side displaying further signs of the passion, such as the one who holds the pillar of flagellation. More importantly, either immediately next to Christ or at either end of the arch, the Virgin and St John were to be seen kneeling in supplication, the outer edge adopted because kneeling there more naturally fits into the lowering curve of the arch.

There is no biblical text to which appeal could be incontestably made to justify the inclusion of these two figures in such a Last Judgment. John the Baptist might have been a more natural choice, as indeed happened in later Italian art. At most, appeal could be made here to the presence of the two figures at the foot of the Cross (John 19:25–27). Emile Male conjectures that their introduction probably stemmed from popular piety, the feeling that – despite the admonitions of Augustine to the contrary – appeal to such saints could still make a difference:

Theologians had stated that no prayer would sway the Judge at the supreme moment, but the humble throng of Christians could not believe it […] The artists were inspired by a belief they shared: they opposed grace to law, and made a ray of hope shine from the midst of the awesome machinery of justice. (Male 1984: 368)

Finally, below was the division into blessed and dammed, with the archangel Michael given a leading role, although his use of scales was derived from precedents set in ancient Egypt and India rather than from scripture. While demons attempting to pervert the scales unsuccessfully is a common theme, occasionally a lighter element is introduced as in the earlier Romanesque work of Gislibertus at Autun. Not only does Michael gently help the scales move in the right direction for one soul, there is even the image of a group of young children jumping and dancing as they cling to the angel who leads them (Grivot: 4; illustration 44). Even so, it is important to note the relativizing of who might be found in either camp, for almost invariably the wealthy and leading clerics make their appearance among the damned. While such an image was sometimes suggested by the clergy who commissioned the work, more commonly it represented a revolt on the part of the artists themselves towards a creation that truly reflected what the world at large saw of goodness and badness in people’s lives. Indeed, despite the inherent conservatism of the church, such images provided one of the most effective critiques of the then-current social order. Ironically, according to Male, various aspects of this iconography were weakened in later centuries through influence from the staging of mystery plays. During the long performances actors were allowed to sit or stand rather than kneel (Male 1986: 416–420). Any petition from the Virgin Mary and John therefore became more muted, as they too were portrayed standing.

3.2.2 Strategies of moral engagement

While the later Middle Ages also produced crude calculation of fault and merit that contributed in no small part to the Reformation – as in the debate over Indulgences – it is important not to forget the underlying seriousness given to Christian morality by the longer history of the way in which hell had been treated, not least in respect of such themes of judgment. Instead of a focus on isolated acts, there had been the assumption that ascetical training in the virtues was required, as otherwise their opposites would establish themselves in the seven deadly sins. These right and wrong habits of behaviour were seen as entrenched dispositions which could either strengthen resolve to act for the good or else make it exceedingly hard to escape from corruption into more appropriate ways. So, not surprisingly, the greatest poem of the Middle Ages was structured round precisely those assumptions. While in the nineteenth century Dante had been praised primarily for the vividness of his imagery, as with Ugolino devouring his sons or the adulterous lovers Paolo and Francesca physically bound together for all eternity, a new evaluation began to emerge thanks to inter-war critics such as T. S. Eliot and Erich Auerbach which saw Dante’s Divine Comedy (1308–1321; see n.d.) as also a great intellectual achievement, in exploring just such a theology.

Taking his earlier writings into account, it was suggested that, just as Aquinas had successfully combined the empiricism of Aristotle and the Christian Platonism of Augustine, so Dante united the metaphysics of Aquinas with the mystical love poetry of the Provencal tradition (Auerbach 2001: 71). God’s outreach into creation in a Neoplatonic overflowing of love had given human beings the capacity to respond in freedom to particular goods (Took 2020: 23–24, 26, 31). These can then either be eventually transcended within the divine love itself, with even love of Beatrice eclipsed (Took 2020: 170; Paradise X.52–60), or else treated as a form of restraint that turns individuals in on themselves. The result is that in the Inferno even those who are more sympathetically treated conclude their exchange with the poet in words of self-justification, such as Francesca da Rimini in Inferno V.100–108 or Piero delle Vigne in Inferno XIII.64–72. However, even worse in some ways in Dante’s view are the slothful who do not even make the initial effort to achieve an alternative direction: ‘these unfortunates who never were alive’ (Inferno XXVIII.142).

Modern commentators often question how the poem can retain its power in an age which no longer believes in hell as a place of eternal punishment. Such objections ignore Dante’s underlying perspective. The entrapment of the soul’s habitus or dispositional character within particular ways of viewing the world remains no less persuasive (Auerbach 2001: e.g. 85; Paradise) The presentation of the power of the seven deadly sins of pride, lust, avarice, gluttony, wrath, envy, and sloth as deep-seated corruptions of character remains no less convincing in our age than in any other. Of course on the surface there have been, and are, significant challenges to such an analysis, as defences of righteous anger or notions such as Black or Gay Pride well illustrate (Baker 2018). But all that such counter examples really argue for is the need for more careful definition of how precisely such tendencies could be destructive. Indeed, it could well be claimed that our own age has merely invented new forms of such addictive self-destruction. Envy, for example, is now more common in a world in which entitlement to specific positions in society is no longer assumed. Again, addiction to pornography can apparently be as real as that to alcohol or drugs. At the same time, despite the common modern secular assumption of a Christian equation between sex and sin, in this traditional analysis lust was in fact regarded as the least serious fault because usually the least deep-seated. It was pride that was treated as the most serious, precisely because it was believed to be the most difficult to eradicate. Dante reflects this in the relative positioning of such sinners in his version of hell.

While the various forms of entrenched vice and their implication proved far from easy to represent visually, there were various other means that artists could employ to encourage their viewers to new levels of seriousness. One we have already noticed is the inclusion, among the condemned, of people who had once held positions or occupations like the viewers themselves. Another was to set the viewer in a position where they could see themselves as part of the scene. The ‘reverse’ perspective of icons could sometimes have this effect. Their shallow surface compels any sense of perspective to lead out from the frame into the viewer’s own context of reference. A similar effect could be achieved by scale, as in John Martin’s apocalyptic paintings of the nineteenth century. Two paintings that nicely illustrate the point are Martin’s two compositions, now in Tate Britain, The Great Day of His Wrath (1851) and The Last Judgment (1854). Both are 196 centimetres by over 300 wide. Apparently, at the time of its painting, the second was criticized for dividing viewers’ emotions. The former was, therefore, seen as the more successful in its image of unallayed horror (Morden 2010: 82–83).

Another powerful pressure towards self-reflection could come from within the picture itself, in effectively encouraging observers to greater depth of engagement. For instance, in the most famous Last Judgment of them all, Michelangelo presents himself as also under judgment. He gave the flayed skin of St Bartholomew his own face. It would be quite wrong to interpret this as a reflection of some degree of personal unhappiness. On the contrary, because of a longstanding Platonic link with the classical legend of Marsyas (who had also been flayed) it is best read as a form of prayer for his soul to be painfully purged and so brought to new life. It is that spiritual dimension to the Marsyas legend which also helps elucidate Titian’s painting of The Flaying of Marsyas (1572) and the subsequent use of it in the portrait of the novelist and Platonist philosopher, Iris Murdoch, now in the National Portrait Gallery in London. Indeed, such was the attraction of the two figures in encouraging greater reflection that the Spanish artist, Jusepe de Ribera, painted Marsyas and Bartholomew with almost equal frequency. For a surprising and rather different technique, consider a near-contemporary picture of the Fall of Lucifer (1545) by Lorenzo Lotto. Satan is given the same face as the archangel Michael, who is casting him down into hell. The point can hardly be the pedantic observation that at this stage Satan is also still an angel. Rather, his values and projects can be seen to remain alluring and tempting precisely because they are so deceptively close to Michael’s, or indeed our own (Bonnet 1996: 173–175).

3.2.3 The integrity of choice: Milton and Mozart

It is a commonplace to remark on the sympathetic way in which John Milton portrays Satan in Paradise Lost, and at the same time suggest that this is where Milton’s art exceeded his theological intentions, as in the verdicts of William Blake, Lord Byron, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. But another way to read the poem is to acknowledge real subtlety in Milton’s characterization. Partly this is because the poet wants to show how evil originates in a flawed rather than wholly evil individual. But at the same time Milton is concerned to offer a tribute to the real power of choice given by God to his creation. Satan as the angel Lucifer already had everything in heaven that might be desired but still chooses to rebel, precisely because his pride leads him to want more, particularly independence of thought and action. As he himself describes his position in hell:

Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
To reign is worth ambition though in hell:
Better to reign in hell, than serve in heav’n. (Paradise Lost I. 261–263; Milton [n.d.])

That is surely why we are allowed to admire his questing spirit and his esteem for earthly beauty, as in his respect for Eve and indeed the Earth more generally (which he claims to be more beautiful than heaven). But he entirely fails to see when to stop and reflect further. His pride in the end turns in on itself, and he becomes his own internal hell:

Infinite wrath and infinite despair. Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell,
And in the lowest depth a lower deep
Still threatening to devour me opens wide,
To which the hell I suffer seems a heaven. (Paradise Lost IV. 73–77; Milton [n.d.])

In a similar way, in part because of the way in which it combines comic humour with deep wickedness, conflicting interpretations have also been offered of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s treatment of the plot in what is perhaps his best-known opera, Don Giovanni (1787). It is certainly true that there are elements present of the conventional opera buffa, as in the servant Leporello’s running commentary in the opening scene. For a minority, that comic element is seen to triumph over its more serious side (Schroeder 2013: 141–162). A majority, though, speak of a real frisson of horror at the opera’s end. The statue of the Commendatore who had tried to defend his daughter from the Don’s attempted rape comes once more to life and demands Don Giovanni’s repentance, only for the Don to refuse to be cowed into submission. As one commentator observes, ‘Mozart pulled off something new, a coup de théâtre that can still raise the hairs on the napes of our necks’ (Forman 1997: 167). While it perhaps goes too far to speak of Don Giovanni going to hell nobly (in accepting the consequences of his choices) but wrongly (he could have asked for forgiveness), there is a clear sense in which the scene can be seen as a celebration of the power of human choice. Like Milton’s Satan, Don Giovanni has carried through to its logical conclusion the consequences of his adoption of a particular vice, in his case lust, just as Milton’s Satan had with his own besetting sin of pride.

3.2.4 The self-imposed hell of modern culture

More recent applications of the imagery of hell have tended to one or other extreme – in absolute condemnation of the other for some action or actions still seen as beyond the pale, or, alternatively, as a deep description of self-imposed judgment. It is the latter, I suggest, that has dominated modern discussions.

In his influential work A Rumour of Angels the American sociologist, Peter Berger (1929–2017), identified what he called five signals of transcendence still to be found in the contemporary world (Berger 1971: 70ff.), one of which proved to be the need to go beyond any normal human categories of judgment in order to impose sufficient condemnation on some particularly heinous set of actions. Damnation thus found a place alongside his other four categories of order, play, hope and humour. To expand on Berger’s point, wickedness on the scale of Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, and Joseph Stalin was once inconceivable in an earlier, less technologically equipped age but now, Berger argues, it is only by speaking of their damnation that we are able to engage with the full reprehensibility of their crimes.

For a similar German verdict, painted while the Second World War was still in progress, consider George Grosz’s painting Cain or Hitler in Hell (1944). The work portrays the dictator bunched up in despair in a desolate landscape with a dead corpse stretched out beside him and numerous buildings in flames in the distance. The inclusion of Cain in the title is probably intended to indicate a return to primordial evil. At all events, judgment has already fallen upon the central figure. Quite different is the approach of the English Chapman Brothers, Jake and Dinos, in their two sets of numerous small sculptures on the theme of hell (Chapman and Chapman 2003). Presented in the manner of a concentration camp, numerous atrocities are given visual representation. The desire to shock in both depiction and verbal commentary was already evident in an earlier work which reproduced in sculptural form Goya’s famous series on the Disasters of War. Refusing the language of moral condemnation, the two artists believe that their ‘theatre of cruelty’ speaks more generally of a society that has gone beyond even the language of hell. By contrast, the French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre suggested in his 1944 play about the afterlife (Huis clos or ‘No Exit’) that hell is merely a function of ordinary human existence, the way in which we are inevitably made subject to how others perceive us: L’enfer, c’est les autres (‘hell is other people’).

At the other extreme, and almost certainly the more common application in modern contexts, is in talk and presentation of self-imposed hells. Although quite a short work, Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness (1902; see 1973) was to prove one of the most influential writings of the twentieth century. It tells the story of a visitor to the Congo (Marlow) discovering how far the once idealistic Kurtz had now sunk, into a state where ‘hell’ becomes its most natural categorization (Feder 1955). Kurtz indicates some degree of self-awareness as he dies, crying ‘The horror! The horror!’ It was a theme reapplied to the Vietnam war in Francis Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now (1979), the story of an agent sent to ‘take out’ a renegade commander who had gone native in an orgy of brutal misuse of power. The central figure is even given the same surname as in Conrad’s original novel. Ironically, although the novelist was hostile to all forms of religious belief, it could plausibly be argued that he continued the direction which Christian analyses of hell were in any case tending, in the choice of some or all of the evil dispositions characterized as the seven deadly sins, that is, towards seeing damnation as the culmination of an internally directed process rather than something imposed by God from without. Perhaps Origen rather than Augustine is, therefore, left with the last word.


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  • Further reading

    • Augustine of Hippo. 1972. City of God. Translated by Henry Bettenson. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
    • Bauckham, Richard. 1998. The Fate of the Dead: Studies on the Jewish and Christian Apocalypses. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.
    • Bruce, Scott G. (ed.). 2018. The Penguin Book of Hell. New York: Penguin.
    • Conrad, Joseph. 1973. Heart of Darkness. London: Penguin Books. first published 1902
    • Dante. [n.d.]. The Divine Comedy.
    • Quenot, Michel. 1997. The Resurrection and the Icon. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Press.
    • Schneemelcher, Wilhelm (ed.). 1991a. ‘Gospel of Nicodemus’, in New Testament Apocrypha. Philadelphia: Westminster/John Knox, 501–536.
    • Segal, Alan. 2004. Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Religions of the West. New York: Doubleday.
  • Works cited

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    • Augustine of Hippo. 1972. City of God. Translated by Henry Bettenson. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
    • Auerbach, Erich. 2001. Dante: Poet of the Secular World. New York: New York Review of Books. first published 1929
    • Bailey, Lloyd R. 1986. ‘Enigmatic Bible Passages: Gehenna, the Topography of Hell’, Biblical Archaeologist 49, no. 3: 187–191.
    • Baker, Kenneth. 2018. On the Seven Deadly Sins. London: Unicorn.
    • Barth, Karl. 1949. Dogmatics in Outline. London: SCM.
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