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As a child I remember hearing a few things about Hell in Catholic catechism class. It was hot with rivers of fire and one would live there forever for not behaving. It was the opposite of Heaven with the gold streets. Over the years we get snippets and sonnets about Hell in church and literature so we have some knowledge about the place no one wants to visit. Shakespeare’s Hamlet makes us think about Hell and Heaven in his famous “To Be or Not to Be” speech where he talks about the “undiscovered country” of Heaven and Hell:
“Who would fardels (burdens) bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose
No traveler returns, puzzles the will.”
Gee, if we just had some news from those places we might behave better and follow the guidance of our priests, ministers, and cult leaders. The New York Review of Books recently had a review of “The Penguin Book of Hell’ under the title “Damn It All” by Stephen Greenblatt. He claims the book represents the sadistic fantasies created by religious leaders for thousands of years to keep their constituents from misbehaving and avoiding the collection plate. Of course, the Bible contains a lot of skull and crossed bones warnings about behavior. A few examples:
• Mathew 5.22: “It is better for you to lose one of your members, than for your whole body to be thrown into Hell.”
• Matthew 5.29: “If your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the Hell of fire.”
• Mark 9.43: “But I will warn you who to fear: him who, after he has killed, has the authority to cast into Hell.”
• Matthew 18.9: “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off: it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to Hell.” There are many more references in the Bible about going to Hell, and prophets, priests, painters, and writers have come up with imaginative descriptions of Hell to keep our tribes on the straight and narrow.
Almost 60 Percent of Americans Believe there Is a Hell
Religions start to teach children about Hell very early. A Catholic priest wrote a lesson plan to be used for the young: “Little child, if you go to Hell, there will be a devil at your side to strike you. He will go on striking you every minute forever and ever, without ever stopping.” That might be quite convincing to a first grader. The Greek writer Homer developed the tragic attempts of Sisyphus rolling a huge stone up to the top of a mountain, only to always have it roll back down just when he was about to reach the top. This was Hell before the Christians really added horrible nightmarish punishments to the Hell stop.
About a year ago Pastor Jon Hauser of Prairie Heights wrote in The Forum about Genesis: “In Genesis we discover that God creates and satan tears down. God gives life while satan causes separation. God offers hope as satan distracts, defeats, and destroys. Satan’s rebellion leads him to twist God’s truth, distort our perspective, defeat our purpose, and tempt us to doubt God’s Word. Satan whispers in our ears, encouraging us to depend on anything but God. And when we do, we are unable to learn from the mistakes of others and our own.”
When we look at what is happening in the world today, we may get the idea that Satan is winning against this all-powerful God. Then, the theologians say, we will suffer the “slings and arrows” of our misfortunes in the hot place described below.
If You Travel To Hell You Can Abandon All Hope
“The Penguin Book of Hell” has such a graphic concise list of ghastly punishments in the nether place I’m going to quote two paragraphs:
“There are the rivers of fire, insatiable worms, swirling sulfur and pitch, stench, and sharp stones raining like hail on the unprotected bodies of the damned. There are adulterers strung up by their eyebrows and hair; sodomites covered in blood and filth; girls who lost their virginity without their parent’s knowledge shackled in flaming chains; women who had abortions impaled on flaming spits. There are virtuous pagans who “gave alms and yet did not recognize the Lord God” and who are therefore blinded and placed forever in a deep pit.
Demons carry out special tortures designed for particular types of sinners. For example, a reader of the lessons in church services who did not follow God’s commandments was faced with a demon with a long flaming knife which he used to slice the tongue and lips.”
Actually you haven’t read much yet. Wait until I get to the real master of punishments in Hell, the Italian Dante Alighieri, the author of the “Inferno.” All of these punishments promote the question asked by many: “What kind of God inflicts hideous tortures on those whom He does not like?” Don’t answer yet.
Because Christians have been the most dominating religion in coming up with a Hell for everyone, they designed special punishments for sinning Jews. A mosaic in a Torcello, Italy basilica shows Jews in Hell boiling in a large pot. In the 16th Century many Catholics thought Martin Luther who nailed those 95 theses on the Wittenberg Church door should be sent immediately to the hot place. Meanwhile, Protestants in the same century wanted to consign certain Vatican popes and bishops to the flames.
I wonder where 18th Century French philosopher—and atheist—Denis Diderot is spending his “forever” days. He was a very ingenious, thought-provoking, free-thinking political writer who put this gem on paper: “Man will not be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” He once had a three-month stay in prison for being a smart-mouth.
The Dramatic Imagination of Dante Alighieri
In his monumental “Divine Comedy” Dante takes us on a tour of the three realms of the dead: Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. On his travels he explores the darkest recesses of the human soul. He minces no words. In one situation he describes a man “ever gaped as wide as the man I saw split open from his chin down to the farting-place.”
He divides Hell into nine levels or circles of punishment and is the supreme master of fitting justice to the sin or crime:
Circle 1 is reserved for the Virtuous Heathen. This is actually Limbo, a place of sorrow without torment. There is a seven-walled castle with rolling fresh meadows. This is the place for behaving pagans, some great philosophers and authors, unbaptized children, and others unfit to enter Heaven. Caesar, Homer, Socrates, and Aristotle are resting here, in a sad but peaceful atmosphere without torture.
Circle 2 is for the lascivious and lustful. They spend eternity trying to satisfy unquenchable sexual desires. The “infernal hurricane” whirls them around and around. They have betrayed reason for their sexual appetites. Dante says Cleopatra and Helen of Troy are there. How about King David and some of those early Catholic popes?
Circle 3 is for gluttons. They live in eternal cold rain, putrid water, and stinking mud. The canine monster Cerebus with the three heads and red eyes dominates this level and constantly growls and tears the damned with his claws and teeth.
Circle 4 is for the avaricious. They roll weights back and forth forever. They are there because they stockpiled their fortunes, hoarded everything of value, and shared nothing. Pluto, the wolf-like demon of wealth, lives here and punishes the rich.
Circle 5 is for the wrathful and gloomy who are forever lashing out at everyone. They are continually in anger, furious, and naked, tearing each other apart with their teeth. The gloomy live in the black mud of the River Styx where they are slothful, sullen, and withdrawn from the world.
Circle 6 is for heretics. They live on a wide plain full of distress and torment terrible. By failing to believe in God and the afterlife they make themselves heard by making very doleful sounds. The three infernal Furies, stained with blood and with limbs of women and hair of serpents, live in this circle and continue to torment heretics.
Circle 7 is for the resting place of the violent whether it is against God, others, or self. The violent spend forever in the River Phlegethon which is filled with boiling blood. The stench is overpowering. Centaurs with bows and arrows shoot those who try to avoid punishment. This is also the home of the suicides, represented by gnarled trees with branches covered with poisoned fruit. The Harpies, birds with twisted human faces, make their nests and perch in the branches. Blasphemers and sodomites writhe forever in pain and out of their eyes gush their woes. Usurers who charge too much interest are also sent to this level.
Circle 8 is filled with the fraudulent such as panders, seducers, hypocrites, thieves, flatterers, simonists, diviners, pimps, and falsifiers. Possibly a big crowd in a very tough place. Magicians, panderers, thieves, and fortune tellers wallow in human excrement. Hypocrites are forced to walk around in lead-lined cloaks. Large serpents writhe and wrap themselves around men. There are loud lamentations from all sinners. Some are covered with scabs and leprosy that forces some to scratch their skin off.
Circle 9 is where the fallen angel Satan lives and works. His wings flap eternally, chilling cold winds around him. This is where those who have committed treachery against God, country, friends, guests, lords, and benefactors are kept. They are frozen deep in ice up to their necks and their eyes and mouths are also frozen shut. Satan has three faces—black, red, and yellow—and the mouths are gushing bloody foam as they chew on three traitors, Judas, Brutus, and Cassius. No fire and heat in the deepest circle.
Before Dante, visitors to Hell in the 12th Century “Vision of Tundale” underwent horrific tortures: “The genitals of the men and the women were like serpents, which eagerly mangled the lower parts of their stomachs and pulled out their guts.” These sinners were all monks, nuns, and other clerics who had been guilty of fornication. Certainly all of these images were created to scare the Hell out of everybody who sits in pews, bends knees on occasion, or preaches from the pulpit. Are we really more likely to behave ourselves if we know what happens in the afterlife? One theologian has suggested that everybody assigned to Hell should spend a few minutes in Heaven before descending so the sinner realizes for eternity what he-or she-has missed. The Hebrew Bible, by the way, does not even mention Hell. Dead sinners just go to a dark silent place. Heaven is a place where one can read the Torah all the time. That sounds exciting-and better than being tossed into the boiling pot.