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This classic of medieval literature is a basic part of European culture, but I have never read the whole thing, only excerpts. Dante's writings have shaped European popular concepts of the afterlife.
Most people do not realize that the source of most of their traditionally "Christian" ideas about hell and punishment is Dante, not the Bible. It is helpful to remember that literacy was a limited and precious commodity, so most people had no chance to read the Bible or other literature for themselves until a recent era in modern times. Even large numbers of priests in pre-reformation Europe were illiterate.
All kinds of ideas from the popular imagination and the Celtic-Germanic pagan myths remained active up to modern times. The old English word hell translates various words in Greek (and Hebrew in the Old Testament), misleading us into thinking that
(1) there was a common concept that all the various passages refer to, and
(2) the meaning of our words from old pagan Germanic sources, enhanced by Dante, is what those words meant in the original language.
Dante certainly sets our minds to wondering over the vast and rich symbols of evil in the eastern and western worlds.
Medieval Translation Filter
Interestingly, the Bible's few offhand references to the afterlilfe do not present the picture medieval Europe came to have and that still pervades the modern mind when they hear the word "hell." One notable feature of Dante's work is that he portrays a variety of punishments in hell, not just fire. He prefers a type of punishment that fits the crime of the individual.
Some people are in a perpetual swamp, some are in a cold place, some even frozen. Several locations in Dante's hell are described very much like common views in the Bible, associated with the words Hades (Greek) and Sheol (Hebrew) – dark, cold and damp.
The King James translators unfortunately used the native word "hell" from English-Germanic history, used before the arrival of Christian faith, to translate several unrelated words in the New Testament. They even used it to translate the Hebrew word for earth" or "the grave" (sheol).
This native English word brought with it the Germanic preconceptions, and these now overlay the Greek or Hebrew meanings. Because the translators chose a native word with its pagan connotations of the afterlife, this is what English (and other European readers) see. This pattern of interpreting the biblical terms and worldview into the native words with their prior pagan worldview connotations was tha common approach in translation.
Thus when English speakers, and others in their native European languages, Readers see their native word with its pagan Germanic meanings, they assume the Germanic cultural concept, rather than moving in tot he Jewish biblical worldview.
For instance, in the second Letter of Peter in the New Testament (2 Peter 2:4), there is a Greek word "Tartarus." This word is well-known from ample Greek literature.
This letter, it seems, quotes a popular Jewish source called the Book of Enoch. It refers to Tartarus not as the place of punishment for humans, but for rebellious angels. The full story is found in 1 Enoch Chs. 9 and 20. See my review of this 3rd century BCE literary work.
See my review of a commentary on Jude and 2 Peter which deals with their quotations from 1 Enoch
Dark and Gloomy
Further, Tartarus is described as a dark and lonely place of "gloomy dungeons." This phrase conjures an image of a watery, shadowy existence, like a pit or cave. This description fits the Old Testament comments about the place of the dead referred to as Sheol, the grave or afterlife. It is dark, shadowy, sometimes spoken of as damp and uncomfortable.
Wilbur Gingrich, in the Shorter Lexicon of the Greek New Testament, comments that Tartarus is "thought of as a place of divine punishment lower than Hades."
Later the book of 2 Peter also proclaims a punishment for deceitful men who are leading some believers astray, saying that for them are reserved the blackest darkness. This could imply they are to be in Tartarus with the evil angels, but that is not directly stated. At any rate, their punishment, according to Peter, is not in flames, but in darkness.
The tract of Jude also makes this same statement, adding that their punishment in the blackest darkness will be forever. These books have also said this. Why do we not hear any preachers using this picture of final punishment?
Likewise, another word translated by the early English translators was the common Hebrew word sheol. This word referred simply to the grave, or in some references also has a character similar to Tartarus or Hades, an underground, dark, damp, isolated place.
Interestingly, however, the word Hades also came to be used to refer to a flaming place, at some point in Greek language usage. This concept seems to be referenced in one allegory in Jesus' teachings, where the gospel writer uses the word Hades for the place of torment where an unjust wicked man is found after his death.
Bosom of Abraham
This story of Lazarus and the Rich Man is set in a place the Jews called the Bosom of Abraham, where good Jews would go when they died, awaiting the resurrection. This concept shows a convergence of ideas that begin to appear in Jewish popular literature (but not in any texts that became canonical) in the centuries after the Babylonian Captivity.
The common figure of speech in Jesus' references is more commonly "gehenna," originally an Aramaic word, referring to the Valley of Hinnom. The term was euphemistically applied to the burning refuse pit of the city of Jerusalem. This is one image Jesus uses for the utter destruction of the wicked in the final judgement.
Fire of Purification
The burning flame idea seems to be a late import (in Classical terms) into European thought, and does appear a bit during the time of the Greeks by the first century AD, or before.
This idea apparently came through from the east, apparently related to the Persian concept of Fire as the eternal power of the universe, and the format of judgement and purification. Many cultures have a concept of purification by fire, and Paul even uses the figure of a furnace for purification in judgement leading to holiness.
I have not been able to find, however, even one passage in the Bible in which the topic is actually a state of the afterlife, though several indirectly refer to some format of afterlife (various ideas, not developed in those references), incidentally in regard to some other topic.
I have not found and direct teaching about the state of the afterlife, only secondary references, where the matter comes up only in discussing another primary topic. The book of Revelation is sometimes used as a basis to present an objective view of flaming punishment after the judgement.
However, to make that work, the symbols have to be reduced to literal metaphysical objects. Then you have to choose between various scenarios, since the symbolic pictures present impressions, not a linear objective description or catalogue of places and conditions.
Hades and the Lake of Fire
Further, the text specifically makes a distinction between Hades and a Lake of Fire. The apocalyptic symbolism tells us that after the final judgement, Hades itself, along with Death, will be destroyed in the Lake of Fire, where Satan is cast.
The literalistic interpretations of Revelation have the tricky task of resymbolizing the literalized symbols, or navigating a treacherous trail of interpretation of some symbols as symbolic, some as allegorical and some literal. As we know, the interpretations are myriad.
More importantly, the focus in the New Testament never seems to be on a time between death and the end of the world, but the focus is always the Jewish concept of a final resurrection, in a physical body, on the earth. Judgement is always after the resurrection, and even Hades [often incorrectly translated "hell"] is not eternal – it is cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, according to the symbolic apocalypse.
Blaming the Bible
Now I guess it's OK to have various ideas, from various sources, about what happens after we die. But why can't people be honest about the source of their ideas. Why do so many people insist that their ideas are taught in the New Testament, when you cannot find it there? If we want to draw on other sources, which we will inevitably do, why this compulsion to claim this is what the Bible teaches?!
Let's just be honest and admit that we have many ideas in western culture that may be valid, but the source may not be the Bible. Why do some people have to think their ideas all come from the Bible?
Or put another way, why do they feel compelled to blame the Bible for all their ideas? Something does not track here. What is wrong with just recognizing where their idea originally came from and go on from there? Why do people feel free to impose their ideas on the Bible? Why claim the Bible is the authority, if you are going to read it then claim it said what you already believed, instead of what you just read!
The New Jerusalem
And finally, the final abode of the blessed, at least in any New Testament reference, is not in Heaven. Most people jump to Revelation 21 on this question, as a picture of heaven. (Of course, though they will admit this is a symbolic book, somehow this passage is reduced to a literal reality.)
Oddly, these are usually the same people that will claim this is about Heaven, even though that passage clearly says that Heaven remains the place of God's dwelling and the Earth is the place where the resurrected humans will live. We are plainly told in this symbolic scenario that this new City coming down out of Heaven will be on the Earth!
It seems very odd to me that most people glibly impose their view of Heaven upon this Revelation story of the final triumph of God's justice. They make a radical mental translation here and will read the literal words, but then proceed to refer to this as Heaven.
Most people strangely overlook the fact that Revelation 21 is describing a City, coming down from heaven to the earth. The new city, said to be lit by the very presence of the Lamb of God, is on the earth, the New Jerusalem. The term Heaven in Jewish (and New Testament) usage, is always the dwelling or sphere of God, not an abiding place for humans.
Everybody Goes to Heaven Now
But popular European thought has now developed the idea that at death, good people will go to heaven and bad people will go to hell. Though this has changed in post-modern and New Age thought. Everybody goes to Heaven now. Nobody goes to hell anymore. We keep the heaven myth but discard the uncomfortable Hell bit.
Hell as a Reason to Be Saved?
Avoiding hell as a reason to be "saved" is also an idea that doesn't appear in the Bible. A valid New Testament concept is to avoid the judgement by repenting. But judgement in the New Testament is always related to the resurrection at the end-time, not at the time of death.
Heaven as a Reason to Be Saved?
You hear preachers talking like the goal of the New Testament is to get people to heaven. It appears that this goal is a historical cultural one, not the one stated by Jesus and the writers of the New Testament. I have not seen this mentioned in the New Testament. The purpose of "being saved" in the Bible is never related to going to heaven. It is related to being properly related to God.
Western readers can read in this new edition of Dante the source of many myths in the modern popular concepts of the afterlife.
Art and Morality
What were we talking about? Oh yes, Dante. Dante vividly paints a picture of the popular medieval beliefs about the afterlife. This classic has continued to be circulated in many languages through the centuries. This is a worthy new edition.
A primary value of this well-crafted work of art is the strong social comment calling for justice for the oppresed. Dante issues a warning and prophesies a day of reckoning for the evil, who will have to answer for their immoral acts of exploitation and repression.
See related reviews and articles on this site:
God and the Problem of Evil
Nephilim: The Truth is Here
A New Testament Window into First Century Jewish Literature
Principalities and Powers: Notes On Demonic Hierarchies
Spirit World in Cultural Comparisons
The Watchers are Judged (1 Enoch)
See this book on Amazon.com.
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Many other books have review notes with the reading list entry
Initial notes written in October 2007
Reflections added on an ongoing basis
Final review essay posted 11 February 2009
Last edited 8 May 2009
Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2009 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Other rights reserved.