PASTS IMPERFECT IS a new column that explores the impact of ancient pasts on the present. Begun by Sarah E. Bond, Joel Christensen, and Nandini Pandey, Pasts Imperfect is a space for addressing forgotten, manipulated, or misunderstood histories of the ancient world from South America to the Indus Valley and the ancient Mediterranean. We will also highlight how narratives about the past influence the world we live in today, from books and movies to executive orders.
In her essay “God’s Language,” Toni Morrison writes that “[i]t is hard not to notice how much more attention has always been given to hell rather than heaven.” Morrison alludes to a commitment that is “worrying”: notions of hell are shaped by those with power and privilege and only seem to imagine the damned as those whose bodies, in this life, carry the weight of social, systemic, and institutional sin and injustice. The bodies of the damned tell us what we are perhaps unwilling to acknowledge in ourselves. Whom we damn tells the truth about who has damned them. Hell is too often uninterrogated space shaped largely by the imagination of those who have used it to keep the marginalized and downtrodden in place, in a living hell here on earth.
More worrying than any concept of hell itself is our apparent need of it — our lack of desire to let hell and all its violence go. That hell has occupied the imaginations of Christian people for millennia cannot be contested. The development of hell in early Christian belief and mindsets is exemplified in the wide and varied texts that religious studies scholar Meghan Henning brings to our attention in her masterful study, Hell Hath No Fury: Gender, Disability, and the Invention of Damned Bodies in Early Christian Literature. The book covers the patristic writers of the first centuries CE to the present day in order to map the earliest hellscapes that later became commonly reimagined terrains for sinners.
The literary theme of hell has been part of our popular cultural landscape since well before Virgil’s Aeneid, and was significantly enriched by Dante’s Divine Comedy and Milton’s Paradise Lost. In academia, however, the subject of hell has been given a different kind of attention through intellectual histories, most notably by Georges Minois in his 1991 Histoire des Enfers, a 444-page work tracing the development of hell as an idea. Closely following Minois are two works by Roman Catholic scholars, Herbert Vorgrimler’s 1993 Geschichte der Hölle, written from a systematic theology perspective, and Alan E. Bernstein’s The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and Early Christian Worlds, which pulls together Roman, Greek, Jewish, and Christian views on hell. Alan F. Segal’s 2004 Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion can be coupled with Bart D. Ehrman’s Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife, which appeared last year; both demonstrate that our ideas of heaven and hell developed long before the time of Christ, and continue to evolve to this day. Jerry L. Walls pays attention to questions of theodicy and the body in his 2015 Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory: Rethinking the Things that Matter Most. Finally, there is a collection of essays edited by Alan J. Avery-Peck and Jacob Neusner, Judaism in Late Antiquity 4: Death, Life-After-Death, Resurrection and the World-to-Come in the Judaisms of Antiquity, in which hell is looked at as part of a wider range of concepts associated with the afterlife in Judaism.
Despite these previous publications on the subject of hell, it is fair to say that few works written recently are as enthralling, engaging, and challenging as Henning’s work on hellscapes and their inhabitants. She has successfully given hell the right sort of attention, at last filling a major gap in the story and simultaneously charting new territory. Henning’s contemplation of the many influences that created our modern conception of hell enables us to focus on who is most harmed by its constructions.
As Henning states, she has looked at hell from a different vantage point, “studying [it] as a beginning, not as an end,” and as a tool of the Church. She shows that this toxic relationship between the Church and hell goes back further than some might imagine, and it is the task of historians and theologians to trouble the waters in which the damned would otherwise lie dormant. What Henning’s work teaches us is that our beliefs about hell say profound things about how we see and understand ourselves. They also reveal how even our vision of heaven is shaped by our visions of hell, and how our visions of hell are shaped by our lived earthly realities.
Early formations of hell bear a certain resemblance to the late Roman world — and that is no accident. In the Roman world, violence was a given in society. Henning notes that “in this imagination of hell, divine justice looks like ancient Roman justice.” In the apocalypses and the various tours of hell, we see a resemblance to the cities, empires, and households of late antiquity. These texts not only reflect the Church’s third-century attempts to be clear about its new moral teachings about marriage and sexuality, but also represent the realities of Roman households, where social roles, sin, and salvation were interconnected. Hell is like earth in the questions it raises around consent, the lack of male accountability, and clerical abuse.
Ancient attitudes toward color are also embedded in these early narratives. Sin is synonymous with Blackness, “deviant” women, and homosexuals, and these associations have repercussions even today. Even in hell women cannot escape the patriarchal gaze, and anti-Blackness continues to dominate in a world in which Blackness is a punishment for sin and is lost through repentance. The purpose of hell, in many texts, is to balance the scales of justice in a post-life time, by making the sinful pay for their sins. Yet hell mirrors what happens on earth when power goes unchecked and human beings are not held responsible for their actions and attitudes.
We could say that hell would be redundant in a world where people lived in just, honest, and equal ways, that hell’s necessity is rooted in the inability of humankind to live and love responsibly. It is even more curious, then, that we should find ourselves in a time when a move to eliminate hell is so prevalent. Think of the traditional yet little-used Advent themes of the Four Last Things: Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell. Those four themes of Advent are regularly replaced by: Hope, Peace, Love, and Joy — which is all very well, if the world you inhabit reflects these virtues.
Myths from antiquity can be pernicious. Henning’s work demands that we question these systems of belief, which live on in our texts. We learn in her work that early Christian asceticism wasn’t always free of the attitudes of the surrounding culture, that patristic writers were influenced by ancient medical thought, and that clergy and officeholders in the Church (both male and female) could abuse their office and neglect the poor. We are made to wrestle with the resurrection of a sex worker in the Acts of Thomas and to face a Mary who occupies a queer space in her descent to hell as intercessor, “apostolic seer,” and suffering mother. These descents into hell reaffirm the necessity of the Apostles, Saints, and Martyrs in the lives of the damned on both sides of eternity, but they also draw us to consider what happens to our own bodies in our eschatological imaginations and how that affects what happens to our bodies here and now.
Hell Hath No Fury is a text for grown-ups, which summons us to reposition our gaze both on hell and on Mary, Jesus, and the Apostles — figures whom we usually view as offering refuge from hell and its suffering. It is harrowing that, when Jesus is approached by his disciples on the Mount of Olives at the opening of the Ethiopic text of the Apocalypse of Peter, he speaks of the day of his return as one when “evil creatures” face eternal punishments and specific groups of sinners are punished in distinctive ways, laying out detailed explanations of their sins, something which Martha Himmelfarb attributes to “pesher-style exegesis.” Equally harrowing is Henning’s argument that Mary’s maternal role and her intercessory role become united as she tours hell, and reach their climax in her willingness to “suffer with the damned” who call out to her with the words:
Mary, we beseech you, Mary, light and the mother of light; Mary, life and mother of the apostles; Mary, golden lamp, you who carries every righteous lamp; Mary our master and the mother of our Master; Mary, our queen, beseech your son to give us a little rest (Liber Requiei Mariae, ch. 99).
It is no feat of the imagination for someone like myself — a Black, gay, disabled priest in an institutionally racist Church and an equally homophobic, ableist, and racist world — to imagine hell. What is rare is for someone who may be none of those things to name the theological and historical origins of the hell on earth that bodies like mine and different from mine endure and know so well.
It may be described as salvific to give attention to bodies that, simply by existing, resist ideas of bodily normativity, particularly for those whose bodies know the damnation of the violent forces of this world in their flesh. These bodies were once imagined as populating hellscapes. A world of post-mortem justice is precisely the world those whose bodies are socially and culturally “damned” inhabit. It is the right kind of historical and theological attention to these bodies in ancient literature that will set them free in the present day — and in Hell Hath No Fury, we see such salvific work embodied and modeled for us all.
We are however still left with the question of what to do with hell today, and what to do with the legacy of generations of writers, thinkers, and theologians who made it a necessity. Henning’s work demonstrates that the beginning of an answer is the broadening of our imaginations and the widening of our interrogational scope. We are unlikely to be rescued from hell by any of the usual or obvious suspects. It is perhaps time to rewrite this script, or do away with it all together, as we struggle day to day in a world and time when hell is all around us.