As a former Catholic and Evangelical, I spent a lot of time wondering about Hell.
So has Jon M. Sweeney.
His book, Inventing Hell: Dante, The Bible and Eternal Torment does a deep dive into the quintessential pit.
Sweeney begins by explaining that most of the Christian concept of Hell came from Dante (author of the Inferno) who was heavily influenced by Virgil and used him as his guide to the underworld.
Sweeney writes that Dante had high esteem for Virgil “because he believed the myth Virgil created some thirteen hundred years before Dante was born… the ‘Myth of Empire’ the notion that the city of Rome, the Roman Empire, its emperors, and by extension Christianity itself, were all created by divine ordination. It wasn’t unusual for Dante to believe the Roman Empire was God’s favored way of governing the world; every proud Roman of the Middle Ages did.”
“These elaborate legends were supposed to explain why and how Rome had become so adept at empire-building. Whereas the Greeks had valued discovery and beauty, the Romans valued power and consolidation… [T]hey treasured their heritage as God’s new chosen people. The Christian Church would be born into this Rome and their empire…”
Of course, when Dante was alive, the Roman Empire had been in existence for over a century. As Sweeney sees it, around 312 Christianity began to rapidly spread, piggy-backing on Rome’s strong infrastructure. “As the empire conquered more lands and people, Christianity marched in behind them, and even after Rome’s collapse, Christianity expected and demanded the hegemony that they believed was theirs by divine right.”
Dante was heavily influenced by a strong sense of empire (political power) linked to religion.
And he was also influenced by Greek myths, Socrates and Plato to believe in an afterlife, including an immortal soul, which all predate the Bible. Hence, his keen interest in Hell. Sweeney makes the point that the idea of Hell didn’t originate in the Bible but with human beings.
Sweeney contends that St. Paul and Plato would have believed “the soul is a pure spiritual essence It contains nothing material, nothing that is essentially of this world. It is uncreated and eternal. After death, the soul once again belongs to the world of the invisible.”
Along with the belief in an afterlife, the Greeks, through Plato, introduced the concept of justice after death. And the beginnings of a belief in Hell.
Jon M. Sweeney
Sweeney points out that the Hebrew Bible “offered a picture of human beings possessed of body and soul, connected by life that comes from God; and when God took that life away the entire person went to Sheol to lead a shadelike existence. Plato sees something else. Plato separates the human person into two very distinctive halves, only one of which [the soul] truly matters.”
All of this to say that the idea of Hell predates Jesus and the Bible, but Sweeney makes the case that it was Dante, not Jesus who perpetuated the idea.
“When a Christian preacher threatens his [or her] audience with Hell, it is Dante’s Inferno that he’s [she’s] most often depicting, whether he [she] realizes it or not. We must not forget that the Inferno is an allegory… In that case, is Dante’s Hell still useful? Yes, great art brings things to life. Is it real? Yes, it can make sense in people’s lives. But is it literal, historical, or geographical? No.”
Sweeney makes three complaints against Dante’s work.
First, “the Inferno is more the stuff of Greek and Roman mythology and philosophy that it is the Bible. Old Testament or New. And all of that myth and legend would be fine in and of itself… except that Christians have adapted Dante’s vision of divine justice and used it to threaten for centuries.”
Secondly, Sweeney takes issue with the Inferno for “the virtues that it extols. Homer, Ovid, Cicero and Virgil were more interested in heroism and courage than they were in peace and humility, and it is those latter virtues that Christianity and Christ were all about.”
Thirdly, Sweeney disagrees with Dante’s politics. “Church and state were one in his worldview. He couldn’t conceive of them apart… Politics interested him, as did affairs of state and the repair of Rome as ruler of the world – more than the message of the Gospels.”
As Sweeney wraps up his discussion of Hell, he writes “I became a Catholic at the age of forty-two for a number of reasons, and one of them was the official teaching of the church that a person does not know what will happen to him [or her] after death. ‘Faith combined with good works’ is the old mantra of what it means to be a Catholic, as opposed to the view of the Protestant reformers of the sixteenth century who argued that salvation was about faith alone. The principle of ‘faith combined with good works’ means that there is rarely ever a triumphant tendency among Catholics to proclaim any certainty about life after death.”
“We need more than Hell as a deterrent, for ethics is not the same thing as loving your neighbor. Virtue is not borne out of fear.”
Sweeney concludes: “[O]ne of the things I’ve learned as I’ve grown older is that there is no single image or description of God that is the unvarnished truth… I’ve also come to accept that that Christianity holds what seem to be contradictory images of God almost simultaneously. That’s why I’m convinced that each of us has to choose.”
But Dante, to Sweeney’s mind, offers up only one image of God. “All we have is a vivid, sad vision of a God who judges, punishes, tortures and abandons… Ultimately, I choose not Dante’s vengeful, predatory God who is anxious to tally faults, to reward and to punish. Instead I choose the God who creates and sustains us, who is incarnate and wants to be with and among us, and the God who inspires and comforts us. That God is the real one, the one I have come to know and understand, and that God has nothing to do with medieval Hell.”