PASTS IMPERFECT IS a new column that explores the impact of old pasts on the present. Begun by Sarah E. Bond, Joel Christensen and Nandini Pandey, Pasts Imperfect is a space to address the forgotten, manipulated or misunderstood stories of the ancient world, from South America to the Indus Valley and the ancient Mediterranean. We’ll also highlight how stories from 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]It’s hard not to notice how much more attention has always been given to Hell rather than Heaven. Morrison alludes to a “disturbing” commitment: Notions of hell are shaped by those with power and privilege and seem to only imagine the damned as those whose bodies in this life bear the weight of social sin, systemic and institutional and injustice. The bodies of the damned tell us what we may not want to recognize in ourselves. That we damn tells the truth about who damn them. Hell is too often an unquestioned space shaped in large part by the imaginations of those who have used it to hold the marginalized and oppressed in place, in a living hell here on earth.
More disturbing than any concept of Hell itself is our apparent need for it – our lack of desire to let Hell and all of its violence go away. That hell has occupied the imagination of Christians for millennia cannot be disputed. The development of hell in the beliefs and mentalities of the early Christians is illustrated in the large and varied texts that religious studies specialist Meghan Henning brings to our attention in her masterly study, Hell has no fury: Gender, handicap and the invention of cursed bodies among the early Christians Literature. The book covers patristic writers from the early centuries AD to the present day in order to map the earliest landscapes of hell which then became commonly reinvented terrains for sinners.
The literary theme of hell has been part of our popular cultural landscape since Virgil Aeneid, and was greatly enriched by Dante Divine comedy and Milton lost paradise. In academia, however, the subject of hell has received a different kind of attention through intellectual histories, most notably by Georges Minois in his 1991 History of the Underworld, a 444-page book retracing the development of hell as an idea. After Minois are two works by Roman Catholic scholars, Herbert Vorgrimler’s 1993 Geschichte der Hölle, written from a systematic theological point of view, and Alan E. Bernstein The Formation of Hell: Death and Punishment in the Ancient and Early Christian Worlds, which brings together Roman, Greek, Jewish and Christian perspectives on hell. Alan F. Segal 2004 Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion can be coupled with that of Bart D. Ehrman Heaven and hell: a story from the afterlife, published 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, afterlife, resurrection, and the world to come in ancient Judaisms, in which hell is seen as part of a wider range of concepts associated with the afterlife in Judaism.
Despite these previous publications on the subject of hell, it’s fair to say that few books written recently are as thrilling, engaging, and thought-provoking as Henning’s work on hellish landscapes and their inhabitants. She managed to give Hell the right attention, finally 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 allows us to focus on who is most hurt by his constructions.
As Henning states, she looked at hell from a different point of view, “while studying [it] as a beginning, not as an end ”, and as a tool of the Church. It 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 disturb the waters in which the damned would otherwise slumber. What Henning’s work teaches us is that our beliefs about hell tell deep things about how we see and understand ourselves. They also reveal how even our view of heaven is shaped by our visions of hell, and how our visions of hell are shaped by our lived earthly realities.
The earliest formations of Hell bear some resemblance to the Late Roman world – and this is no accident. In the Roman world, violence was a given in society. Henning notes that “in this hellish imagination, divine justice resembles ancient Roman justice.” In the apocalypses and the various tours of hell, we see a resemblance to the cities, empires, and houses of late antiquity. These texts not only reflect the Church’s attempts in the third century to be clear about her new moral teachings on marriage and sexuality, but also represent the realities of Roman homes, where social roles, sin, and salvation were interconnected. Hell is like the earth in the questions it raises around consent, the lack of responsibility of men and abuse of the clergy.
Ancient attitudes towards color are also rooted in these early accounts. Sin is synonymous with Darkness, “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 rule in a world where darkness is a punishment for sin and is lost through repentance. The purpose of hell, in many texts, is to balance the scales of righteousness in a post-life time, making sinners pay for their sins. Yet hell reflects what happens on earth when power is unchecked and human beings are not held accountable for their actions and attitudes.
We could say that hell would be superfluous in a world where people lived just, honestly and equally, that the need for hell is rooted in humanity’s inability to live and love responsibly. So it is even more curious that we find ourselves in a time when an attempt to wipe out Hell is so prevalent. Think of the traditional but little used Advent themes of the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. These four Advent themes are regularly replaced by: Hope, Peace, Love and Joy – which is great if the world you inhabit reflects these virtues.
The myths of antiquity can be pernicious. Henning’s work demands that we challenge these belief systems, which endure in our texts. We learn from his work that early Christian asceticism was not always free from the attitudes of the surrounding culture, that patristic writers were influenced by ancient medical thought, and that the clergy and officials of the Church (men and women ) could abuse their function. and neglect the poor. We are made to fight the resurrection of a sex worker in Acts of Thomas and confront a Mary who occupies a queer space in her descent into hell as intercessor, “apostolic seer” and suffering mother. These descents into hell reaffirm the need for apostles, saints and martyrs in the lives of the damned on both sides of eternity, but they also lead us to consider what happens to our own bodies in our eschatological imaginations and how it affects what is happening. to our bodies here and now.
Hell has no fury is a text for adults, which invites us to reposition our gaze both on hell and on Mary, Jesus and the Apostles, figures that we generally consider as a refuge against hell and its sufferings. It is heartbreaking that when Jesus is approached by his disciples on the Mount of Olives at the opening of the Ethiopian text of the Apocalypse of Peter, he speaks of the day of his return as the day when “evil creatures” face. eternal and specific punishments. groups of sinners are punished in distinct ways, laying out detailed explanations of their sins, which Martha Himmelfarb attributes to “exegesis to the pesher”. Equally heart-wrenching is Henning’s argument that Mary’s maternal role and intercessory role come together as she travels through Hell and reaches their climax in her willingness to “suffer with the damned” that challenge with the words:
Mary, we beg you, Mary, light and mother of light; Mary, life and mother of the apostles; Mary, golden lamp, you who bear every just lamp; Mary our master and the mother of our Master; Mary, our queen, beg your son to give us some rest (Liber Requiei Mariae, ch. 99).
It is not a feat of the imagination for someone like me – a black, gay, disabled priest in an institutionally racist Church and an equally homophobic, capable and racist world – to imagine hell. What is rare is for someone who may be none of these things to name the theological and historical origins of hell on earth that bodies like mine and different from mine endure and so know. Good.
Paying attention to bodies that simply by existing resist ideas of bodily normativity, especially those whose bodies experience the damnation of the violent forces of this world in their flesh, can be described as saving. These bodies were once imagined as populated hellish landscapes. A post-mortem world of justice is precisely the world experienced by those whose bodies are socially and culturally “damned”. It is the right kind of historical and theological attention to these bodies in ancient literature that will set them free in our day – and in Hell has no fury, we see such saving work embodied and modeled for all of us.
However, we still have the question of knowing what to do with hell today, and what to do with the legacy of generations of writers, thinkers and theologians who have 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 field of questioning. We are unlikely to be saved from hell by any of the usual or obvious suspects. Maybe it’s time to rewrite this script, or delete it all together, as we struggle from day to day in a world and time when hell is all around us.
Bro Jarel Robinson-Brown is Assistant Vicar at St Botolph-without-Aldgate in the City of London, Vice-President of OneBodyOneFaith and Visiting Fellow at Sarum College, Salisbury.