A History of Hell
by Melvyn Bragg

Reference: Index

This is Melvin's "In Our Time" newsletter from 21 December 2006.


You have to believe me that we did not sit down and decide to do hell before Christmas on principle, or out of a sense of devilish fun, or anything else. It just fell out that way.

Perhaps the most famous comment now about hell is from Sartre - “hell is other people”. Hell itself in most of our culture has gone from a place where you can “freeze in hell” (because the religions which bred it came out of hot climates) until you could “burn in hell” (when religion moved north). I thought you might like a few gobbets from the notes of the contributors. Martin Palmer talked about what he called developing hell scenarios. This is what he told us as part of our research:

“During the inter-testamental period (the time between the completion of writing the Old Testament and the writing of the New Testament, 250BC-50AD) there was a period of growth in belief in the Judeo and Christian world of hell or Gehenna, but still in very vague terms. Around the 4th century, worldwide, and amongst many of the main religions: Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Taoism, there was suddenly an astonishing growth in graphic depictions of hell. These depictions were very detailed with specific tortures allocated to specific crimes which they often had in common with each other: if you had ever looked lustfully at a woman you would have your eyes pecked out in hell; if you had been a glutton your liver would be picked out; if you had done false dealings your hands would be cut off, repeatedly, for eternity and the stumps then dipped in lead. These ideas of hell moved away from the basic conception of hell as something to be saved from, developing into titillating stuff that was graphic, exciting, pornographic across all major faiths.

Something which the major faiths had in common, beyond the sudden blossoming of graphic detail amongst their depictions of hell, was the common theme of the story of a journey going down into the underworld. In Zoroastrianism there is the journey of Arda Viraf, in many ways the prototype of all the later stories of journeying through hell or hells. This story was enormously popular in the Middle East for 1000 years but it is difficult to date exactly, estimated at around 150-200AD. After this came the Apocalypse of Paul a story which was immensely popular and which almost made it into the New Testament, appearing in it early on but dropped by about 500AD. The Apocalypse of Paul describes an incredibly dramatic journey down into hell where all the various scenes of hell are depicted. This story almost certainly shaped Dante’s thinking and because it was thought to have been written by the Apostle, Paul, it carried a certain authority.

In every major faith we find this story of the descent into hell cropping up again and again. In Buddhism it is Sudhana who goes down into the hells, and in Islam there are accounts of the Prophet Mohammed going down into the hells as a counterpoint to his journey up to heaven from Jerusalem. In Chinese religion, Taoism, hell is described as an ‘Earth Prison’ and this reveals a theme which runs through all faiths except perhaps Christianity. This is the notion that hell is somewhere where souls are held until they have paid off their debt of guilt and sin so that they may be released either into heaven or into purgatory. Christians, on the other hand, would tend to stay there forever but some strands do have a theme that a soul can be saved by intercession and prayer.”

Martin was also extremely clear about the origins of that great phrase “the harrowing of hell”. The notes say:

“The most common depiction in Anglo-Saxon art is the harrowing of hell, in the Apostle’s Creed which contains a very interesting phrase which says “Christ descended into hell and on the third day he rose again”. The whole mythology of the harrowing of hell is Christianity’s grappling with the question of where Christ went when he died. It is the only picture that the Orthodox Church will show of the resurrection: Christ harrowing hell. According to the story, Christ breaks down the gates of hell which form the shape of the baptismal font and he brings light and joy into hell. Christ raises Adam and all the just men of the past, regardless of what they have done and brings them to paradise. He raises Eve, and all the just women of the past, regardless of what they have done and brings them to paradise.

Christ is forced to leave hell when the devil makes a plea to God that this is not really fair.”

So there we are! After which, the only thing to say is Merry Christmas.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

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Copyright © 2006 Melvyn Bragg
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