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Visions of Hell

“Abandon all hope, you who enter here.”

This quote, seen over the entrance to Hell in Dante's Inferno, expresses a sentiment that many contemporary evangelicals would share. Dante's Hell is not only familiar to most Christians, but many believe that that is the way it is going to be for unbelievers throughout eternity. Many Christians do not realize that the history behind the Christian doctrine of Hell, and indeed the Bible itself, allows for alternative doctrines of Hell. This essay will attempt to summarize these varying beliefs, comparing them with Dante's vision of the abyss. The predominate views of Hell that exist today include the traditionalist view, the Conditionalist or Annihilationist view, and the Universalist or Apocatastasis view.

The study of these doctrines cannot be divorced from the Old and New Testament descriptions of Hell. In the Old Testament, death indiscriminately took all of its victims to a shady underworld known as Sheol. According to an article in Christianity Today, “In the Old Testament, the focus is on the present life, not on life after death. Sheol is a dark, dreary, silent underworld of half-existence” (Peterson 30). Later, Jews developed separate areas of Sheol for good and bad people. Later still, Gehenna was developed, where everlasting fire is first envisioned. Obviously, this is closer to Dante's Hell, but the idea of eternal suffering is still absent.

New Testament authors developed the idea of the afterlife even further, some incorporating this idea of a physically painful suffering. Some describe Hell as Gehenna, Hades, and fire, a place with weeping, wailing, and the gnashing of teeth. Other New Testament authors describe Hell as “destruction,” “blackest darkness,” “judgment,” “death,” “perishing,” etc. Some descriptions indicate that Hades is simply a temporary dwelling for unbelievers to inhabit until it is thrown into the Lake of Fire. Many passages about Heaven and Hell are told in parables or analogies that are difficult to decipher accurately. It is not difficult to imagine why a plethora of views about Hell has made its way to the present day.

The most familiar of these views among Christians today is most often called the traditionalist view. This is the vision of Hell that Dante employs in his seminal piece of poetry. Notice the characteristics of Dante's Hell:

It constitutes a physical, spatial area,
Its inhabitants are trapped in the area for eternity, and
The inhabitants are suffering real, physical pain.

In addition to these three important factors, the traditionalist view oftentimes makes two more concessions. The first is that not all in Hell are physically tormented. Two groups are located in the limbus, or edge, of Hell: the Patriarchs are in Limbus Patrum, and unbaptized infants are in Limbo proper. Cullen Murphy shows how Dante took this doctrine to a new level:

Christian theologians began exploring the idea [of Limbo] in the Middle Ages. In the thirteenth century it was endorsed by Thomas Aquinas. Dante, in The Divine Comedy, gave it a humanistic expansion, populating his limbo not only with luminaries from the Hebrew Bible but also with worthy pagans (Socrates, Plato, Aeneas, Brutus) and, surprisingly, a number of prominent Muslims (the philosophers Avicenna and Averroes; the warrior Saladin, scourge of the Crusaders). And limbo enjoyed wide support from ordinary people, for whom it represented a kind of plea bargain with God. (Murphy 12)

According to those who hold to the existence of Limbus Patrum, Christ rescued its inhabitants after his death and before his resurrection. Dante references this very event (the Harrowing of Hell) in the Inferno. The idea that unbaptized infants spend eternity in Limbo (which, by the way, was never an official teaching of the Church) has gradually fallen into disfavor with most Christians. In order to compensate for the loss of this doctrine, some Christians believe that God is merciful to infants and grants access to heaven. These have to modify the traditional understanding of original sin. Others take Augustine's hard line stance – all unbaptized infants must suffer Hell (McBrien 21).

The second concession is that not all who are being tormented in the afterlife are in Hell. Many souls must be cleansed before entering heaven in a place called Purgatory. Dante accepts this traditionalist view of Purgatory just as he accepts Limbo. Notice, however, that Purgatory is not a destination; it is a transition. The three possible destinations for medieval Christians were not Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory. They were Heaven, Hell, or Limbo (Murphy 12). In this respect, Dante has misled his readers.

It would be misleading of me to posit the idea that all traditionalists believe the same things about Hell and Purgatory. For example, the Catholic Church has recently been describing Hell not as a location, but as state of existence. Furthermore, it does not describe Hell as physical punishment, but a state of separateness from God. C.S. Lewis paints a similar picture in The Great Divorce. Similarly, the Eastern Orthodox church avoids describing Hell as a place of physical suffering. Contrary to the Catholic view, however, the Eastern Orthodox Church holds that both those in Hell and those in Heaven are in the presence of God. Those in Hell are experiencing God's presence differently. It would seem that Dante's Hell follows the Catholic argument closer, as there is no indication of God's presence in the Inferno. Some would argue that this cannot validly be placed under the umbrella of traditionalism. Indeed, this argument can be made. However, the important link between modern Catholic and Eastern Orthodox views of Hell and Dante's eternal torture is that in both the sinner remains eternally in this place of despair called Hell. As I will show, the disagreements become much bigger as we move away from traditionalism.

The idea behind the non-traditionalist views of Hell is that Dante's vision of Hell is inconsistent with God's attributes. Consider these three statements posited by philosopher Thomas Talbott:

1.God is omnipotent and sovereign.
2.God is omnibenevolent, ontologically love and wants all men to be saved
3.Some (a lot) of people will experience eternal conscious torment in hell.

Christians cannot hold all three of these statements to be true at the same time. Therefore, one of the propositions has to be denied. Those who hold to a traditionalist view of Hell will deny either proposition #1 or #2. This is called the “Problem of Hell” (Buckareff and Plug 39). I will now summarize the views of those Christians who instead deny statement #3.

The problem of Hell can be solved in two general ways. The first is known as either Conditional Immortality or Annihilationism. The former argues that souls are not inherently immortal. God's gift to mankind is an immortal soul. They would argue that writers like Dante are too biased by Greek ideas of naturally immortal souls. Annihilationists believe that lost souls will be destroyed, either at death or after a certain period of time in Hell (Woodier). Much of the Eastern Orthodox Church, as well as many prominent Evangelical theologians, including John Stott, Clark Pinnock, John Wenham, and maybe even John Wesley have held to one of these two views. The Episcopal Church released a doctrinal statement in 1995 that sounds strikingly like Annihilationism. It stated, “Hell is not eternal torment, but it is the final and irrevocable choosing of that which is opposed to God so completely and so absolutely that the only end is total non-being." Those who believe in Dante's traditionalist idea of Hell, the report says, make God out to be a “sadistic monster.” These individuals and churches were not the first to believe in the eventual non-existence of sinners, however. The idea originated with the writings of early church fathers such as Justin Martyr (Peterson 30). Unfortunately, Dante could not accept the idea of an end to suffering. His sinners can never die. They will always exist in unbearable torment.

Annihilation is not the only way to overcome the problem of Hell. Many theologians believe that all sinners will eventually be redeemed. This teaching is known as Universal Reconciliation. Some even go as far as to believe in Apocatastasis, the belief that all evil, including the devil and his angels, will become harmonized with good and God in the end. This idea of Universal salvation was quite popular in the early church and was espoused by many Church Fathers such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and others (“Universal Reconciliation”). Basil the Great stated that it was actually the majority opinion amongst the Christians during his time (“Apocatastasis”). The Catholic Church, with the help of Augustine, eventually drove the doctrine into obscurity. Around the Reformation, the doctrine was revitalized and exists as a popular doctrine today (“Universal Reconciliation”). Many congregations grew up around the idea of Universalism before and during the Reformation, including early Anabaptists (“Trinitarian Universalism”). Many in the Eastern Orthodox Church believe in Apocatastasis, and in 2005 a Roman Catholic cardinal declared the doctrine of Universalism to be completely compatible with church teaching. Prominent Evangelicals also hold onto the idea of universalism, such as Thomas Talbott and Geroge MacDonald, whom C.S. Lewis considered master. Earlier this month, a bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church argued for Universalism, declaring that the Russian Orthodox version of Hell roughly equates to the Catholic idea of purgatory (“Universal Reconciliation”). Dante indeed includes Purgatory in his Divine Comedy. The souls he places in Hell, however, are plainly stuck there without hope of reform. Maybe this is why he portrays so many of the dead as bitter. Has God's mercy failed in Dante's Inferno?

Obviously, the Hellscape painted by Dante is by no means the only acceptable picture of Hell within the realm of Christianity. It should be stated here that all of the above doctrines claim to be biblically- and exegetically-based. How sad that many Christians today claim to have a purely biblically-based idea of Hell when in fact their ideas are influenced more by a 14th-century Italian poet. Dante's Hell is indeed a possible portrayal of Hell, given that God does not desire or is not able to bring all souls to salvation. Christians should take careful consideration of their views of Hell, making sure that they are not bringing in any unwarranted biases. Perhaps that slogan over Hell is unnecessary.

“Abandon all hope, you who enter here.”

Must we?

Works Cited

"Apocatastasis." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 8 Apr 2008, 17:08 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 18 Apr 2008 .

Buckareff, Andrei A., and Allen Plug. "Escaping hell: divine motivation and the problem of hell." Religious Studies Mar 2005: 39. Religion and Philosophy.Gale. Mabee Library. 17 Apr 2008 . .

McBrien, Richard P.. "With limbo gone, original sin may be in peril." National Catholic Reporter 24 Mar 2006: 21. Religion and Philosophy. Gale. Mabee Library. 17 Apr 2008 .

Murphy, Cullen. "The great in-between: theologians have revised our notions of heaven and hell. But one other destination deserves attention." The Atlantic Monthly Jun 2002: 12-13. Religion and Philosophy. Gale. Mabee Library. 17 Apr 2008 .

Peterson, Robert A.. "Undying Worm Unquenchable Fire. (Anglican definition and understanding of hell)." Christianity Today 03 Oct 2000: 30. Religion and Philosophy. Gale. Mabee Library. 17 Apr 2008 .

"Trinitarian Universalism." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 15 Apr 2008, 17:47 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 18 Apr 2008 .

"Universal reconciliation." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 18 Apr 2008, 02:20 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 18 Apr 2008 .

Woodier, Martin. "Eternal Punishment?" Evangel 2003: 2-12. Academic Search Premier. EBSCOhost. Mabee Library. 17 Apr 2008 .
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