Different Ways Of Being Damned

In a memoir of hell’s place in her evolving Christian faith, Meghan O’Gieblyn reminds us of how the concept has changed over time:

Christian theology, as it has developed over the centuries, has functioned like a narrative gloss, smoothing the irregular collection of biblical literature into a cohesive story written by a single, 640px-Hell-fresco-from-Raduildivine author. As time went on, Satan, Lucifer and Beelzebub were consolidated into a single entity, the personification of all evil. Likewise sheol, Gehenna, hades and tartarus came to be understood as physical representations of the darkest place in the universe. By the time the King James Bible was published in the 16th century, each of these words was translated as simply “hell”.

The various depictions of hell over the centuries tend to mirror the earthly landscape of their age. Torture entered the conception of hell in the second century, when Christians were subjected to sadistic public spectacles. Roman interrogation methods included red-hot metal rods, whips and the rack. Dante’s Divine Comedy has traces of the feudal landscape of 14th-century Europe. Lower hell is depicted as a walled city with towers, ramparts, bridges and moats; fallen angels guard the citadel like knights. The Jesuits, who rose to prominence during a time of mass immigration and urban squalor, envisioned an inferno of thousands of diseased bodies “pressed together like grapes in a wine-press”. Today, biblical literalists believe hell exists outside of time and space, in some kind of spiritual fifth dimension. Contemporary evangelical churches don’t display paintings or stained glass renderings of hell. It’s no longer a popular subject of art. If hell is represented at all, it’s in pop culture, where it appears as either satirically gaudy – like animated Hieronymus Bosch – or else eerily banal. In Gary Larson’s comic The Far Side, Satan and his minions are depicted as bored corporate drones who deal with the scourge of the post-industrial Earth.

(Image: А fresco detail of hell from the medieval church St. Nicolas in Raduil village, Bulgaria, via Wikimedia Commons)