Palazzo Ducale, Venice

Herri met de Bles: Hell, mid-sixteenth century

“I think hell’s a fable,” the famous professor proclaimed—a surprising declaration not only because it was made in the late sixteenth century, when very few people would have dared to say such a thing, but also because he was at that moment in conversation with a devil to whom he was offering to sell his soul. The professor in question was Doctor Faustus in Christopher Marlowe’s great Elizabethan tragedy. Bored with his mastery of philosophy, medicine, and law, Faustus longs for forbidden knowledge. “Where are you damned?” he asks Mephastophilis, the devil whom he has conjured up. “In hell,” comes the prompt reply, but Faustus remains skeptical: “How comes it then that thou art out of hell?” The devil’s answer is quietly devastating: “Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.”

Did Marlowe, a notorious freethinker who declared (according to a police report) that “the first beginning of Religioun was only to keep men in awe,” actually believe in the literal existence of hell? Did he imagine that humans would pay for their misdeeds (or be rewarded for their virtues) in the afterlife? Did he think that there was a vast underground realm to which the souls of sinners were hauled off to suffer eternal punishments meted out by fiends? It is difficult to say, but it is clear that hell was good for the theater business in his time, as exorcism has been good for the film industry in our own. In his diary, the Elizabethan entrepreneur Philip Henslowe inventoried the props that were in storage in the Rose Theater. They included one rock, one cage, one tomb, and one hellmouth, the latter perfect for receiving a sinner like Faustus at the end of act 5.

There is evidence that Marlowe’s play produced a powerful effect on his contemporaries. During a performance at the Theatre—London’s first freestanding wooden playhouse—a cracking sound caused a panic in the audience; in the town of Exeter the players bolted when they thought that there was one devil too many on stage; and multiple rumors circulated of “the visible apparition of the Devill” unexpectedly surging up during the conjuring scene. In Doctor Faustus, hell may have been a form of theatrical entertainment; audiences paid their pennies to enter a fictional world. But when the performance was disrupted by a surprise noise, the crowd was prepared instantly to jettison the idea of fiction and grant that it was all too true. This is a familiar story. We humans have a way of turning our wildest imaginations into unquestionable beliefs, the foundations on which we construct some of our most elaborate and enduring institutions. In matters of faith, the boundary between make-believe and reality is porous.

The Penguin Book of Hell, edited by the Fordham history professor Scott Bruce, is an anthology of sadistic fantasies that for millions of people over many centuries laid a claim to sober truth. Not all people in all cultures have embraced such fantasies. Though the ancient Egyptians were obsessively focused on the afterlife, it was not suffering in the Kingdom of the Dead that most frightened them but rather ceasing altogether to exist. At the other extreme, in ancient Greece the Epicureans positively welcomed the idea that when it was over it was over: after death, the atoms that make up body and soul simply come apart, and there is nothing further either to fear or to crave. Epicurus was not alone in thinking that ethical behavior should not have to depend on threats and promises: Aristotle’s great Nicomachean Ethics investigates the sources of moral virtue, happiness, and justice without for a moment invoking the support of postmortem punishments or rewards.

The Hebrews wrote their entire Bible without mentioning hell. They had a realm they called sheol, but it was merely the place of darkness and silence where all the dead—the just as well as the wicked—wound up. For the ancient rabbis, heaven was a place where you could study the Torah all the time. Its opposite was not a place of torture; it was more like a state of depression so deep that you could not even open a book.

In the Odyssey, Homer bequeathed to the world a much more elaborate vision of the afterlife than the Hebrews ever imagined, one in which Sisyphus ceaselessly attempts to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to have it roll down again, and Tantalus, standing in a pool, reaches for fruit that forever eludes his grasp and thirsts for water that he can never drink. Yet notwithstanding these isolated examples of exemplary punishment, the land of the dead visited by Odysseus is notable not for the meting out of just deserts, whether pleasure or pain, but for a general sadness, more akin to sheol than to the Christian hell. “There’s not a man in the world more blest than you,” Odysseus congratulates the ghost of the great Achilles. “Time was, when you were alive, we Argives/honored you as a god, and now down here, I see,/you lord it over the dead in all your power.” But Achilles contemptuously dismisses the facile compliment:


No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus!
By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man—
some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive—
than rule down here over all the breathless dead.

Though life, as Homer’s great poem shows, can be excruciatingly difficult, it is still preferable to even the most honored place in the underworld.

The Penguin Book of Hell does not offer any explanation of how Christianity, from a contradictory jumble of ancient notions (Egyptian, Hebrew, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman), arrived at the full-fledged nightmare that the editor calls “the most powerful and persuasive construct of the human imagination in the Western tradition.” Plato made an important contribution by imagining graded punishments for sinners, as did Virgil, by giving the underworld a more graphically convincing topography and by urging anyone with a secret crime to atone for it before it’s too late.

But neither of these pagan master builders of Western culture can account for something the anthology lightly skims over: Jesus’s striking insistence on Gehenna, the sinister valley in Jerusalem where in archaic times the followers of Moloch were said to have sacrificed their children. “If you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell [Gehenna] of fire,” he declared in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:22), and the synoptic gospels attribute this warning to the Savior at least ten more times: “It is better for you to lose one of your members, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell [Gehenna]” (Matt. 5:29); “If your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell [Gehenna] of fire” (Matt. 18:9); “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell [Gehenna], to the unquenchable fire” (Mark 9:43); “But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has the authority to cast into hell [Gehenna]” (Luke 12:5); etc., etc. The gospels’ good news is closely conjoined, on the authority of God’s own son, with repeated dire warnings about a place where the worm dies not, and the fire is not quenched, and there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Whether it derived from the Pharisees or the Essenes or some entirely personal vision, Jesus’s emphasis on a fiery place of torment for sinners seems to have licensed the outpouring of texts, many of them translated here by the editor, that constitute most of a volume that would, given the absence of Buddhist and other traditions, have been more accurately titled The Penguin Book of Christian Hell.

The earliest of these texts is a brief excerpt from the third-century apocryphal Apocalypse of Paul, which already contains many of the features so beloved by hell-mongers. The account, as is typical of the genre, professes to be an eyewitness testimony; it is a kind of ghastly travelogue. There are the rivers of fire, insatiable worms, swirling sulfur and pitch, stench, and sharp stones raining like hail on the unprotected bodies of the damned. There are adulterers strung up by their eyebrows and hair; sodomites covered in blood and filth; girls who lost their virginity without their parents’ knowledge shackled in flaming chains; women who had abortions impaled on flaming spits. There are virtuous pagans who “gave alms and yet did not recognize the Lord God” and who are therefore blinded and placed forever in a deep pit.

Demons—here called the “angels of Tartarus”—carry out special tortures designed for particular types of sinners. Hence, for example, a “lector”—a reader of the lessons in church services—who did not follow God’s commandments: “And an angel in charge of his torments arrived with a long flaming knife, with which he sliced the lips of this man and his tongue as well.” The eyewitness’s expressions of horror are answered by the reassurance from his guardian angel that it is all part of God’s plan: “I mourned and groaned for the human race. In response, the angel said to me, ‘Why do you mourn? Are you more merciful than God?’”


That question, though it was meant to be rhetorical, haunts the pages of The Penguin Book of Hell and carries other disturbing questions in its wake. What kind of God inflicts hideous tortures on those whom he does not like? Why did he not prevent the worst from happening? Or why, after some suitable term, doesn’t he at least bring the whole ghastly business of punishment to an end? What good is a penal sentence for all eternity? Does God enjoy the spectacle of so much suffering? If so, are we meant to join in the enjoyment?

I force myself to think of the worst monsters in world history—Hitler immediately comes to mind—and try to consign them to this imaginary penal colony, but I cannot do it. The problem is not tenderness on my part—an impulse to forgive and forget or a hope for the criminal’s repentance and rehabilitation—but an inability to enter into a metaphysical system ruled by an omnipotent creator whose endless love is shadowed by an endless rage. That system is precisely what swept the field for millennia and continues, if the current polling figures are correct, to be an article of faith for a majority of my fellow Americans, 58 percent of whom profess to believe in hell.

Dante Alighieri
Dante Alighieri; drawing by David Levine

In very early Christian conceptions of the afterlife, the most horrendous punishments were reserved for errors of faith. “Who are these ones, Lord, who are thrown into the pit?” the apostle, looking down into the deepest abyss, asks in The Apocalypse of Paul, and his guide, the angel, replies that “they are people who did not confess that Christ had come in the flesh and that the Virgin Mary bore him and whoever says that the bread and the cup of the blessing of the Eucharist is not the body and blood of Christ.” The policing of doctrinal orthodoxy in this way extended effortlessly to interfaith differences. In the widely circulated apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, probably composed in Greek in the fourth century, Satan boasts that he “stirred up my ancient people the Jews with jealousy and anger” toward the Savior. Jews always had a prominent place in Christian hell; in the celebrated twelfth-century mosaics on the wall of the basilica in Torcello, they boil in a special pot of their own.

They were often joined, of course, by Muslims. “No barrel staved-in/And missing its end-piece,” Dante reports in the Inferno, “ever gaped as wide/As the man I saw split open from his chin//Down to the farting-place.” Dante stares at the grotesque sight—“from the splayed/Trunk the spilled entrails dangled between his thighs”—but in this case he does not have to ask his companion Virgil to name the figure, for the sufferer identifies himself: “He pulled open his chest/With both hands, saying, ‘Look how Mohammed claws/And mangles himself, torn open down the breast!/Look how I tear myself!’”

In the sixteenth century, Catholics eagerly prayed for the day when Martin Luther would join this dubious company, along with other Reformers who were rebelling against the Holy Mother Church. For their part, Protestants consigned the pope and his bishops to the flames. But there was nothing particularly new in doing that: ecclesiastics had long featured prominently in medieval depictions of hell. In the Inferno, Dante sees Pope Nicholas III wriggling upside down in a fiery hole. The pope, roasting in the flames, was guilty of simony—the selling of church offices—an accusation frequently brought against high-ranking churchmen, along with pride, gluttony, and hypocrisy.

Still more often, the charges against the clergy were sexual in nature: for well more than a thousand years, the rule of strict and perfect celibacy, promulgated in the Roman Catholic Church and still officially mandated, has proved to be almost impossible to sustain in practice. Violations were sometimes treated, as in Boccaccio or Chaucer, with a certain wry humor, but they very often provoked disgust and outrage. Hence the visitor to hell in the influential twelfth-century Vision of Tundale stares at a large group of souls who are undergoing a particularly horrific torture: “The genitals of the men and the women were like serpents, which eagerly mangled the lower parts of their stomachs and pulled out their guts.” The angelic guide tells the appalled visitor that these are all monks, nuns, and other clerics who have been guilty of fornication.

Thomas Aquinas, who never shied away from the hardest questions, asked whether the blessed souls in heaven would see the torments or hear the agonized screams of the damned. He understood why such an idea might make some people queasy and seem logically inconsistent with perfect bliss. After all, to pity someone’s suffering is in some sense to participate in it, and in heaven surely there should be no suffering at all. But Thomas concluded that, yes, the blessed would see the miseries of those in hell and that, no, they would feel no pity for those miseries. On the contrary, they would derive satisfaction from what they were witnessing down below: “Therefore, in order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render greater thanks to God for it, they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned.”

Something of the satisfaction that the belief in hell evidently offers, helping to explain its continued appeal, is glimpsed in the punishment visited upon the unfortunate lector who gets his tongue cut off or upon the fornicating priests who are attacked by their own genitals. Everywhere in hell, the angel tells Tundale, sinners get exactly what they deserve: “You will see the torment that fits your deeds.” The principle is known as contrapasso—counterpoise, as Longfellow translated it—and Dante was its supreme master. This form of justice can consist in the sinner having to suffer the opposite of whatever it was that led to damnation: hence soothsayers who in life tried to peer into the future are condemned to walk forever with their heads twisted backwards. But the punishment can also be a kind of demonic continuation: the wrathful are condemned for eternity to tear each other limb from limb, usurers crouch in agony with purses around their necks, lovers who were swept away in adulterous passion are now swept away in a ceaseless infernal wind.

Dante’s stupendous poetic achievement is too rich and complex to fit comfortably into The Penguin Book of Hell. In its deep human sympathy, the Inferno resists functioning as a piece of doctrine or grim pedagogy, and the few excerpts that the editor includes seem out of place among the cruder fantasies and dire warnings that dominate the anthology. Though after the Reformation both Catholics and Protestants continued to preach about hell, they pulled, Bruce’s selections indicate, in somewhat different directions. Catholics continued to highlight the physical horrors of the afterlife—think of the stench, wrote the particularly repellent seventeenth-century Jesuit Giovanni Pietro Pinamonti, “that shall be exhaled in that dungeon, where all the whole crowd of tormenting devils and all the bodies of the tormented will be penned up together”—while Protestants tended to emphasize the psychological miseries.

The early-eighteenth-century Anglican William Dawes suggested that, in order to intensify their pain, the damned would be given a brief glimpse of the joys of heaven. How it will gall and wound them to consider that they had such happiness within their reach only to lose it in the pursuit of “mere “gugaws” and trifles.” To make matters worse, he continued, the lust for “gugaws” would not simply disappear. In hell, to their unspeakable torment, the fallen “continually burn with the most raging and vehement desires and longings after these things, which yet at the same time they shall be infallibly assur’d, it shall never in the least be in their power to enjoy.”

Archbishop Dawes professed to believe in the literal existence of the subterranean penal colony, but it is clear from his twisted prose that this formal declaration of faith made him uneasy: “Here I must freely confess that I cannot see any manner of reason, why we should suppose that the fire of Hell will not be a real and material, but only a metaphorical and figurative, fire.” No reason at all except reason itself. He quickly retreats to a more civilized, or at least more social, vision of punishment. Think, he writes, of the devilish company you will have to keep in hell:

Nothing can be expected from such company, but continual jangling, hatred, anger, snarling, and biting at one another, nothing but the most terrible Fears and jealousies of, the most malicious and spiteful bickerings against, each other. And good God! If it be thought so very irksome a thing here, to be oblig’d to spend only a few hours in Company that is disagreeable, how shall we ever be able to bear the thoughts of taking our dwelling among that Hellish Crew, who study nothing else, day and night, than how they may be best able to provoke and exasperate each other to the highest degree possible.

We are less in the world of Dante than of Jane Austen, an eternity spent in the company of Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

“Little child,” wrote the English Catholic priest John Furniss, “if you go to Hell, there will be a devil at your side to strike you. He will go on striking you every minute forever and ever, without ever stopping.” Why would anyone want to infect a child’s mind with such a terrible fantasy? The answer, at least in part, has to do with the dream of regulating behavior through fear. Even when they are not being policed, the idea goes, people are more likely to behave themselves if they believe that they will be punished in the afterlife.

But already in the sixth century, one of the first great writers about hell, Pope Gregory the Great, ruefully acknowledged that the warning is not very effective. And the long history of human behavior bears witness to the truth of this acknowledgment. The strictly instrumental use of hell finally boils down to a remark quoted by Voltaire: “My good friend, I no more believe in the eternity of hell than yourself; but recollect that it may be no bad thing, perhaps, for your servant, your tailor, and your lawyer to believe in it.”

Writing in the mid-nineteenth century, Father Furniss may have been afraid that the spirit of Voltaire had eroded robust belief in the horrors to come. “Perhaps at this moment, seven o’clock in the evening,” he told his young readers, “a child is just going into Hell. Tomorrow evening at seven o’clock, go and knock at the gates of Hell and ask what the child is doing. The devils will go and look. Then they will come back again and say, the child is burning!” But notwithstanding the hell-monger’s intentions, the burning child leads us away from theology and toward Freud: the words “Father, don’t you see I’m burning?” lie at the center of one of his most famous dream interpretations.*

Freud argued that the words, terrible though they are, allowed the dreamer to continue to sleep. We can perhaps suggest something similar about the texts collected in The Penguin Book of Hell. One of the prime motives of these texts is rage, rage against people occupying positions of exceptional trust and power who lie and cheat and trample on the most basic values and yet who escape the punishment they so manifestly deserve. History is an unending chronicle of such knaves, and it is a chronicle too of frustration and impotence, certainly among the mass of ordinary people but even among those who feel that they are stakeholders in the system. Hell is the last recourse of political impotence. You console yourself—you manage to stay asleep, as Freud might say—by imagining that the loathsome characters you detest will meet their comeuppance in the afterlife.

But Voltaire and the Enlightenment carried a different message: wake up. Throw out the whole hopelessly impotent fantasy; it is, in any case, the tool not only of the victims but also of the victimizers. We must fight the criminals here and now, in the only world where we can hope to see justice.