"Our Daily Blog" #15
Updated: Jun 5, 2020
"The 'Hell' You Preach" Part One, By Dr. Josef Ben Levi
What is all this talk about "Hell"? What is the origin of this concept? How and when did it get into our lexicon?
There have been ministers of various denominations declaring that, according to the Bible, those who are “sinners” will go to "Hell" and suffer immeasurable damages for their transgressions during their earthly lives. There are those who are parishioners who have succumbed to the propagation of these dictates without ever questioning the etymology of this idea. The one constant in the origin of ideas is that they all have an origin. This is also true of the concept of "Hell".
Let us begin by stating that Paul and the early church did not know about “Hell”- only the Hebrew term, Sheol (שׁאול). Next, it should be kept in mind that Paul died before any of the Gospels were written. It was an Italian poet, Dante Alighieri, that changed everything with his famous poem called Inferno, which he began writing in about 1306 CE. But, to read the Inferno today is to realize how little it has to do with the Bible.
There is far more Greek and Roman mythology- adapted by Dante from classics such as Hesiod’s Theogony, Virgil’s Aeneid, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses- than there is scripture in Dante’s nine circles of "Hell". The 5th century church Father, St. Augustine, referred to these writers as “poets who were called theologians, versifying of their man-made god, or of the world’s elements, or principalities and powers…”.
But, it is the Roman poet Virgil who serves as Dante’s tour guide through the upside-down cathedral that is the Inferno. Cleverly using Virgil and a lot of funky myth, Dante is the one who made eternal punishment exotic and real, as well as Christian. Dante’s vibrant and dark imagination has left his mark all over Western culture in ways we rarely notice.
The notion of the wicked having a raucous party in "Hell" is of course, completely foreign to Dante but, not to some branches of Christian thought. There is the idea that those who are bound to "Hell" would be miserable were they to spend a day in Heaven and, as it turns out, that is also inspired by Dante.
How did the idea of "Hell" come into existence and what was Dante’s influence on that idea? Before Dante, Christians had little agreement on the nature of what we call "Hell". Dante originally called his poetry a “Comedy” because it ends in a paradise with happiness. It was Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375), an important Renaissance humanist, who added the adjective “divine”. Christians for centuries viewed it as another scripture. Myths and legends are what Western civilization once used to build its most basic understanding of itself.
The question arises: how does the image of the serpent apply to "Hell"? It was an African Bishop from the city of Hippo in ancient Carthage, Augustine, in the 4th century that identified the serpent in the garden with the devil. Wow! How many of those who believe in "Hell", the serpent and, the devil could have imagined that the very ideas were the invention of an African theologian?
Ok so, who was Satan? Well to answer that question, we must do some linguistic digging that most people who read the Christian old and new testaments rarely, if ever, do. Despite its magical abilities, far beyond its species, the serpent was not a character called Satan (שׁטן -شطأن). There is a Hebrew word that is translated as Satan in the Hebrew Old Testament known as the TaNaK, ( תנך) but, the word is not meant as the name of a personality or person. To give this Satan too much agency would be to diminish the power of the one and only Supreme Being, according to the Hebrew scriptures. The transliteration of the Hebrew word is quite literally Ha-Satan and we see it again in Job chapter 1, when ha-Satan convinces God to allow Job’s faith to be tested. This “satan” is an impersonal force that is most accurately called “accuser” or “adversary”. If one were speaking to another in ancient Hebrew, a “satan” would be anyone with whom one finds him/herself in an accusatory or adversarial position. There was no personality or person named “Satan” in the original creation. There is no mention of an afterlife at all.
(To read part two click here)
Below, please enjoy "Reflections on Black History: From Spirituality to Religion" on the "Omni-U Presents: The H3O/Art of Life" television show featuring Omni-U Faculty member and today's blog writer, Dr. Josef Ben Levi.