Hell 2.1, a small update


Get out of Hell free cardI left you in my exploration of the Encyclopedia of Hell pondering which version of the Faustus story was better: with or without his final redemption. Personally, I prefer without, because it offers greater dramatic opportunities. I also don’t like the notion of redemption: it seems like a “get out of Hell free” card.

Christianity is the only religion I know of that offers this particular way out of your bad deeds: accept Jesus as your personal saviour and you’ll get diverted from Hell. So basically you can be evil until your deathbed, not take responsibility for your actions, then repent and avoid the punishment of the afterlife. Somehow to me, that’s cowardly. Take responsibility for your actions, like the Buddhists do.

Christianity’s redemption is tied into the notion of salvation (Christian belief in a deified saviour is, as far as I understand, also unique), the personal relationship with its deity, and is a lot more complex than I can get into here. But some Christian faiths believe in redemption or salvation after death, too, which lessens the whole hell thing (saying a mass for the dead, for example).

After all, if you can be pulled from the pits into heaven by living people praying for you, it makes Hell look more like a bad parking ticket than eternal damnation.

As an allegorical tale, Faust lacks the punch if he avoids damnation through some theological prestidigitation. I prefer it when he gets his just desserts. Might not be redemption, but it does bring closure.

Buddhists have a different type of Hell and redemption: you need to balance bad deeds with good: your accumulated karma determines your afterlife (and reincarnation, for those who believe in it). You redeem yourself by being good. You gotta work at it; nothing is free.

There’s another version of redemption in Judaism, but it’s not a personal one (except for the pidyon haben, which is ritualistic rather than theological), but rather a collective one to do with the diaspora.

On to the rest of the F chapter. It’s fairly short, even if I am verbose as I meander through it.

But first, for your reading pleasure, two more books: The Origin of Satan, by Elaine Pagels. Pagels is one of my favourite theological writers and her books on the Gnostic scriptures, Beyond Belief and The Gnostic Gospels, are a great introduction. The former is also available in audio book format at the local library. The other title is Hell: An Illustrated History of the Netherworld, by Richard Craze. It’s a fun little intro into various visions of hell in world mythology.

Food. Hell has always played a cultural role in food, as Scott tells us. Deviled meat, deviled eggs, devil’s food cake, using images of demons, or Hell as a reference (“hotter than Hell”) is common today (like their opposite: heavenly food, angel food cake, divine recipes, etc.). In the Talmud, we’re told demons are prone to infest food and drink left under the bed (who does that?). Who knew they got the munchies, too?

In Salem, in 1692, women affected by strange convulsions were believed to be infested by demons. It spread through the village and authorities started rounding up the “witches” and those demonized: 150 eventually were arrested. About 25 were killed by the superstitious people, often brutally. But we know today it was the result of ergotism, a fungal infection of rye grain – rye was a staple in the settlers’ diet.

All those men and (especially) women were condemned and killed because they were ill. Ain’t superstition grand?

Lots of hot sauces have names that reference demons, Hell or the afterlife. Blair’s Death Sauce (in its many versions – like his After Death Sauce) is one of my favourites, although I find the ultra-hot varieties lack the flavour in the merely scalding sauces. Diablo is a hot sauce described as “Straight from the fiery pits below comes this devilish jolokia hot sauce!” Bhut jolokia is one of the hottest peppers – up there with the Ghost, Scorpion and related varieties – much hotter even than the popular Scotch bonnet or habanero. Hellfire is another brand. Droolin’ Devil, Devil’s Revenge, Hell’s Inferno, Mad Dog Inferno and Dan T’s Inferno are others.

The association between the heat of these sauces and the fires of Hell is a natural link. Many of the labels have images of hellfire and demons, if the name doesn’t.*

I love hot sauces. I consume a typical bottle of sauce in 1-2 weeks, depending on heat, ingredients and flavour. I prefer the sauces that are scorching but full of taste, although some of the Caribbean sauces (mixed with mango, carrot, mustard, garlic and other ingredients – Rick’s West Indian, available in Kensington Market) are like curry – rich and robust: not always suitable for every dish. I’ve had the ultra-hot sauces (I’ve got a bottle of Blair’s Sudden death open right now, which is just at the lower range of the uber-heat score) and I find most lack the flavour that I want.

A local hot sauce – JD Boss Pepper Sauce – isn’t as scorching as I often use, but is packed with flavour. Get it at the Collingwood Farmers’ Market or contact them on Facebook.

The Frogs is one of the earliest spoofs of the Afterlife ever written. It was penned by Aristophanes, an ancient Greek playwright who lived 446-386 BCE in Athens. Not much is known about his life, and only 11 of his 40 known plays survive. most of them are comedies or satires, which has earned Aristophanes the moniker, The Father of Comedy.

The plot is a bit confusing for modern readers, cine it has all sorts of in-jokes about Greek deities, culture and politics. The bungling, cowardly god Dionysus – kind of an early Falstaff – travels to Hades to bring the playwright Euripides back from the dead.** He brings along his slave and witty sidekick, Xanthias who sets up a lot of the comedy.

Dionysus dresses up as Heracles on his journey, which is cause all sorts of mistaken identity jokes and slapstick scenes.

The title of the play comes from Aristophane’s presentation of singing frogs as the guardians of Hades, instead of demons. Ancient Greek audiences must have guffawed over that.

The play goes on through several episodes where Dionysus plays the buffoon, and eventually returns to the living, with the poet Aeschylus in tow, not Euripides. Zany stuff.

Moving on the the letter G, we find games. I remember when the board/paper game, Dungeons and Dragons was released. All sorts of people – mostly religious fanatics – got upset that it was enticing children into magic, witchcraft and Satanic ritual. What it really was instead, was a bunch of geeky gamers (mostly guys) sitting around a kitchen table drawing maps on graph paper and rolling dice. Spun into a frenzy when the media started headlining stories and D&D addicts who roamed city sewers with homemade swords and armour… but this was much more like it:


I played D&D in the 70s, when I was playing other board games and wargames. I met Dave Arneson, too – one of the game’s co-creators – at one of the gamecons I had a booth in (selling wargames and miniature Star Trek models). But I rather preferred the historical battles, so I never got too far into the fantasy scene. Yeah, some of the fantasy games had demons and monsters, but so did Tolkein. I never saw anyone worshipping one.

Gehenna is Hell, the origin of all the Judeo-Christian mythology. It is the Greek word that appears in the Bible, derived from the Hebrew for Valley of the Son of Hinnom (Gehinnom). The valley was a sacred place for the Ammonite tribe, which worshipped Moloch. Moloch worship gets dissed in the Bible, but whether entirely for historical reasons or political ones, I’m not sure. Caananites also worshipped Ba’al there – another of those deities who get the short end of the stick in the Old Testament.

One of the features of worship back then was sacrifice. Archeologists have established that children were sacrificed to the pagan gods at other holy sites around that time, but no evidence for any mass graves has been found at Hinnom, so it may not have been common or anything more than a scary tale told to keep children in line. Today we might warn them that their iPhone movie streaming is curtailed for a weekend, or limit their text messaging to 1GB for a week.

Anyway, when the Hebrews (this was before Judea and Israel) conquered Jerusalem and made it their own, they cursed the valley (and everything else to do with Moloch), and told scary stories about his worship. They did what they could to discourage the curious from checking it out by turning the valley into Jerusalem’s communal dump site. The Christians expanded on the legends the Jews built up around Gehenna, and made it into the prototype for later Western myths about Hell.

I’ve been through Gehenna (no, it’s not a joke about local bloggers: I walked through the region in the 1970s). It’s a peaceful, quiet place that holds no terrors to tourists, let alone children. Gehenna gets confused with Sheol, a Hebrew word for the place of the dead, but in the KJV Bible, pretty much every word related to the afterlife gets translated to Hades, so Christians don’t always appreciate the subtle differences that each represents.

The Gnostics, Scott tells us, had very different visions of Hell from other Christians (see how it connects with the Elaine Pagels book I mentioned earlier?). Here I have to challenge Scott’s terse description, when she writes:

Gnosticism teaches us that God is a distant being who has little contact with humankind. He did not make the world. This was done by the son of the fallen angel, Sophia (meaning knowledge).

Yes, many of them  believed in the evil demiurge and the benign transcendent god, but not all. I’ve been reading a lot about Gnosticism over the past decade, and you can’t really generalize so easily about what they believed. In fact, reading through the Nag Hammadi library and other Gnostic texts, there seem few things they collectively agreed upon. If they have anything in common, it was an irrepressible urge to understand the nature of the world, the nature of their god (or gods as some believed), and to make sense of things.

Don’t we all. Okay, maybe not the local bloggers or the Conservative Party, but most of us, I hazard, want to know what everything – life, the universe, everything, as the Hitchhiker’s Guide said – means, how it connects, and what makes sense. Understanding the Gnostics is important to understanding Christianity which is important to understanding Western civilization.

There were, as Marvin Meyer points out in the introduction to his book, The Gnostic Bible (with Willis Barnstone, co-author and translator), many different flavours of Gnostic communities:

The historical roots of the gnostics reach back into the time of the Greeks, Romans, and Second Temple Jews. Some gnostics were Jewish, others Greco- Roman, and many were Christian. There were Mandaean gnostics from Iraq and Iran; Manichaeans from Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and all the way to China; Islamic gnostics in the Muslim world; and Cathars in western Europe. The heyday of their influence extends from the second century CE through the next several centuries. Their influence and their presence, some say, continue to the present day.

The other author whose works on the Gnostics and early Christianities (yes, there were different versions, often wildly unalike in their beliefs) I like is Bart Ehrman. His book, Lost Christianities is also available as an excellent audio course from The Great Courses. I have several of their courses on the Civil War, Darwin, Shakespeare, communication, probability, statistics and others. Unfortunately they don’t have one on Hell.

I’ll leave G with the entry on the Gospel of Batholomew, one of the many early Christian or Gnostic texts that didn’t make it into the canon. It’s not included in the Meyers/Barnstone book mentioned above, or in the collections of Dead Sea Scrolls or the Nag Hammadi library I own, but is found in the collection of ancient texts and scriptures, The Other Bible, also edited by Willis Barnstone. It is part of the Christian apocrypha, and is found in other collections.

Harrowing of HellWhat’s interesting about this particular text is its description of the “harrowing of Hell” (which we’ll encounter under H, a few pages later). Early Christians wrestled with the challenges that their new vision of Hell represented. If only people who recognized Jesus were allowed into heaven, then what about those Old Testament prophets who lived before Jesus? Weren’t they good folk? Were they in Hell, too? How could that happen?

The answer was to create a sort of limbo area in Hell – limbo – where good pre-Christian folks would languish, then have Jesus descend into hell to rescue them. That’s the harrowing. The tale is picked up and embellished in the Gospel of Nicodemus and other second-century and later texts.

Even though Bartholomew and Nicodemus didn’t make it into the canon, Christians likde the story, so the harrowing stayed around as a folk tale for a couple of millennia.

What’s really interesting in all of this is the story about how the Christian canon got established – why some books (and some ideas) made it into the canon, while others were rejected. It’s a tale of politics, internecine squabbles, violent theological challenges and battles for personal power and authority. All of this would set the ideological basis for later Western culture, church and civilization. Riveting stuff, and far too rich for this post. Maybe some later day.

That’s all for this Saturday morning.


* Heat in hot peppers and sauces is measured on the Scoville scale which measures the concentration of capsaicin in the product. A jalapeño pepper – commonly used on pizzas or stuffed with cheese – is fairly mild: ranging between 2,500 and 5,000 Scoville units. Tabasco sauce is about 7-8,000. Chipotle pepper – smoked jalapeño – is between 5,000 and 10,000. Scotch bonnet and habanero (my favourites) are 100,000-350,000 Scovilles. The ultra-hots are above that, racing to as many as 2 million Scovilles for the Moruga Scorpion. Pepper spray is 2-3 million.

** Which reminds of of the joke that used to crack me up in drama class, in the Stone Age when I was in high school: An ancient Greek goes into a tailor shop with a couple of torn togas. The tailor says “Euripides?” and the guy says “Yeah. Eumenides?” Still makes me chuckle. The Eumenides is the third part of Aeschylus’ Greek tragedy, the Oresteia. Aeschylus was a Greek playwright who Dionysus meets in Hades when he is called to judge a contest between Aeschylus and Euripides over who was the best poet. See how it all ties together?
Hell humour

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Ian Chadwick
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