Hi and welcome back! We’ve been talking about the way that Hell, as a concept and doctrine, changed over the many centuries Christianity has existed. And now we’ve reached the Middle Ages. Medieval Catholic leaders put their own unique spin on Hell-belief — with many of those features surviving intact to the modern day, even among evangelicals! Today, let’s check out how medieval philosophers and theologians further developed the concepts involved with Hell.
(Previous Journeys Into Hell: How Augustine Changed the Hell Game; Hell in the 4th Century; 2nd-4th Century Thoughts on Hell; Hell in Early Christian Writings; The Night My Fear of Hell Died; But WHICH Hell Shall We Fear; Why Hell Fails as a Christian Threat; We’re Made Out of Meat; Why Hell Succeeds as a Threat; Dealing With Hell Disbelievers; A Brief Prehistory of Hell. Instead of BC and AD, many historians now prefer BCE and CE — “before the Common Era” and “Common Era,” respectively.)
Gregory: In Hell, the Punishment Fits the Crime
(And Watching the Damned Makes for a Great Spectator Sport)
As we saw last time, Christians in the Dark Ages had jusssst begun to imagine a Hell that punished people according to how sinful they’d been in life. Augustine of Hippo had begun theorizing in the 5th century that unbaptized babies went to Hell to atone for Original Sin. (But don’t worry. Demons only tortured babies for a little while and extra gently, so it was totes okay.)
So I’m not really surprised to learn that later Christians also began imagining a Hell that tortured people in ironically-fitting ways. Right after Augustine, we have Pope Gregory I (540-604) writing about the topic in his Dialogues.
The fire of hell is but one, yet does it not in one manner torment all sinners. For everyone there, according to the quantity of his sin, has the measure of his pain. [. . .]
Gregory imagined that those in Heaven would also be able to see those suffering in Hell, which was (to him) a big part of why the damned had to suffer eternally in the first place:
And yet shall they [the damned] always burn in fire for some end, and that is, that all those which be just and God’s servants may in God behold the joys which they possess, and in them see the torments which they have escaped, to the end that they may thereby always acknowledge themselves grateful to God for his grace [. . .]
Otherwise, Gregory’s vision of Hell matches that of early Christians: it’s flame-based, eternal, and very painful for those suffering there. Isn’t this god thoughtful, to arrange entertainment for the saints?
Bede: A New and Strange Purgatory Near Hell.
By the 8th century, the between-realms place of Purgatory had become way more important. Purgatory was where people went when they just had a few sins to expiate, but they were overall basically Heaven-bound. Damned people didn’t go to Purgatory, only people who just needed a bit of purification.
Officially, Purgatory as a belief didn’t get formally codified till the 12th century. However, Venerable Bede, who lived between 672-735, may have offered up a vision of proto-Purgatory in his writeup of some guy’s near-death experience (NDE).
In Bede’s writeup in 731, an unnamed “master of a family” in Northumbria came very close to death. When he recovered, he told a harrowing tale of being escorted first through a horrifying vale of searing cold and tormenting heat. This vale contained a great many people who leaped between the hot and cold regions to find relief, but never could. Then, the man saw a terrifying dark pit that contained black flames. Finally, the pair stopped before a happy, vast field full of beautiful young people doing stuff together and singing.
The unnamed escort told the man that the dark pit was the entrance to Hell, while the vast field was Heaven. The hot-and-cold vale? That was where people went when they converted and/or confessed their sins at the very last second. They’d go to Heaven eventually, sure, but only when the world ended and if living Christians prayed for them enough and paid enough money for priests to
recite magic spells conduct Masses for them.
Clearly, Catholic leaders were thinking very early about how to monetize their followers’ obedience. (See endnote.)
Anselm: No Wait, Let’s Change Atonement Theories.
By the turn of the first millennium CE, Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) was changing the game again. This time, he started with a new theory of atonement.
Just last week on Twitter, some Christian was gettin’ all snooty at me about how Christians have allllllways believed the same stuff about Jesus’ Crucifixion, like duh. I laughed in their face because no, Christians most certainly have not. In fact, Christians’ explanations for the Crucifixion (why it had to happen, what happened during it, what metaphysical events transpired because of it, what benefits it brought humanity, etc), collectively called theories of atonement, have been in flux since the day someone claimed Jesus had been crucified at all. They seem to enjoy shifting to new theories every few centuries.
The very earliest Christians, like Irenaus (130-202), held the recapitulation theory of atonement. In their view, Jesus was the newfangled Adam. Where Adam had disobeyed, Jesus had successfully obeyed to the very end. Thus, Jesus undid Adam’s disobedience. His super-obedience gave humanity another shot at Heaven.
From the 400s to the 1100s, Christians cruised along with Origen’s ransom theory of atonement. In this theory, Jesus had to die to pay a ransom to the Devil. The Devil demanded a ransom to release the souls of humanity from his clutches. Jesus paid that ransom by dying. But the Devil couldn’t keep Jesus, because Jesus had done nothing wrong and, being a godling, he couldn’t really die anyway. So the ransom was paid, Jesus rose again, and now Christians could go to Heaven.
Well, now Anselm had another idea. He didn’t like the idea of anybody owing the Devil anything. So he came up with the satisfaction theory of atonement. In this theory, Jesus satisfied his bloodthirsty father/himself by dying. Yahweh was far too offended to accept anything less. Humans couldn’t possibly offer him enough to satisfy him. Only a god could. But a human had to die, not a god, because humans had caused all the offense. So Jesus incarnated as a human before dying.
And this new atonement theory seems, to me anyway, like it considerably impacted Christians’ thinking about Hell at the time.
(See endnote for some more modern theories of atonement.)
Anselm’s Vision of Hell.
Thus, Anselm continued with the concept of punishment fitting the crime, so to speak. As this Stanford philosophy site tells us:
As a proponent of the retributive theory, Anselm first insisted that “God demands satisfaction in proportion to the extent of the sin.” He then went on to insist that “you do not make satisfaction [for any sin] unless you pay something greater than is that for whose sake [namely God’s] you ought not to have sinned” (Cur Deus Homo I, Ch. 21).
I’m already having issues with the logic here, because to me it’d seem like the opposite, but whatever. So if Yahweh is so infinitely great, then even a tiny offense against Yahweh must be equally infinitely serious. And that means:
[. . .] no suffering the sinner might endure over a finite period of time could possibly pay for it. So either the sinner does not pay for the sin at all, or the sinner must pay for it by enduring everlasting suffering (or at least a permanent loss of happiness).
And as we saw last time, the main problem in Hell — for the damned — wasn’t the sheer unending torture of its flames. No. It was being truly separated from their god. That was what really mattered, which is obviously why Christians have always spent so much time talking about the flame-broiling part instead.
In short, as this paper tells us, Anselm offered up a Hell that he perceived as a “necessary beauty” in his cosmology. Hell balanced out Heaven and Earth. As a True Neutral cleric, Anselm was, of course, wayyyy into cosmic balance.
Hildegard of Bingen: Organizing Heaven and Hell.
Now we come to a woman for the first time in our entire series. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was quite the mystic and visionary. She was a German nun who rose to a position of great power. She was also a prolific writer. We have writing from her about just about every subject imaginable. Naturally, she often chose to write about religious stuff.
Her writing both reflects the popular thinking of her day and adds to it, as this paper tells us:
Her figure of the Church in the Scivias reminds us irresistibly of Boethius’ vision of the gracious feminine form of Philosophy, and Boethius was very widely read in Hildegard’s day. The visions of the punishments of Hell which Hildegard recounts in the Liber Vitae Meritorum bear resemblance to the work of her contemporary Benedictine, the monk Alberic the younger of Monte Cassino (1101 to c.1160), to whom Dante also became indebted.
Her Hell involved torture and punishment as well, of course. She wrote:
On the outer darkness, and the punishments and tortures of various types in which the souls of the damned are tormented with the devil and his followers, for these are the places in which they are kept; and no one while living in the body can comprehend the dire torments of hell.
But she also added a bit to conventional thinking about the afterlife. In her mind, Heaven and Hell were both well-organized. Vices and virtues took human form in her writing and constantly argued with each other.
Hildegard placed Hell and Purgatory in definite places beneath the ground. And her Satan screeched or intoned his words, as this other essay tells us, because he wasn’t “capable of music or that there is no music in Hell.”
This level and type of organization would prove memorable to later writers and theologians.
Evolving Toward the Hell of the Divine Comedy.
So slowly, we start to see hints of what would later flower into the Hell of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy: an organized Hell that punished the damned in marvelously inventive and ironic ways.
But to get there, we first had to have some groundwork laid and purchased by countless Christians across many generations:
- Allowances made for babies (baptized and un-)
- Concessions of mercy for those who merited it
- Scarier stories about what Hell looked like
- A new way of looking at the Crucifixion
- Theories about what the rescued, Heaven-residing saints would think of it all
- New threats for those who didn’t Jesus properly (like leaving conversion to the very end of their lives cuz they knew it wiped their slates completely clean)
- Increasing levels of organization for Hell and speculation about exactly how it operates
Meanwhile, annihilationism and apokatastasis had largely disappeared.
So in our next installment, we’ll be jumping ahead to the 13th century to explore the fruits of these earlier Christians’ labor: the Nine Circles of Hell.
NEXT UP: Ed Litton, the new president of the SBC, tries his hardest (bless his cotton socks) to rein in the SBC’s fascination with QAnon conspiracy theories. And he does it in the worst way imaginable, as we’ll see tomorrow. Afterward, we’ll explore the Nine Circles of Hell in our next installment of this series! See you then! <3
Regarding Bede’s 731 writeup: Interestingly, some Catholic bl0g reproduces some of that story. But they leave out the hot-and-cold vale and Heaven. Their edited version starts and ends with the Hell part. I’m not sure if they themselves did the editing, or if the source cited initially did it, but it sure did get done all the same. Whoever did that editing just wanted to terrify people with Hell rather than confusing them with the vale, which would likely be extremely unfamiliar and unpleasantly foreign even to today’s Catholics, or uplifting anyone with visions of Heaven. (Back to the post!)
Modern theories of atonement: Nowadays, you’re most likely to run into penal substitution, which holds that Jesus was punished in the place of humans. Calvinists like this one. It works along the same lines as late Judaism’s reasons for performing animal sacrifice, and indeed that’s often what I’ve seen it compared to. This theory resurged in popularity around the Reformation. This is the theory that the snooty Twitter Christian tried to say had ALWAYS been the prevailing belief in Christianity. LOL no.
Around the 16th-17th centuries, some Christians (Arminians, the opposite of Calvinists, roughly speaking) came up with governmental theory. In this one, Yahweh is the moral governor of the universe, and thus he cannot simply ignore or overlook sin. So Jesus had to suffer instead of humans. This theory has its modern adherents as well. (Back to the post!)
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