Medieval images and doctrines of hell

Dante's heavens and hells symbolised the astra...

Coppo di Marcovaldo, Hell (ca 1225 - 1274, Mosaic, Baptistry, Florence)

Folks, here’s a sneak preview of some work I did for the forthcoming Christian History magazine Handbook to Christian Thought on Hell. It’s not edited yet, but the guide, which will survey Christian thought on hell from the earliest church to the 21st century, will include something like what follows. If you are interested in getting the entire guide, which will be in a half-size  (roughly 5 x 8.5) magazine format complete with timeline and illustrations, go to and get on the mailing list.

The Middle Ages

The medieval period (roughly 500 – 1500 AD) saw a shift in emphasis from the early church’s focus on the biblical “Last Things”—the Second Coming of Christ, general resurrection, and final judgment—to a new concentration on the afterlives of individuals. Until the 400s AD and even beyond (as in the thought of Gregory the Great (540 – 604)), the “Parousia” (second coming and all its associated events) was still expected imminently, and so those who died in the intervening generations could be thought of as simply sleeping or awaiting the resurrection. There simply wasn’t much written during this early period about the immediate fate of those who died before Jesus returned.

However as the Second Coming came to seem, potentially, more remote, the question of the reward of the saved and the punishment of the damned heated up, and the doctrine of the immediate judgment of each soul at death came into more prominence. The Book of Revelation in particular, which tremendously influenced medieval culture, began to be pressed into service to imagine the shape of people’s fate after death. As we will see, this emphasis on the afterlife and its support from the Book of Revelation resulted in a lavishly visual and grotesque new genre of imaginative literature: the vision of the otherworldly journey, of which Dante’s Divine Comedy was the pinnacle.

In these journeys, more words were usually lavished on the descriptions of hell than on purgatory or the so-called “earthly and heavenly paradises.” One author summarizes: “There are not only the eternally burning fire in ovens and seas of embers or the bites of the immortal snakes, but also boiling kettles, fields full of eternal ice, automatically closing bridges, from which one falls into rivers of swirling sulfur, dizzying wheels and countless refined agonies which are administered to the soul under the watch of the most horrible demonic figures.” The primary goal of such stories (see The Venerable Bede and Dante Alighieri, below) was almost always to exhort the reader or hearer to live morally on earth, avoiding the sins which condemned the damned forever.

The Venerable Bede

A whole genre of visionary literature thrived throughout the Middle Ages, purporting to show readers hell from the vantage point of a person (often near death) who has actually been there, however briefly, and returned to tell the tale. The most famous such vision in the early Middle Ages was related by the English monk Bede (673-735) in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Bede told the story of Drythelm, a Northumbrian householder, who died one night and revived the next morning. “Fear not,” said the revived man to his wife, “for I am now truly risen from death, and permitted again to live among men; however I am not to live hereafter as I was wont, but from henceforward after a very different manner.”

What did Dyrthelm see on the other side? First, a sort of entranceway to hell: a valley where souls were tossed from fire to ice. Next, the foul-smelling pit of hell, from which the souls of the damned flew up like sparks only to drop down again to its depths. Then, these souls surrounded him menacingly, until his angel guide chased them away. And finally, at the very end, he received a brief taste of the fragrance, light, and bliss of the heavenly kingdom. The upshot of all this, now that Drythelm was again safe and sound at home? His only desire now was to get back to heaven. So he sold his belongings and joined a monastery, to live a life of fasting and prayer: just the sort of pointed ending that was repeated again and again in such medieval accounts of journeys to hell.

Anselm of Canterbury

In the long development of Christian doctrine about hell, the early scholastic theologian Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1108) is best known for arguing for the eternal timespan of punishment in hell by an analogy from feudal law. In feudalism, the severity of the punishment for an offense was determined not so much by the nature of the offense as by the relative “worthiness” (judged by social standing) of the one offended against. Stealing from a king resulted in a steeper punishment than stealing from a serf, for example. On this basis, Anselm concluded that a crime against God’s infinite honor deserves an infinite punishment. However, since humans are finite, we can pay the penalty for our sins only by suffering for an infinite time. He made this argument in both his Cur Deus Homo (bk. 1) and his Proslogion (chs. 8-11).

This was Anselm the scholastic, clarifying a doctrine that Christians already believed by applying reason to it (“faith seeking understanding”). But at the end of his “Meditation to Arouse Fear,” he showed his pastoral side (he was both an archbishop and a former abbot). There, after describing the torments of hell, he addressed the question, “Who could possibly deliver any person from this fate?” His answer: “It is he himself, he himself is Jesus. The same is my Judge between whose hands I tremble. Take heart, sinner, and do not despair. Hope in him whom you fear, flee to him from whom you have fled. . . . Jesus, Jesus, for your name’s sake deal with me according to your name. . . . Have mercy, Jesus, while the time of mercy lasts, lest in the time of judgment you condemn.”

Thomas Aquinas

The great scholastic (systematic theologian) Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274) is known for several teachings related to hell. First, he continued the medieval trend toward emphasizing the individual soul’s destiny immediately after death, rather than resurrection and final judgment as the goal of human history and the consummation of God’s work of salvation (though he certainly believed the latter). Second, he argued that eternal conscious punishment was fitting for a person who rejected God in favor of temporal goods here on earth, because such a person actually showed that he preferred temporal goods, even through eternity. God is just, he reasoned, to punish that person in the same way as if he had sinned eternally—with eternal punishment—such that, in the biblical phrase, he would “gain the whole world but lose his soul.”

Thomas also addressed, in his great Summa Theologiae, the charge of some Christian thinkers that God has somehow been limited in his omnipotence if any must go to hell (thus thwarting his divine plan in creating humanity to share divine blessedness with him). He acknowledges that God’s goodness demands that all be saved (1 Tim. 2:4). But he also argues that the manifestation of His justice (or His hatred of sin) requires that at least some people should sin so that they may be justly punished. Thus His will to save all is modified by the demands of His justice and produces a sort of compromise: He will save the elect, thus manifesting His mercy, and damn the reprobate, thus manifesting His justice.

Particularly jarring to modern sensibilities was Aquinas’s defense of the traditional doctrine (held by key thinkers before him including Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 220 AD) and Peter Lombard (c. 1100 –1160)), that in order for the saints in heaven to “enjoy their beatitude more thoroughly and give more abundant thanks,” they would be granted a ringside seat to the punishment of the damned. As with other traditional doctrines, this one is grounded both in logic (since the blessed, knowing God directly, face to face, are bound to find satisfaction in all His acts) and in Scripture: Rev. 14:9-11 show the wicked being tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the angels and of the Lamb (Rev. 14:9-11); in the story of Dives and Lazarus in Luke 16 Dives can see Lazarus across “the great gulf fixed,” and so it seems reasonable that Lazarus could also see Dives; and Isaiah 66:22-24 had promised that the worshippers of the Lord would “go forth, and look upon the carcases of the men that have transgressed against Him: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched.”

Aquinas also contributed to medieval thought on hell the notion of a Limbus Infantum, or “limbo,” where unbaptized infants would avoid the worst penalties of hell. Limbo was still a part of hell, because infants were still stained by original sin, but because their participation did not amount to a conscious moral choice, they were allowed to suffer only the absence of God, and not the sensible torment vividly pictured in so many medieval writings and artworks.

As for Jesus’ descent into Hell, affirmed in the Apostles’ Creed, Aquinas explained that while “he went to the hell of the damned to confound the damned for their unbelief and malice,” also “to the holy patriarchs who were in hell only on account of original sin, he brought the light of eternal glory.” This became the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, denied by the Protestants and re-affirmed at the 16th-century Council of Trent.

Dante Alighieri

No written work springs to mind more readily today as representing medieval views of hell than Dante Alighieri’s (1265 –1321) Inferno—the first of the three books of his Divine Comedy. According to the poem, one day in 1300, Dante finds himself wandering in a gloomy forest. After encountering three ravenous beasts, he is met by the Latin poet Virgil who promises to conduct him through hell and purgatory. On the evening of Good Friday, April 8, they enter the gate of hell (over which are the famous words: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here”), and they begin to travel through its successive circles. In Dante’s imaginative vision, Hell is an inverted cone with its apex at the center of the earth. The upper circle is that of the Elysian Fields where the noble pagans dwell. At each deeper level the travellers see punishments for more and more heinous sins, until they reach a frozen lake in which Lucifer himself punishes the most awful sinners of all: the traitors.

Dante’s voyage “to hell and back” followed a genre well established throughout the Middle Ages. Often framed as a near-death experience in which the dying person reawakes, having seen a powerful vision of hell, and resolves immediately to live anew for God, such stories were always written to convince people to live their mortal lives in awareness of their eternal destiny. So Dante’s arduous poetic journey turns him, step by step, from his darkness and sin and back to the joyous, shining presence of God. At the end of the poem’s third book, Dante glimpses the blessed saints enjoying God in heaven.

The Inferno is intentionally repellent in its depiction of the Christian hell. Even the sympathetic Christian reader Geoffrey Nuttall said “If the Inferno were the whole poem, one could hardly avoid the conclusion that Dante had a diseased mind, obsessed with sadistic and other sexual perversions.” But Nuttall is careful to make the theological point that the denizens of Dante’s hell on some level want to be where they are. Their loves have become so disordered that they have arrived in hell of their own will. For Dante, says translator Dorothy Sayers, “Hell is the state in which the will remains fixed eternally in that which it insisted on having; the torments it endures are simply the sin itself, experienced at last, without illusion, as that which it really is.” Sayers quotes the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God, for they give to every man that which he has desired.”

The particular way this “getting what we desire” manifests in Dante’s hell is gruesome indeed. Dante agreed with Aristotle’s ancient opinion that the soul “forms” the body. That is why people’s facial expressions, gestures, and body language bear witness to what is in their hearts. So, habitual sin changes the way we look (as our parents always told us: “Don’t make that face or it will stick that way”). Thus Dante had the sinners in his Inferno reenact forever in their bodies the very sins they had habitually practiced on earth. Those familiar with the Chronicles of Narnia of C S Lewis (a lover of Dante’s poem) will remember Eustace turning into a dragon in Narnia because he had had greedy, dragonish thoughts. This was exactly Dante’s point. People in hell do not undergo punishments arbitrarily chosen by God; rather, they become incarnations of their earthly sins. This is why Sayers calls the Divine Comedy “the drama of the soul’s choice.”

Of course, as in Anselm’s “Meditation to Arouse Fear” and the medieval literary tradition of journeys into hell, Dante showed his readers hell so they would turn to the God of loving kindness who does not desire that any should perish—a writerly motive that becomes abundantly clear in the other two books of Dante’s great poem, which people today rarely read: his Purgatorio and Paradiso.

The Cathars

Our final medieval example is the Christian sect that sprung up in France and other parts of Europe in the 11th century and flourished in the 12th and 13th: The Cathars. These tended to be dualistic to the point of heresy—that is, they believed that not only the works of “the flesh” (that is, sinful desires in humans), but all the parts of the flesh itself (that is, the body) were evil—created not by the Christian God but by an evil god. The God whom they worshipped was a second god, a being of pure spirit who would never have stooped so low as to take on evil flesh. He was the god of love, order and peace.

In other words, since the Cathars saw matter as intrinsically evil, they denied that Jesus could become incarnate and still be the son of God. They denied, too, the Christian understanding of the crucifixion and the cross as saving things. So, no Trinity, and no sacrament of the Eucharist (the Lord’s Supper). The Catholic Church saw the Cathars as dangerous heretics and persecuted them ruthlessly, even launching a crusade against them (the “Albigensian crusade”).

Not surprisingly, the Cathars also rejected the traditional Christian doctrine of Hell. For the Cathars, this world was the only hell (and it was hell enough, given the persecution they suffered). There was nothing to fear after death, except maybe a sort of reincarnation that some of their sect taught. Their objective was to escape from the cycle of reincarnation, to earn the right to go to heaven and avoid another term of imprisonment here in Hell on earth. This could be done through a life of near moral perfection (the sect had a sub-group of ascetic super-Christians called the Parfaits, meaning the “perfect.” They lived as monks in extreme simplicity, poverty, strict moral probity, severe abstinence of various sorts, and constant prayer and doing of good works (including evangelism). All this led up to a ceremony called the Consolamentum, which they believed called down the Holy Spirit to enable them to reach heaven and escape another cycle of life on earth. During the Inquisition, hundreds of these “Parfaits” were burned at the stake.

One response to “Medieval images and doctrines of hell

  1. Pingback: a medieval minute: the damned | thegraceofironclothing

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