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Hell Is a Myth -- Actually, a Bunch of Myths

05/22/2014 10:39 am ET | Updated Jul 22, 2014

If I had the opportunity to meet Paul of Tarsus in the flesh, I'd take it in a heartbeat. I'd meet him on a sunny afternoon in June at one of those lovely places along the Via del Colosseo in Rome. I'd ask him questions about his pre-conversion life. Did you ever attend a gladiator match in the Forum over there? Did Russell Crowe portray it well? Did you ever personally stone a Christian to death, or did you just watch it happen?

I'd also want to ask about the whole "Road to Damascus" thing. Did you really hear God's voice? Does God even have a "voice," and if so, what in the world does it sound like? We'd be together for hours, until the late afternoon sun begins to bathe the yellow and red stones of the hotels nearby.

When the questions turned to more specifically religious and theological topics, I imagine Paul would have quick and ready answers. What did you really mean by "To live is Christ"? He would probably quip, Let me also refer you to a letter I once wrote to the church in Galatia (or Ephesus, etc.), where I dealt with that subject in greater detail.

But if I were to ask St. Paul what he believes about hell, I'll bet he would give an uncharacteristically vague answer. Why? For the simple reason that to the nascent Christian church, even to Paul, hell barely existed. All they knew from the Hebrew scriptures was Sheol, which literally means "grave" and was believed to be the dusty deep place within the earth itself to which every soul traveled after death, accompanying its body. And of course Paul lived, wrote, and was martyred for the faith before any of the Gospels were written.

There were rumblings and speculations of an afterlife in the century of Christ, Philo, and Paul, but these came mostly from what was then pop culture: Greek and Roman mythology. The rumblings blossomed briefly and opaquely in the Gospels, and then at various points throughout late antiquity and the Middle Ages, including in the revelations to the Prophet Muhammad recorded in the Qur'an and again in the writings of the greatest theologian, Thomas Aquinas.

It was the Italian poet Dante Alighieri who changed everything with his famous 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 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. Where Augustine had criticized writers like Virgil and Ovid, saying that Christians shouldn't read them, the pagan poet Virgil serves as Dante's expert tour guide through the upside-down cathedral of the Inferno. Using a bunch of philosophies and myths, we have Dante to thank for making eternal punishment exotic, real, and... Christian.

Dante's hell has influenced our thinking in ways we rarely notice. "All hope abandon, ye who enter in," is scrawled above the door to hell by Dante, and the sentence has subsequently been adopted by many a Goth website, heavy-metal band, T-shirt, video game, and even a few novelists. One popular Finnish band recorded an album a few years ago called Venus Doom, in which its nine songs are intended to represent each of the nine circles of hell. From the lyrics, the band, called HIM, clearly wants to embrace and celebrate what feels like their inevitable damnation. The track "Bleed Well" perhaps says it all, even though it's an acoustic number. Even Rick Riordan's gigantic best-selling Heroes of Olympus series of novels for elementary school kids has recently added The House of Hades as book four. Now, third and fourth graders everywhere are coming home from school talking with their parents about the river Styx, Tartarus, Mars, and Aphrodite in the same way that I used to come home and tell my parents about ― I don't know ― The Hardy Boys?

At this very moment, tourists are flocking to Florence hotels for "Dan Brown Packages," and one-day trips for "Dan Brown Tours," during which they visit key sites in the life of Dante featured in Brown's New York Times bestseller, Inferno.

But, you see, there was little agreement among Christians, before Dante, about the nature and extent of what we call hell. Ancient Judaism and the New Testament writers had very little to say on the subject. Jesus made a few obscure, picturesque references to the afterlife, but he usually used Gehenna as his example of a place to be feared (eg. Mt. 5:29). Gehenna was a place on the outskirts of the Old City of Jerusalem where trash, and sometimes the bodies of crucified criminals, were burned.

Virgil and Plato, the Qur'an, medieval mystery plays, and medieval theologians were what fed Dante's imagination, not the Bible. To write his famous poem, Dante imagined the setting, characters, emotions, and drama that he wanted to create, and then set about fleshing it out with an elaborate compilation of myths and philosophies. The story he created was frightening, cinematic, and universal -- and it wouldn't have been any of those things if he'd simply used what the Bible has to say on the topic. In other words, hell has nine descending circles just like the devil has hooves and a tail.

So why do we continue to have such a fascination with the hell of Dante's imagination? It is certainly due to how Christians have embraced and preached it for centuries. The sad truth is that Dante's hellish vision has been useful in promoting colonizing, crusades and "conversions" for the last 700 years. But it is time for that to change. It is time for Christians, and all people of faith, to re-imagine the afterlife in less medieval terms.

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Jon M. Sweeney is the author of Inventing Hell: Dante, the Bible, and Eternal Torment, just published by Hachette.