Monday, July 17, 2017

Alan E. Bernstein's "Hell and Its Rivals"

Alan E. Bernstein is Emeritus Professor of Medieval History at the University of Arizona. He is the author of The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and Early Christian Worlds.

Bernstein applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Hell and Its Rivals: Death and Retribution among Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the Early Middle Ages, and reported the following:
Hell and Its Rivals studies the history of belief in hell during the amazingly creative centuries that saw the patristic period in Christianity, the composition of the Talmud in rabbinic Judaism, and the formation of the Qur’an in Islam. All three religions threatened the worst sinners and non-believers with eternal punishment. Still today, many take hell on faith but, as a historian, I go farther and ask what realities in society inspired and maintained the idea. Page 99 opens a chapter that explains how slavery played that role. Slavery subjected its victims to chains, darkness, confinement, branding, dismemberment, and the unending descent of slave status from mother to children. The endless liability of slaves to torture gave hell a fatal plausibility. Many parables therefore used the relationship between slaves and masters to illustrate the system of rewards and punishments in this world and the next. “Things are images through which we consider the nature of their causes” said one leading theorist of the age. All three religions employed this hierarchy of symbols to communicate afterlife realities.

Beyond this common system of signification, the three religions met and similarly resisted the alternatives that became hell’s rivals: relief, end, and escape. One possibility was that the damned could enjoy relief in hell on religious holidays. Another posited an end to hell because its divinely administered discipline would effectively cleanse sinners of fault and thus end liability to punishment. The third proposed that the very pious could intercede for their kin or their friends and pray them out of torment. All three religions met the challenges posed by these rival notions on similar terms to defend eternal, unchangeable punishment. In subsequent centuries, each damned the others in the everlasting hell they defined and defended together!
Learn about Hell and Its Rivals at the Cornell University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue