Hell and Its Rivals

Death and Retribution among Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the Early Middle Ages

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Alan E. Bernstein
  • Ithaca, NY: 
    Cornell University Press
    , June
     432 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Hell and Its Rivals, Alan Bernstein examines competing developments in early medieval Jewish, Christian, and Islamic understandings of what evil men and women can expect to see—and suffer—when they die. Bernstein has built his career on the careful study of how the concept of hell unfolded in the Near East. His earlier book, The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and Early Christian Worlds (Routledge, 2004), surveyed early Greco-Roman, Jewish, and Christian conceptions of a punitive afterlife, and the gradual intermingling and evolution of those conceptions into something like the hell we all know and love today. Hell and Its Rivals picks up the narrative where Bernstein’s previous work ended, that is, at the beginning of the Middle Ages—about 400 CE.

Through a probing analysis of a wide variety of religious texts from this period, Bernstein demonstrates that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam were united in teaching that extreme, endless punishment awaited the wicked upon their deaths. Even so, these traditions not only differed between each other, but also within themselves on the details of postmortem punishment. In Christianity, it became the dominant view that unbaptized children as well as unrepentant sinners would be condemned to everlasting punishment. Rabbinic Judaism regarded flouting the Noachide laws as well as refusing to forgive as worthy of a long stay in hell. In Islam, ingratitude and the arrogant refusal to recognize God’s beneficence—that is, heedlessly rejecting Muhammad’s message of warning—made one especially deserving of eternal torment (328). Disregarding the precepts of the Qur’ān, wittingly or unwittingly following Iblis (Satan), and leading others to do the same were close behind (329).

Bernstein is also interested in the logic and the rhetorical devices that guided religious thinkers as they imagined the architecture of hell, and its program of torture. Islamic descriptions of hell, for example, make extensive use of hyperbole, an extreme exaggeration that Bernstein says “give[s] the inexpressible a superficial comprehensibility even while keeping it out of reach” (342). In one account, hell has its own hell, a part of hell that sickens and terrifies even hell itself, populated by those who merely pretended to be Muslims. Hell is so deep that it takes a rock seventy years to reach bottom; its fire so dark and intense that it emits no light (343). To ensure a constant degree of agony, the pain-fatigued bodies of the damned are restored to their original sensitivity 70,000 times a day. Food and drink in hell are so noxious that a single drop would destroy all life on Earth. Tortures always fit the sins: those who devour the wealth of orphans continually devour fiery stones that trigger flaming bowel movements; bloated usurers have their bellies trampled by enraged camels; sexually loose women are hung by their breasts (345).

Within each tradition, opposition arose to one aspect or another of their more uncompromising teachings of hell. Christians who agonized over departed, imperfect loved ones were consoled by the idea that prayers to local saints and sacrifices might gain the punished periodic relief from torment, if not outright deliverance (150). There was general resistance to the apparent injustice of punishing ordinary sinners with the same severity visited on the unrepentant wicked. The idea that the former might be released after a time of purification found support in scripture (1 Cor 3:13–15), which brought additional comfort. The common belief—based on 1 Peter 3:18—that Christ descended into hell to preach to the “spirits in prison” gave others hope that departed family members might yet respond to the gospel and enter heaven.

Influenced by Neoplatonic philosophy, Origen taught that all creation emanated from God and would ultimately return to him. Human beings, he said, undergo a progressive purification through reincarnations until they are restored to God. The Eastern Church, though it rejected Origen’s doctrine of reincarnation, had a soft spot for universalism, the view that, in time, all are drawn back to the Creator by God’s love. It favored the belief that hell was not a place, but rather the deep psychological distress of unrepentant sinners in the presence of the fire of God’s glory—the same glory that brings the faithful exuberant joy.

Virtually all Jewish authorities affirmed that the truly wicked would endure Gehinnom (hell) forever, without ceasing. But opinion was divided on whether intermediate sinners—those too good to be wicked but not good enough to be blessed—should or should not suffer before passing into eternal life. Greater unanimity greeted the idea that torment is suspended on the Sabbath, but only for those who had observed the Sabbath (281). Moreover, the prayers and good works of the pious could secure the release of loved ones from hell. Even non-Jews would “have a portion in the world to come”—escape hell—provided that they were righteous (281). In Islam, ‘Umar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb, Companion of the Prophet, expressed the universalist view that there would be a time when “the People of the Fire” would come out (334). The Sufi tradition opposed the doctrine of hell because it encouraged people to worship God out of fear, not love (335). The Qur’ān itself hints that some non-Muslims may reach paradise, since God will take into account the smallest good deed, even an iota of faith, when passing judgment (338).

Bernstein is convinced that the similarity of ideas of hell in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is due to their monotheism. “Without monotheism,” he says, “no one would ask whether God’s justice is consistent with his mercy” (vii). But surely the relevance of the question depends more on who God reveals himself to be in these traditions (i.e., just and merciful) than the belief that there is only one of him. As Bernstein himself notes, the close geographical proximity of these traditions in the Mediterranean region permitted their interaction with the same Hebrew Bible—with its covenantal God—and with the same philosophical schools, folklore, and mythology. This extended interaction goes a long way toward explaining why all three faiths followed parallel paths in developing their doctrines of hell, and why rival doctrines largely took the same shape (281). Bernstein’s book provides ample evidence for his more nuanced claim.

Moreover, Bernstein is certainly correct to attribute the survival of hell in this period to its social and political utility, especially in Latin regions where the interests of church and empire became tightly intertwined. One might add that the extreme grisliness of depictions of postmortem punishment contributed to that utility as well, as it increased the leverage of political authorities over their subjects. But as Bernstein shows so well, church, monastery, and visionaries could be equally sadistic in describing the tortures prepared for the spiritually and morally rebellious. The human imagination truly knows no bounds when it comes to the sufferings of the wicked; only rarely is it restrained by the thought that eternal torment might not redound to the praise of God’s love and mercy, or even his justice.

Hell and Its Rivals is the second of what the author hopes will be three volumes about hell. The anticipated third book, not yet titled, will cover the years from the rule of Emperor Charlemagne (800 CE) to the First Crusade (c. 1050 CE). It promises to be as absorbing and fascinating as this one.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Victor Froese is library director at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Date of Review: 
August 30, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Alan E. Bernstein is emeritus professor of medieval history at the University of Arizona. He is the author of Hell and Its Rivals: Death and Retribution among Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the Early Middle Ages and The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and Early Christian Worlds, both from Cornell. 


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