In their exhaustive survey of human civilization, historian Will Durant and his wife Ariel introduce many topics, including some that touch upon matters of interest to the writer of horror fiction, such as hell. This post provides a brief summary of the points that Will Durant (not yet joined in his venture by his wife) makes concerning this rather otherworldly theme in Volume III, Caesar and Christ, of The Story of Civilization.
- Etruscan soldiers believed that they could free one relative’s soul for every foe whom they slew in battle.
- The Etruscan concept of the afterlife included the judgment of the dead, an eternity of torment in hell or of bliss in heaven, and a purgatory of sorts. Their ideas concerning the suffering of the damned haunted Virgil and Dante.
- By far, most of the dead, in Greek belief, went to Hades, but a few spent eternity in paradise, in the Islands of the Blessed or (in Roman mythology) the Elysian Fields.
- Hades, for whom the underworld realm of the dead was named, ruled the subterranean world, and was armed with a mallet by which he could stun the dead.
- Although the Romans sometimes conceived of Hades as a place of punishment, they generally thought of it, as did the Greeks, as a twilight realm in which the dead existed as shadowy figures.
- Dreary Hades as the final destination of almost all the dead disappointed the Roman poet Virgil, and, in The Aeneid, along with “ideas of reincarnation and a future life,“ he sought to describe three alternatives: “a rewarding heaven, a cleansing purgatory, and a punishing hell.”
- Plutarch wrote of the existence or evil spirits who were the source of all chaos and wickedness in nature and humanity and, like Virgil, believed in both heaven and purgatory as well as hell. He believed that even Nero, after his soul had been purified in purgatory, might enter heaven and hoped that the vast majority, rather than a tiny minority, might enjoy a blessed eternity. He rebuked the Stoics for seeking to replace faith in hell with a doctrine of death as annihilation.
- Jesus of Nazareth argued that, upon damnation, hell is eternal, punishing, and irrevocable. In hell, he said, the fire is not quenched, nor is the worm sated. Not the least comfort or compassion is permitted.
- The book of Revelation declares that God’s great enemy, Satan, and his followers, the demons, reside in hell, but will be loosed upon the earth in its final days before being defeated forever and cast, along with the souls of the damned, into hell again, this time for eternity.
What can we learn from this part of the survey of the ideas of the afterlife and the underworlds? We see that many of the earlier ideas concerning judgment, purgatory, heaven, and hell continue and are developed more specifically. In addition, we learn that Jesus held a strict view of a literal and eternal hell of endless punishment and suffering and that God’s enemy, Satan, and his demons reside in hell along with the souls of the damned. The idea of the afterlife as a shadowy place full of shadowy figures living insubstantial half-lives is gone, replaced with the idea that the souls of the dead are fully alive and subject either to endless bliss or to eternal torment.
In “A History of Hell, Part III,” we will summarize Will Durant's survey of hell as it was conceived during The Age of Faith.