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The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and Early Christian Worlds [Paperback]

by Alan E. Bernstein
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Book Description

November 7, 1996 0801481317 978-0801481314 1

What becomes of the wicked? Hell—exile from God, subjection to fire, worms, and darkness—for centuries the idea has shaped the dread of malefactors, the solace of victims, and the deterrence of believers. Asking just why and how belief in hell arose, Alan E. Bernstein takes us back to those times and offers us a comparative view of the philosophy, poetry, folklore, myth, and theology of that formative age.

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Editorial Reviews


"Bernstein's study is captivating, and should certainly become the standard work on the history of. . . an important image in Western civilization."—Tony Gray, Journal of Roman Studies

"Bernstein draws on sources from Babylonia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Israel as well as the early Christian community to reconstruct the story of the various poets, priests, and religious leaders who fashioned concepts of hell based on ideas of death and justice. . . . This book is an outstanding account of a central image of Western thought and should be of interest to students of history, religion, literature, philosophy, and mythology."—Robert G. Clouse, American Historical Review

"This book displays the breath and breadth of life in history more than any merely analytical study could do. It illuminates and deepens us with its humanity and its rare lucidity of style."— Jeffrey Burton Russell, Journal of Religion

"The Formation of Hell is a superb book that brings clarity to a complex, puzzling and terrifying subject."—Edward L. Mark, Boston Glode

"An absorbing history."—Frances Taliaferro, Washington Post Book World

Product Details

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press; 1 edition (November 7, 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0801481317
  • ISBN-13: 978-0801481314
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #382,977 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Where did the idea of hell come from? February 11, 2010
"The Formation of Hell" by Alan E. Bernstein is a tour de force. A well-written and definitive study, this book explores the history of the earliest ideas of what happens after death. Bernstein presents the concepts of hell espoused in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Israel, and finally the early Christian ideas from the New Testament. Also included in this study are relevant extracanonical books such as the "Book of Enoch" in the late ancient Jewish belief. In the early Middle Ages when Christianity was not yet fully institutionalized nor had political power, a wide variety of views of hell were articulated in such writings as the "Gospel of Nicodemus," the "Apocalypse of Peter," the "Apocalypse of Paul," and the teachings of Origen. Finally Augustine systematized the early church's beliefs and formulated the first theology of the afterlife and hell.

Before I read this book, I had no idea of the myriad beliefs ancient people held on what happens after death. They varied from Hades (or Sheol in the Judaic tradition), a neutral place where the dead exist in a kind of gloom with no differentiation between the good and the wicked, to Tartarus, the Greek place of moral punishment that was similarly taken up by Christian writers and called Hell. But what was this place of punishment? How did the Greek ideas influence Christian ones? Were those who had done evil in their lives on earth subjected to eternal retribution or was there a chance that through Christ's authority over the underworld they could gain redemption? Where is the balance between justice and mercy? How permeable is the barrier between life and death? Can prayers or dedicatory rites help the dead? Where did the idea of purgatory come from?
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Comprehensive Review of Hell Mythology December 20, 2007
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is a very good summary of the myths and theologies of the afterlife that developed in the Mediterranean cultures, from ancient Egypt and Sumer to the Judaeo-Greco-Roman religions. The author contrasts the varying philosophies of a neutral death to that of retribution and punishment, perfected by Christianity's most influential early theologian, Augustine of Hippo. The philosophical differences that involved the question of divine justice and mercy resulted in the Catholic Church's compromise of purgatory serving as a form of redemptive weigh-station for those whose lifetime sins were not so egregious as to merit eternal damnation, though I thought some of the arguments used by Augustine were themselves as tortured as the damned he evidently wanted punished for rejecting God. The discussions involving the apocryphal texts, the Apocalypses of Paul and Peter, emphasized the obsession with gory and grisly retributions, a tendency amongst Christians that even today's so-called evangelicals have adopted to excess themselves.
Though at times a bit dense on writing style this is by its nature an academic and scholarly subject on a subject pregnant with implications for today's modern believer in whatever fate. To what extent are our current lives responsible for what happens afterward? The author offers no answer beyond his adept discussion of what preceded us. I recommend this to all fans of theology, ancient cultures and history and philosophy.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A good first stop March 21, 2011
By AaronK
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This was one of my first stops in discovering biblical universalism. When I picked up this book, I expected to find that "hell" had it's roots in ancient Judaism or Christianity... however, it doesn't.

If you really want to know the roots of where hell came from, this is a great book to give that insight... but I warn you, it is a pretty dry read. This is a "scholarly" book. I liken it to being the cliff's notes for every major piece of literature that discusses post-mortem judgment and suffering.

While I didn't really connect with his exposition of biblical passages, gaining cultural insight of all that was happening surrounding the writing of those passages was key in what I now believe. The majority of the book is spent looking at secular writings about hell, as this is where the majority of the ideas about hell come from.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Exhaustive (almost exhausting) coverage of the subject September 15, 2012
Format:Kindle Edition
Berstein covers nearly every reference in ancient literature to the afterlife. He does so in great detail, going blow-by-blow through each reference. The amount of detail on each story or writing is almost too much at times, making it difficult to get an overall sense of what is going on. I only wish he had been a bit choosier in what he rehashes and quotes, and a bit more reflective on how each source fits into the overall development of Hell. In any event you do get a real sense of how views of the afterlife developed over time, from mostly viewing the realm of the dead as a neutral, shadowy existence, to the late Roman/early Christian period where both Christians and pagans had developed elaborate schemes of how the dead would be judged and treated.

Most interesting to me were the detailed analyses of the individual writers of the New Testament. It's very clear there that Paul, the gospel writers, the writer of the gospel of John, and the book of Revelation all had very different views of the afterlife. The later theological mash-up that put together the common Western idea of Hell was not faithful to any of these writers. It ends up looking like a rather strange view given the divergent views found in the Bible and other thinkers.
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