The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and Early Christian Worlds 1st Edition
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"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
"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
"An absorbing history."-- Frances Taliaferro, Washington Post Book World
"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
"The Formation of Hell is learned and accurate; it is sensitive; it is subtle and sophisticated; it is historiographically sound; it is written with great clarity and refreshing freedom from jargon. This will be the standard work for many decades to come."-- Jeffrey Burton Russell, author of The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity
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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.
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.
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?
This non-judgmental history explains and traces the ideas across the ancient Western world. For those who are curious about how such concepts developed, varied from civilization to civilization, fit in with philosophy, and were formulated, the book is a rich feast. Further, it affords a fresh view into Jewish and Christian scriptures that helps make sense of different parts, especially, for me, the New Testament "Book of Revelation." Following the main index is an index of biblical references used in the book, from the Hebrew Bible through the New Testament. For the first time I came to see that what Paul taught about the afterlife, as recorded in his letters, was quite different from the perspective espoused by Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The Gospel of John, although written later, is much more closely aligned with the letters of Paul.
I am now awaiting Alan Bernstein's next volume. He has gained a fan in me.