Reviewed by Jerry L. Walls
The author of this book did not intend to write it. Originally this material was supposed to be merely an introductory section of a one- volume history of hell in the Middle Ages. But his fascination with a collection of literature that was both richer and more abundant than expected led him to a larger project. Thus, the present work is just the first installment of what is to be a multivolume history of hell from the Bible to Dante.
Bernstein emphasizes at the outset that he is concerned neither to defend nor to attack the notion of hell, and he claims no prior assumptions about its nature, value, or reality. His purposes are purely historical, and he aims to reach conclusions that can be verified by a close reading of the relevant texts.
Bernstein's story begins with an introductory chapter on the afterlife in ancient Babylonia and Egypt. Neither the authors of the New Testament nor later Christian apologists lived in a vacuum, and Bernstein stresses that we cannot have a correct understanding of hell unless we take into account the conceptual background of the world in which Christianity arose. This chapter sounds some of the main themes that are developed more fully in the four main parts of the book. One such theme is the distinction between "neutral" death and "moral" death. The first notion appears in written records from Mesopotamia by the middle of the third millennium b.c. According to this view, "the dead survive en masse in a pallid half-life without either reward or punishment." On the other hand, the moral view of death is registered in Egyptian texts by the middle of the second millennium b.c. This view, which later informed ancient Greek culture, maintains that "the dead are judged by the standard of known criteria and then rewarded or punished." This later view of death is, of course, particularly relevant to the doctrine of hell since hell involves some form of punishment.
In Part One of the book, which deals with "The Netherworlds of Greece and Rome," Bernstein gives us a detailed discussion of these two views of death as reflected in such authors as Homer, Virgil, Plato, and Plutarch. It is noteworthy that so-called "neutral" death is not always strictly neutral. For instance, one of Homer's characters experiences the continuance of a painful emotion he felt at the time of his death; some are depicted as feeling pride in the accomplishments of their progeny, while others experience shame.
A particularly interesting account of moral death is drawn from some of Plato's dialogues. He tells of four possible fates ranging from that of the holy to that of the incurably wicked. While the former receive eternal rewards, the latter are cast into Tartarus where they are punished eternally. Between these extremes are those of indeterminate character and those who have committed sins that are curable. The Christian reader will immediately see here certain parallels to heaven, hell, and purgatory.
Other chapters in Part One deal with "Porous Death" and "Useful Death." In the first of these, Bernstein cites numerous accounts of interaction between the living and the dead which illustrate that for the ancient Greeks and Romans the boundary of death was not always distinct. "The dead were neither as fully dead nor as fully alive as the living might wish." The chapter on useful death is a fascinating discussion of different ancient opinions about the social utility of various views of death. Threats of eternal punishment and promise of reward were often seen as a positive reinforcement of moral behavior and a support for a stable society.
The second part of the book covers the other major source of background material for the Christian concept of hell, namely, the Jewish tradition. The story Bernstein tells here will be familiar to students of Scripture. The possibility of divine punishment is rooted in the covenant God initiated with the Jews, which promises not only rewards for obedience, but also punishment for disobedience. In the Deuteronomic model, however, these consequences are very much confined to this world. Destruction is the ultimate penalty and sheol is morally neutral. It was dissatisfaction with the Deuteronomic model that was the first stimulus to the doctrine of hell. Increasing awareness of the injustices of this life led to calls for moral death, of which the book of Job is a particularly eloquent expression. "The key to Job's despair is his realization that not even death provides escape from life's injustice."
Some early Hebrew expressions of moral death occur in passages such as Ezekiel 32 and Isaiah 14. Here we see the wicked experiencing both shame and segregation in sheol, a combination that represents the earliest reference in the Bible to what would come to be known as hell. And later there are references to a double resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked after which the wicked would be punished. The symmetry of this description would be an important theme in subsequent Jewish and Christian writings where eternal punishment is explicitly articulated. Bernstein makes clear, however, that the notion of postmortem punishment is a late concern in Hebrew thought and is only a minority position.
In the third part of the book Bernstein makes the case that there is similar diversity in the New Testament. Following some recent trends in New Testament scholarship, he argues that Paul did not have a clear concept of hell. Paul never mentions gehenna and his only reference to hades celebrates its defeat. He is notably reserved when speaking of the wicked and refrains from characterizing their fate in parallel fashion with that of those who receive eternal life. Although Paul was attracted to universalism, Bernstein maintains that in the end the Apostle opts for the view that the wicked will be annihilated. On the other hand, the symmetrical position with eternal punishment as the alternative to eternal life appears clearly in the Gospels and Revelation.
The fourth part of the book is an intriguing discussion of how these options played out in the early centuries of Christian theology through the time of Augustine. At one end of the spectrum, eternal punishment was elaborated with much more detail, imagination, and color than appears in the biblical text; at the other end, universal salvation was defended with philosophical sophistication by Origen. Stopping short of universalism, the Apocalypse of Paul depicts God as extending mercy to the damned by allowing them periodic relief from their suffering. And over against all of these, Augustine articulated his conception of eternal damnation, which would prove to be highly influential in western theology.
The story Bernstein tells is an interesting one, and he does an excellent job of telling it clearly despite the considerable complexity of his subject matter. This is fortunate, since the story is not merely a matter of historical concern. Indeed, this material is highly relevant to a lively debate on hell currently being waged among theologians and philosophers. Traditional views of hell are again receiving serious attention, and the discussion is being further stimulated by the fact that even in conservative Christian circles the options of universalism and annihilationism are attracting a growing number of adherents. All who are involved in this debate would profit from Bernstein's informative work.
Precisely because of such theological relevance, however, one might raise a question or two. In particular, I would challenge Bernstein's claim to have written a purely historical work devoid of theological judgment. Ironically, the doubtful nature of this claim appears in some of the very passages where he aims to distance himself from theology. For instance, consider his comment on Isaiah 66:18-20, an admittedly difficult and paradoxical passage. Bernstein insists that we should not try to achieve a synthesis or explain the paradox. "To interpret this passage further would be to theologize and to insist on a more systematic statement than actually exists." I would suggest that when someone draws lines for legitimate interpretation of a biblical text he is theologizing, whether he owns it or not.
A similar point applies to Bernstein's treatment of the diversity he details in both the Jewish and Christian traditions. With respect to the variety in the Old Testament, he offers the following advice: "Rather than theological consistency in Scripture, it is better to search instead for the conflicts of opinion that energized religious life and existential feeling about God, oneself, and the world." Likewise, he remarks that to reconcile the passages of the New Testament with one another is to write theology. "By contrast, looking 'in the other direction,' at its underlying perception, the existential aspiration for justice which these texts seek to articulate shows how they reflect different aspects of a broader vision that informs them all."
The preference to leave the diversity as it stands rather than to seek a synthesis or some other interpretation that would achieve consistency is hardly theologically neutral. Those who look for theological consistency on these matters typically do so because they believe Scripture is a revelation from God and that what it teaches about the afterlife is true. The recommendation that we should seek conflicts of opinion rather than a fundamental consistency is easily read as an implicit claim that Scripture is only a collection of various fallible human perspectives rather than truth from God revealed to us. At any rate, such a recommendation is surely not a merely historical claim, innocent of theological insinuation.
It should also be emphasized that Bernstein suggests his own account of the unity underlying the diversity of the texts, namely, the "existential aspiration for justice which these texts seek to articulate." Elsewhere, he explains this aspiration in more psychological terms: "Belief in future punishment is a manifestation of the sublimated desire for vengeance. Belief in punishment after death becomes necessary when no sign of restoration is visible in this life."
Bernstein gives this suggestion a utilitarian twist in his discussion of how the restraint of Paul gave way in later New Testament writings to the explicit teaching of eternal punishment: "My hypothesis is that postmortem sanctions became more dire as internal sanctions because more necessary. Between 1 Thessalonians and Revelation, the church came to be in need of an avenger, whether against wayward members or outside oppressors." This construal of hell is reminiscent of Bernstein's discussion of "Useful Death" among the ancient Greeks and Romans. There are, of course, differences, but the idea that the threat of hell served as a moral sanction in the Christian community is surely an example of hell playing a useful role. The similarity is noteworthy because in his earlier chapter Bernstein maintained that the utilitarian approach to death is absent from early Jewish and Christian literature.
As Bernstein sees it, then, the doctrine of hell is primarily a logical implication of believing in a just God in the face of obvious injustice in this life. The doctrine also has existential and psychological roots insofar as it arises from a sublimated desire for vengeance and even makes a nod to utility to the degree that its development was spurred on by the exigencies of persecution and the need for discipline in the early church.
This history of hell is not necessarily incompatible with the belief that the Christian doctrine of hell is actually true. But some of its conclusions do raise questions about the credibility of the doctrine. For instance, if belief in hell does indeed spring from a suppressed desire for revenge, the belief has suspicious roots. Those who believe the doctrine is true would insist that Jesus' teaching on hell, as recorded by the New Testament authors, did not arise from a sublimated desire for revenge, but rather came to us as part of the highest revelation of a loving God.
Bernstein would likely see such a suggestion as an obvious move from the province of the historian to that of the theologian. I have been arguing, however, that Bernstein's history itself crosses this boundary.
Clearly, the distinctions between history, theology, and metaphysics are neither simple nor uncontroversial. It is not obvious that those who write history in terms of human motives, aspirations, intentions, and intellectual development are writing pure history over against those who believe God is the central agent of history and that his activity, intentions, and revelation are the key to understanding the literature of Judaism, and ultimately Christianity. Neither of these can rightly claim metaphysical or theological neutrality. And neither of these approaches, when dealing with a subject like hell, is indifferent with respect to its credibility or reality.