With The Penguin Book of Hell, Scott G. Bruce wants to tell a horror story. Given his expertise as a professor of history at Fordham University, he crafted a book to explore the evolution of the idea of Hell and how it has retained relevance in the popular imagination for millennia. The idea predates Christ, beginning in Egypt with the “world of no return,” where souls were shadows in “a house of dust” and the same non-punitive fate awaited every person. Punishment became a theme in the Greek underworld where the Titans suffered eternal miseries after their defeat in the war with Zeus and his pantheon. Hell spanned eons and cultures. For the Jews it was Sheol, a prison of gates and bars reserved for the wicked and corrupt. It took the advent of Christianity for Hell to become what it is today, the place of eternal suffering and damnation for those who defy doctrine, and that’s where the horror story forms.

The idea of Hell became a means of controlling believers, but the stories of torture also spurred on the worst kinds of imagination. From Nazi Germany to the American penal system, human beings have made a project of creating Hell on Earth, one that grows more successful as the planet heats and piety, righteousness and political conservativism reach for the extremes. Only God knows all, but that’s never kept a bloviating spiritual movement from acting as arbiter of purity and justice.

This book is the ideal read for any budding interdisciplinarian with a love for the history of ideas, literature and philosophy in need of an overview of this particular enduring belief. Professor Bruce has structured an accessible volume that includes excerpts from Homer and Plato and excised Christian texts like “The Voyage of Saint Brendan” and “The Apocalypse of Paul,” one of the early texts that featured a molten hellscape and tortures specifically designed for sin and sinner. Dante gets his own chapter, as is deserved, but so does Virgil, the Italian’s tour guide through the subterranean realm. Bruce’s survey of scripture and literary sources shows a fascinating debate by medieval Christian scholars pertaining to the elucidation of Heaven and Hell for the masses that were meant to strive toward one while fearing the other. Add in the concept of Purgatory, the staging ground between eternal glory and endless torture where ascent can be earned after an indeterminate duration, and a lively debate about the rules that govern the afterlife begins. It started in the Middle Ages, but has never really ended.

To read glimpses of these texts steeped in so much seriousness in the governance of a metaphor feels rightly absurd. The impulse to ridicule superstition and cite progress is natural for any citizen of the 21st century until one looks closely and sees what a retardant the 21st century has been for reason and progress. Part of Professor Bruce’s thesis states that “Hell has begun to lose its grip on the modern imagination as a place of eternal punishment,” that Hell serves more as enduring metaphor for war, genocide and punitive policy than an actual realm people live by Biblical instruction to avoid. That is not accurate. While study after study shows people under 40 to be less religious, a fanatical minority believes in the fires of Hell as surely as the song of the seraphim. Mike Pence, the Vice President of the United States, is one, as is the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, two men seemingly devoted to using foreign policy to bring on the End Times as interpreted through their evangelical sect. Two of the most powerful men in America believe that Jesus will return to battle the Antichrist in an apocalyptic war if a few things happen on Earth, like returning Jerusalem to the Jewish people. Moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing the city as the capital of Israel was done to hasten the final battle. Add in the statehouses working diligently to reverse the rights of women, people of color and any gender nonconforming individuals on religious grounds and it becomes difficult to accept that it is all about a metaphor.

The Penguin Book of Hell is an excellent launching point to not only “knowing one’s enemies,” but understanding how myths perpetuate from one faith to another. Hell evolved into a place of torment because the Church needed something for its congregants to fear. It endures as proof of the power to rule by that emotion by defining one way of life as righteous and all others as wicked. It is the oldest, cheapest play in history, one that would hopefully be exposed at a time when information has been democratized and made easily available to all. But that has not been the case. We are no longer an illiterate population asking monks to tell us how to live, but we are still terribly superstitious. You would think that we had learned better after a few hundred years.

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