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  • Hell Interview and Pictures: 7 January

    http://www.rethinkinghell.com now has an interview with me about The Lie of Hell (www.laddermedia.co.uk) For about 40 minutes, you can hear some of the background, main points, and recommendations. Chris Date, the interviewer, says that he wants to encourage people to buy a copy for themselves.

    Chris asked me about my assertion, new to theology, that the traditional doctrine of hell was finally fixed by the influence of Islam. In the early Middle Ages hell was often seen very differently to how Dante or Jonathan Edwards saw it:

    The first picture below is part of the front of Lincoln Cathedral. It is hard to date exactly, as the early Cathedral suffered fire and earthquake, and was rebuilt, probably incorporating elements of the original. This carving was probably made by 1250 AD, and could be earlier.

    Hell’s jaws have been opened wide by the King, Jesus, and his adjutant. Jesus has bound up and gagged the puny devil and trampled on him. Central to the picture and the message is Jesus pulling people out of hell.

    A very similar picture, and message, is on the cover of The Lie of Hell. This is part of the great fresco in the Chora in Istanbul. It is probably somewhat earlier than the Lincoln carving.

    From one end of Europe to the other we see Jesus the Saviour saving people from hell. This message was also seen, and heard, in the medieval Mystery Plays, popular in Western Europe, routinely including a scene of Jesus proclaiming freedom to souls in hell and releasing them. This rescue in art and drama is known as ‘the harrowing’ of hell.

    By the time of Dante (c1315 AD), and with the help of Dante, the dominant picture was very different. Over the door of hell were fixed the words ‘Abandon hope all you who enter here.’ People in hell were there forever, with no way out. Jesus was nowhere near. He was now solely enthroned in heaven. The devil was no longer puny, bound up and under Jesus’ feet. The devil was huge, menacing, powerful, free to endlessly torture and munch the ‘souls’, with Jesus watching, or at least knowing, unconcerned.

    The second picture below is the oldest painting of its kind in England, in St Thomas’ in Salisbury. It was painted around 1475 AD (see http://www.stthomassalisbury.co.uk/content/pages/documents/1296212454.pdf )

    A significant change took place in understanding and pictures of hell between 1250 and 1475. At that time the biggest influence on Christianity and the source of major developments was Spain, where Christians and Moslems lived and studied together. In the Qu’ran, in virtually every Surah from the earliest to the last, hell is proclaimed, taught, warned of, as the fiery place of eternal torment from which there is no escape. This overwhelming Islamic certainty about hell significantly strengthened Christian teaching of a similar hell. Christian teaching about Jesus rescuing people from hell faded into the background.

    One specific influence was The Night Journey of Mohammed to Heaven by Ibn Arabi, which many historians consider helped Dante form the plan of his Divine Comedy – Hell and Purgatory and Heaven.

    You may notice that, in the Salisbury painting, the people being taken to hell are chained together. Nowhere in the Bible is there a description of the condemned chained together. Instead, the Bible talks of each person being judged according to their own deeds, implying no lumping of people together. Surah 14 of Qu’ran, verse 49, reads ‘Thou wilt see the guilty on that day linked together in chains.’

    The hell of eternal torment is originally more Islamic than Christian.

    Roger Harper

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