One of our short stories has been narrated by Chris Barnes.
It’s less than ten minutes, Click here to have a listen!
One of our short stories has been narrated by Chris Barnes.
It’s less than ten minutes, Click here to have a listen!
In our story, Satan has been fired from his diabolical management position and evicted from hell. In our current plans, one possible reason for his removal from office is that some other fiendish individual wishes to seize the reins of power in hell. But why would they do that? What kind of real estate are we talking about here? What is hell like and where is it?
Doing my lazy writer’s research (flicking through web-pages) I hoped to find some definitive answer. I was secretly hoping to stumble upon the writings of some lunatic medieval theologian who would give me the exact dimensions of hell, its population, key features and precise location. You know, something like:
“And between the Mountains of Abaddon and the Seas of Attrition, awash with the tears of the unsaved, is the Plain of Hell, home to seven times seven hundred demons. Here are the cities of Lapsidia, Zelan, Gehon and Ru and, at their centre, the great fortress of Balam, where the lord of flies sits enthroned and in chains. Here dwell the tortured souls who have rejected our Lord and their number is as the grains of sand on a beach. The Plain of Hell is of such a size that a man could not travel it from end to end within a lifetime and yet it is all bound up within a space no greater than an acorn, such is the glory of the Lord’s creation.”
I was even hoping for a map.
But fact is, there are as many hells are there are people who have written about it. So let’s take a little look.
Our English word, hell, comes to us from the Norse ‘Hel’ which refers both to the place where those who died of old age and disease go to when they die and the monstrous creature that reigns there. It’s not necessarily a bad place; it’s just not Valhalla. In various Viking stories, gods and kings visit Hel and see what it’s like and what potentially lies in store for them. Hel can be reached by long and dark roads from this world. It has gates and, at its heart, a hall where Hel’s inhabitants dwell.
This version of the afterlife quite probably borrows some of its concepts from earlier Christian and Greek ideas which the Viking writers may have been familiar with.
The Hebrew word ‘Sheol’ appears in the Old Testament and is usually translated as hell or grave in English Bibles. Ignoring later reinterpretations (which rely on Greek influences), Sheol was simply a shadowy world, a grave, to which most of us are going to go. It isn’t a place of torture or spiritual refinement but simply a grey world where those who have been forgotten by God simply reside. A bit like Grimsby on a wet Sunday afternoon.
Now the Greeks knew how to create an underworld. The word Hades is both the name of the underworld and its ruler. It’s also the word most frequently used for hell in the New Testament and in early Greek/Latin translations of the Bible.
As a place in Greek mythology, it has quite a lot. There’s the Elysian Fields, where the virtuous dead go. There’s the pit of Tartarus, reserved for the demonic Titans and the damned. There’s the Asphodel Meadows where the ‘neutral’ dead go.
There’s also a bit of physical geography. Hell has rivers (Acheron, Cocytus, Phlegethon, Lethe and Styx) each with their own symbolism. On top of that we have some interesting characters such as Charon and Cerberus.
|A map of Hades|
It’s also here that we get some of our first contrapasso, the ironic punishments handed out to the damned. The king, Tantalus, was punished for his excesses by being placed in a river of water with low hanging fruit above him but whenever he reached for either they moved away, thus tantalising him for all eternity. Sisyphus, who managed to wangle his way out of Hades more than once, was given the punishment of pushing a boulder up a hill only for it to roll down again when he neared the top. Ixion was bound to a flaming wheel for his lustful acts. Okay, that’s not particularly ironic, just nasty, but you get the idea.
This too comes from the Greek, referring to a pit of torment into which the damned are thrown. Tartarus is beneath the earth. The writer, Hesiod, speaks of an anvil taking nine days to fall from heaven to earth and a further nine days for it to fall to the depths of Tartarus. In Greek mythology, it is where the titans are imprisoned but it also gets a single look-in in the New Testament, the word used as a synonym for hell.
Gehenna comes to us from the Bible as a word indicating ‘hell’ and is fascinating because it actually relates to a real geographical location. The word means ‘valley of Hinnom’ and was a place where, in ancient history, worshippers of Baal and other ‘false’ gods would offer sacrifices of children by fire.
You can try to visit Gehenna if you like; there are a number of possible and credible candidates in Israel for the true valley of Hinnom.
|Come to Hell! We have olive trees and, if you look carefully, a goat.|
As a word for ‘hell’ it offers us with a number of interpretations. Is it the place of fire? A place for false gods? Is it a place for the wicked? Does it simply mean, as some Christian thinkers suggest, a place where people are destroyed? Is hell, in this sense, the total destruction, but not suffering, of those who are not destined for heaven?
Lake of Fire
St John the Divine, the frankly kooky writer of Revelations, also gives us the poetically resonating Lake of Fire. In his rambling, beautiful but mostly bonkers account of the end times, John tells us at various points that the beast, the false prophet, the devil, Death and Hades will all be thrown into the lake of fire (along with the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolators, liars, cold callers, queue jumpers and reality TV contestants*)
St John also gives us the sulphur and brimstone which we also often associate with hell.
Many Christians interpret the Lake of Fire as eternal torment but there are also some who take it to mean the final and painless destruction of those who are not going to heaven.
Dante and Milton
I’m an atheist and I don’t share any of the beliefs I’ve discussed above. However, all of the above were genuine beliefs whereas Dante (writer of the Inferno) and Milton (writer of Paradise Lost) were just making stuff up. It’s true that they were reflecting theological ideas and commonly held ideas of their time but their epic poems were not revelations from God. These were the works of fiction writers and are generally held to be amongst the greatest writings of all time.
Dante’s Inferno shared a lot of ideas with the classical underworld (i.e. Hades) but gave us some specific ideas that remain in our public consciousness.
For starters, Dante gave us the brilliant and frequently misquoted line: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
Dante gave us the nine circles of hell. Each circle is reserved for a certain sin or certain level of sinning. The first circle is where the poor fools who died before Christ’s coming or were good but did not accept Christ must live in a dull grey but not particularly horrible afterlife (see also: Sheol, Asphodel Meadows and Grimsby). We then range through a number of exciting sins such as Lust, Gluttony and Heresy up to the ninth circle of hell which is reserved for traitors and in which Satan is entombed in ice (although he does get to chew on Brutus, Cassius and Judas Iscariot to pass the time).
Dante also really goes to town with the contrapasso. The lustful are blown about by uncontrollable and endless storms. The gluttons must lie in icy slush, totally ignorant of those around them. The sullen lie on the silent and black bed of the River Styx. Fortune-tellers have their heads on backwards so, having pretended to see the future in life, cannot see the way ahead at all. Suicides become gnarled thorny bushes. Flatterers are drowned in excrement. Dante was either a sadistic fantasist or a comedy genius.
Dante also gave us Dis, the city of hell. Dis is an infernal reflection of the heavenly city of God and he does provide us with some architectural detail. Finally, the casual visitor to hell can look at some buildings and send some photos back home.
Milton, in Paradise Lost, also provides us with a capital of hell and names his Pandemonium. Not only that but he tells us its architect, a fallen angel called Mulciber.
By the way, Milton also gave us Satan/Lucifer’s best line ever: “Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven.”
Many modern Christians would argue that hell is not a place but a state of being, that to be apart from God is to be in hell. They would state that to reject God is to decline your place in heaven and that rejection of God is hell.
Some Christians, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, would take teachings about Gehenna and the Lake of Fire to indicate that the unbelievers will be simply destroyed at the end of time and cease to exist.
But, dear reader, there are still plenty of Christians who hold to the belief that hell is a physical place within our physical universe in which the damned are tortured in imaginative ways until the end of time.
So, we do not have a definitive version of hell but we do have a lot of exciting details to cherry-pick from. Here’s a selection of the most popular and personal favourites.
· Hell is underground and can be reached from our world. Journey times may vary.
· Unknown, but it’s big. Hell has rivers, gates and a capital city.
· Hell is a fiery place, possibly even featuring a Lake of Fire
· Hell smells of sulphur and brimstone
· Hell’s capital is Dis or Pandemonium, designed by the fallen angel, Mulciber
· Some versions of hell or places in hell are reserved for the not-particularly-bad and aren’t particularly horrible, just not nice (like Grimsby)
What to do in hell:
· The truly wicked will suffer cruel and ironic punishments
· In hell, the damned can seek forgetfulness (from the River Lethe) or can be utterly destroyed (Gehenna)
· Satan is in hell, but whether he’s in the Lake of Fire or entombed in ice or acting as general manager is uncertain.
· Vikings who didn’t die in battle
· Cold callers
· Queue Jumpers
· Reality TV contestants*
*I added these last three myself.
I (Iain) blogged about Hell because the central character of our collaborative novel has spent a lot of time there and I wanted to get a feel for the place. Well, now, as we start to think about some of the celestial beings we will ultimately be pitting him against, my thoughts are turning to Heaven.
What is Heaven like? Is it a physical place? If so, where it is? And how big is it? If I went there (not planning on it, personally) what would I see? What would I do? Who would I meet?
Just as with Hell, there is not one single definitive answer. Scripture and myth and literature give us lots of ideas. Some of them contradict one another. Many of them slot together very nicely. And unlike Hell, historical and religious sources give us some numbers, distances and dimensions to work with.
Still no map, mind you. Well, apart from this one.
Where is Heaven?
This is a rather unfair question for English speakers as the English word ‘heaven’ comes from an etymological root that literally means ‘the sky’. Even in modern English we can refer to the space above our heads as ‘the heavens’ without sounding like a religious nut. So, it’s not at all surprising that our mediaeval ancestors thought that Heaven was in the clouds above us and that God and the angels were literally looking down on them.
One could also strongly argue that Heaven was here on Earth. Eden, the garden of paradise that Adam and Eve were kicked out of for eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is given geographical co-ordinates in scripture. The story of Genesis places it at the meeting points of the Tigress and Euphrates Rivers (plus the Pison and Gihon but no one knows for sure which rivers these are) which puts Eden somewhere on the Persian Gulf between modern day Iraq and Iran.
Is it still there? Well, people have looked at no one has yet found a gate guarded by cherubim with flaming swords, nor the Tree of Life which, if we ate of it, would made us like gods[i]. Some thinkers stated that Eden was where heaven once touched Earth but it has since been removed, like some celestial cruise liner lifting the gangplank.
Alternatively, Heaven might be a physical place elsewhere in our universe. This grows less and less convincing to modern minds as the possibility of being able to reach such a place by spacecraft or detect it from observatories becomes ever more likely. And yet, in the Middle Ages, with the space beyond Earth seen as revolving spheres, the idea that Heaven should be beyond that final sphere made a lot of sense, with Heaven’s glorious light shining through holes in the firmament (that’s what stars are, folks).
Much more credible to a lot of modern thinkers is the notion that Heaven exists outside our universe, indeed outside all notions of space and time. That doesn’t mean it is any less real but that the physical realities of our reality do not apply. That’s convenient if some smart Alec demands to know why high-flying jet planes and space probes haven’t crashed into the harp-playing angels although it comes with its own problems. If Heaven exists outside of our time-space continuum-thing then that would mean that everyone destined to go to Heaven would, in a certain sense, already be there and have always been there. It would also mean that God cannot, from our perspective, do one thing and then change his mind based on what happens. And he does that an awful lot in the Old Testament (i.e. the Jewish Torah).
And then, of course, with the teachings of the Jehovah’s Witnesses et al to the notion that Heaven, at least in part, will become a reality here on Earth after time has been brought to an end.
What is Heaven like?
Most of us, if asked to picture Heaven would start with a mental image of clouds and angels with harps and maybe some beautiful golden light and not a fat lot going on. I personally blame Loony Tunes and Tom and Jerry cartoons for this, because whenever Tom is killed or Daffy Duck blows himself up, this is what we see. For anyone under the age of twenty, I imagine that the Simpsons fills a similar role in mis-educating them about Heaven.
Heaven is not just a bunch of clouds. No serious thinker or writer has portrayed it in this way. Heaven has specific geographical features but what these are depends upon who you listen to.
John Bunyan wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress in the late seventeenth century and although it is clearly intended to be read as allegory, not as revealed truth, it does present us with some sights to see on the road to Heaven. There are plenty of bogs and mires that would ensnare Bunyan’s hero, Christian (symbolising Christians, you see. Bunyan didn’t make his allegories too hard to understand) but our hero’s first victory is to reach the Wicket Gate that begins the narrow path towards the Celestial City. On the way, he passes through the House of the Interpreter (a sort of museum of Christian history) and House Beautiful which gives him some respite on his arduous journey. Before passing into the Celestial City that is Heaven, Christian must also cross the River of Death which conjures up images not dissimilar to those of the River Styx which surrounds Hell in Greek mythology.
A famous feature of heaven is its pearly gates, described first in the book of Revelations. Contrary to the image again given to us by popular cartoons and films, the pearly gates are actually twelve gates, each fashioned from a single pearl. Whether St Peter stands here, clipboard in hand like a nightclub doorman, is uncertain. What is known is that Jesus gave him the metaphysical ‘keys to the kingdom of Heaven’ and so this role does seem somewhat apt.
|The Twelve Gates of Heaven|
Dante wrote about Heaven at great length in his Paradiso. Just as Hell has its nine circles, so does Heaven have its nine spheres, each equating to some celestial landmark and each relating to some particular degree of worthiness. For example, in the fourth sphere, the sun, Dante meets with St Thomas Aquinas, King Solomon and the Venerable Bede, those whose intellect casts a light over the world. In the fifth sphere, Mars, he meets Charlemagne, a warrior of the faith.
We get some kind of structure later on. The eighth sphere is the fixed firmament of the stars. The ninth sphere is the Primum Mobile, the first moved sphere, linking to the theological notion that the universe requires a Prime Mover, a first cause or else there would no motion, no nothing in our universe. The ninth sphere is where God, the Prime Mover, kick-started the show. Dante tells us that the Primum Mobile is the home of angels.
However, beyond the ninth sphere is God’s home, the Empyrean. God is everywhere but this is the place where he can be found. There is no sun in Heaven because it is God who illuminates all. Also, in the Empyrean are those humans who have been saved. Yes, Dante did meet all those other people in the other spheres but they are also here. Dante gives us the beautiful image of the Empyrean being shaped like a rose with the faithful as the petals and the angels as bees buzzing around it.
Dante is not the only person to give us some idea of Heaven’s structure. Various religious faiths tell us of the levels of the afterlife. Most of them tell us that Heaven is divided into three levels. Three, of course, is not only a magic number, it’s a holy one (Dante, with nine spheres, gives us three times three, a sort of holy-squared).
This table is a gross simplification but it gives you the gist.
Clement of Rome (Roman Catholic)
1 – Celestial Kingdom
1 – The City
1 – Heaven
Heaven, the New Jerusalem
2 – Paradise
3 – Heaven
3 – Paradise, which touches…
2 – Terrestrial Kingdom
Heaven on Earth
Purgatorial type place
3 – Telestial Kingdom
Some of these notions are incompatible but others slot in nicely together. What I found surprising in researching this is that most branches of Christianity take a view that there are different levels of worthiness in the afterlife, that not everyone gets to sit at the top table. The highest level (the Empyrean, the Celestial Kingdom, the City, the New Jerusalem) is not necessarily for everyone.
The Celestial City
So what is this top level of heaven like? It might have various names but I shall, like Bunyan, call it the Celestial City as it seems to encompass most of the other concepts.
Well, there’s the Biblical details. Revelations tells us that the New Jerusalem will be a cube, fifteen hundred miles to a side. That’s two and a quarter million square miles on the bottom level. That’s jolly big for a city but, for example, a lot smaller than the surface area of planet Earth. Whether we take the New Jerusalem stuff to indicate any kind of architectural style or quality of city planning is up to you.
Jesus said, ‘My father’s house has many mansions’. We can take that to mean that Heaven is accepting of lots of different types of people or we can take it at face value and regard Heaven as a city capable of accommodating many people. But actually, the population of Heaven is a matter for concern. If we accept, as Jehovah’s Witnesses do, that Heaven will be home to only 144,000 of the faithful (some great religious numerology going on here too) then that’s fifteen square miles of that cube for each of them. That’s plenty of room by our standards. However, if you accept that all worthy people go to heaven then we have a big problem.
The Population Reference Bureau argues that since prehistory, approximately a hundred billion people have lived and then died on our planet. It seems a reasonable number. Now, what percentage of people will go to heaven? I’m going to be real stingy and say only 10% of the world’s population have ever been worthy of salvation. If so, and my maths is very rough, that means each of the ten billion inhabitants of heaven gets something around about fifty square metres of heavenly floorspace. That’s a small apartment, with no additional space for mountains, forests, lakes, cafes with free wi-fi or cinema multiplexes showing Cecil B DeMille epics on continuous loop for all eternity.
The reality of Heaven
Actually, according to some there won’t be any lakes, forests or cafes in Heaven. Rich Deem makes the interesting argument at www.godandscience.org that a cube fifteen hundred miles to a side would collapse into a spheroid under its own gravity and therefore gravity, and the accompanying laws of physics cannot apply in Heaven. Gravity is either gone completely or much reduced.
We already know that there is no sun in heaven because God’s glory provides all the illumination we need. Revelations goes one step further and does state that there is no heat in heaven. Thermodynamics goes out the window too then. Well, that’s probably a good thing because we couldn’t have entropy in an eternal Heaven anyway. We don’t want Heaven breaking down, do we?
Furthermore, Revelations does intimate that there will be neither food nor drink in Heaven. We certainly wouldn’t be hungry or thirsty anyway. The existence of cafes looks unlikely. Revelations makes no promises on wi-fi either.
Emmanuel Swedenborg, eighteenth century mystic, wrote at length about his visions of Heaven. He actually goes out of his way to answer some very practical questions. Contrary to what St Paul says in the Bible, Swedenborg confirms that there will be marriage in Heaven. Those who were happily married on Earth will stay so in Heaven. Those who were unhappily married or never married will find their perfect partner there.
Swedenborg does not say those these heavenly marriages will be consummated and doesn’t mention any children being born in Heaven. However, he does say that children who died on Earth will go directly to Heaven and be raised by angel mothers. He, like other writers, believes that Heaven exists outside space and time so how long these children take to grow up is a rather thorny problem.
Swedenborg also points out that, in Heaven, everyone automatically speaks the same language which is pretty darn convenient.
Of course, the faithful are not the only inhabitants of Heaven. There are also angels who are distinct and separate entities to humans (unless you accept certain Mormon teachings). Angels are the servants and messengers of God and we can infer from certain sources that they are also there to assist Heaven’s human citizens and manage its day to day business.
Angels, like the Heavens themselves are organised into spheres, ranks of importance. There are three spheres but outside that ranking are the seven Archangels, the chief angels, and of them we know Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and Uriel. Who the other three are is uncertain.
In terms of the other angels, in the first sphere are the Seraphim, clustered around God’s throne and singing his praises. Also there are the Cherubim who are not fat babies with wings (those are putti, dear reader) but fearsome four-headed angels who, amongst other things, guard the gates to Eden. Then there are the Thrones who are truly weird-looking beings (wheels within wheels with hundreds of eyes).
The angels of the second sphere are much more managerial material. The Dominions are the regulators of the lower angels and are fairly human-looking. The Virtues order the movements of the cosmos, presumably making sure that eighth sphere of Heaven doesn’t misbehave itself. The Powers are warriors angels, entirely loyal to God (although some say Satan was a Power).
Then, further down, we do have the Principalities and all the messenger and soldier angels. These are the dogsbody angels who are probably waiting tables in the Celestial City. Oh, sorry, no cafes so not waiting tables. They’re the building superintendents who have to repeatedly explain to dead people why they can’t have a bigger apartment.
Interestingly, we do know how many angels there are. Sort of. Revelation tells us that the number of angels ‘circling the throne’ is one hundred million. That sounds a lot and, if we accept that there are only 144,000 people in Heaven then that’s just under seven hundred angels per person. That’s some quality customer service the blessed are going to receive. However, if we go with my unscientific notion that 10% of all humans ever born gets into Heaven then that’s suddenly one hundred people per angel. The chances of you getting your own personal guardian angel suddenly look very slim!
The facts regarding Heaven are varying and contradictory and I certainly can’t draw you a map but what do we know?
· Heaven was once directly accessible from Earth but the gate is now guarded by Cherubim and it’s likely that most of Heaven is outside the realms of space and time.
· The way to Heaven is long and difficult. Do watch out for bogs, mires and the River of Death.
Size and Population:
· Surprisingly not infinite in size. The Celestial City is 2,250,000 miles square. However there is room for people outside.
· Population of Heaven is somewhere between 144,000 and 10,000,000,000. Could even be higher if their entrance requirements are lax.
· Pearly gates, attended by St Peter
· There is a Celestial City. Resemblance to ancient Jerusalem is debatable.
· Heaven lacks a sun, heat, water and food
· The laws of physics do not apply here.
What to do in Heaven:
· Sing God’s praises
· Get married, if you’re not already
· Listen to harp music
· Complain about overcrowding
· Chat to anyone you like without fear of language barriers
· Visit the dead children crèche
· Try to get some attention from the over-worked angels.
What NOT to do in Heaven:
· Conduct scientific experiments
· St Thomas Aquinas
· King Solomon
· The Venerable Bede
· 100,000,000 angels including the Archangels Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, Raphael (and three others)
When sewing for your cat, you should always remember that they have quite small heads.
The horns on this attractive helmet were much too widely spaced, giving the cat (Harry) the look of a yak herder instead.
Back to the drawing board.