Literary criticism

Oh, Hell

By: JD DeHart

HellOne can learn some interesting truths about hell. Dante, of course, led readers through the various circles and populated hell with real-life personalities – a brilliant move, of course. Chuck Palahniuk recently updated this approach in a duo of novels. Of course, it is nearly impossible to have a discussion of the literary import of hell without considering the Bible.

There are about fifteen references to the word “hell” translated as such in the New International Version, while the King James Version translates ten more verses incorporating the actual word. In most cases, the word is an amalgamation of another word, referencing a trash dump in ancient civilization. The idea is that hell is essentially a location for exclusion, or a terrible place.

Matthew, in the New International translation, first uses hell as a punishment promised to anyone who curses a “brother” or “sister,” or calls him or her a fool. That is a steep penalty to face in a world full of foolishness. The same book then quotes Jesus, who uses a masterful set of hyperboles. Jesus sets up hell as the more attractive option when faced when sinning with the right hand or the eye.

Jesus later references hell when he is talking about Pharisees and hypocrites who “travel over land and sea to win a single convert” and then turn that convert into “twice as much as child of hell” as they are (Matthew 23:15, for those who want the verse). Jesus, a few verses later, uses hell again when he is addressing the same religious teachers and tells them they are in danger of condemnation.

Because the first three books of the New Testament share much of their content, similar verses appear in Mark and Luke. Jesus also suggested that people should fear the one “who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell” (Luke, 12:5).

For all the time spent talking about eternal punishment among some religious people, the above-mentioned verses are essentially the sum total of verses contained in the New International translation of the gospels. Of course, the word “gospel” means good news – hell does not seem to be the primary literary feature of that genre.

Hell appears a handful of times in the epistolary section of the New Testament. There is mention of a lake of fire in Revelation, also called the second death, and the destination of those without mention in the “book of life.” James also uses the word hell in a hyperbolic fashion, essentially saying that the words we utter are capable of setting our lives on fire and that our tongue, in a highly metaphoric sense, is “set on fire by hell” (James 3:6). II Peter also lists hell as the destination of sinning angels, held there by chains in darkness.

The point of this exploration is not to undermine anyone who believes in hell; rather, this is a literary exercise. In most cases, the use of hell is just as hyperbolic as our modern sense. When we say it was “as hard as hell” or that an event was “hell on earth” we are positing an extreme of nature. Our use of hell, like Jesus when he spoke of committing sin, is our version of saying “really, really, really bad” in a more artistic way.

Hell only appears in the Dante sense of a supernatural location in a much smaller number of verses. Of course, we can always defer to the famous Sartre quote, “Hell is other people.”

Categories: Literary criticism

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