Hell on Earth? The Descensus, the Disenchanted Modern World, and the Materiality of Hell (Part 1 of 2)

The conventional story of the decline of hell in the modern world points out the seismic shift from a premodern and "unscientific" to modern and "scientific" cosmology in the seventeenth century. But is it as simple as that, and was such a decline in fact rendered inevitable by the rise of the natural sciences? By elaborating on the earthiness and the at-hand materiality of hell, many preachers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries seem to stand as counter-evidence of the prevailing accounts. One promising avenue of inquiry places these practices and beliefs alongside two others: the more widespread and influential changes regarding witchcraft and magic on the one hand, and the status of a Calvinian understanding of Christ’s “descent into hell” in relation to human pain and suffering on the other. For the month of August, I had the honor of working at the H. Henry Meeter Center for Calvin Studies as Emo F. J. Van Halsema Fellow.

Here is a summary of my labors for my month at the Center:

Hell on Earth (and Beyond): Christ’s Descent into Hell and the Imagination of an Anguished Humanity

How should the Christian react to horrendous evils? What is the relationship between the Christian’s faith in God as Creator and Redeemer in Christ and the horrors of natural disasters, genocide, or severe personal suffering? I am working on an interdisciplinary project that develops a Christian response to horrendous evils from within the thought-world of the Bible. If this project has a center and a circumference, at the center is the notion of Christ’s descent into hell – the descensus ad inferos of the Apostles’ Creed – and on the circumference is the array of biblical, theological, and cultural motifs that converge upon and illuminate this rich idea. One consequence of my work thus far has been the discovery of connections between various ways of imagining hell and ways of understanding the atonement – and, ultimately, of relating Christ’s uniquely redemptive sufferings to one’s own. This intersection of the Christian theological and literary-cultural imagination on the one hand, and the Christian’s pilgrim existence in a dark, troubled, horror-filled world on the other, includes an important historical element I have tried to explore more fully as an Emo F. J. Van Halsema Fellow of the H. Henry Meeter Center.

When it comes to depicting heaven and hell, the early modern period was among the most fertile for the theological imagination. The moorings or foundations of that imagination were also on the cusp of undergoing seismic development, however, and this transition has been variously interpreted. In Piero Camporesi’s monograph, The Fear of Hell: Images of Damnation and Salvation in Early Modern Europe (Penn State, 1987), a study of Italian Counter-Reformation preaching, the author argues that, unlike in the post-Enlightenment world, hell was an everyday, vivid reality for Christians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Camporesi documents how this was due, in part at least, to the success of preachers who effectively portrayed hell in terms of the ordinary sights, sounds, experiences, and fears of the common folk. Whether as a rotting sewer, an imposing city, a feuding family, or an overcrowded plaza, the decay, stench, and terror of hell were put forward as extreme extensions of realities common people already knew and loathed. In this way preachers built on the established traditions of Gregory the Great and Dante, yet their sermons extended that traditional imagery in new directions by exploiting more deliberately the terrors of common life, thus advancing freshly horrific forms for the hell which threatens the ungodly.

It is this lively and fruitful connection between ideas regarding the nature of hell’s torment – including especially the torment of Christ at his cross – and the cultural and experiential roots of those ideas that prompts my interest in this research generally and which also prompted my application to work here as a Meeter Center Fellow. Camporesi’s study focuses on the Baroque imagery of a narrow cross-section of Italian Counter-Reformation preachers, but there are other promising areas to explore, historically and theologically. Like Camporesi, my own interest also arises in part from the sixteenth century, specifically in Calvin’s teaching on the descensus clause of the Creed. Departing to some extent from a perspective dominant in the patristic and medieval periods, Calvin taught that Christ’s descensus referred to his spiritual, hellish torments in his redemptive suffering, especially on the cross, rather than to his translocation to a lower realm whether to release the old covenant saints or to wag a victorious finger in the faces of Satan and his minions. Instead, as least in terms of his emphasis (and there are a few ambiguities regarding Calvin’s fuller views on this), for Calvin the atoning death of Jesus included his exposure to the immediate wrath of the Father, and this experience of divine wrath was his redemptive absorption of the hellish punishment due to the sinners he came to save. While not accepted unanimously, Calvin’s view was followed in many Reformed quarters, including by accomplished theologians Ursinus, Polanus, Trelcatius, Bucanus, Cloppenberg, and in the popular Heidelberg Catechism. This view is still held by many today, including, to a great extent at least, yours truly.

The continuing popularity of Calvin’s view also prompts related questions regarding the transition from pre-modern notions of hell’s reality to (and through) the triumph of rationalism. According to Camporesi, by tying hell more directly to earthly phenomena, the Italian preachers of the Counter-Reformation helped ease the gradual secularization of theological cosmology in the coming Enlightenment. With this turn toward earthly life, traditionally supernatural ideas of hell simply slowly and inexorably gave way to a more scientific and earth-bound mindset.

But while Camporesi’s account rings true historically in many ways, still I am inclined to evaluate the necessity of this transition in different, even contrary terms. Rather than an inevitable step toward what one might call the “disenchantment” of heaven and hell in modernity (Camporesi’s assumption), tying the horrors of hell hermeneutically to the horrors of concrete human fears and experiences may have accomplished – and may still accomplish – just the opposite. At the least, while the Enlightenment may have dislodged certain assumptions about the mechanics of the earth and the cosmos, it did not dislodge but only relocated the ineradicable human fear of perdition, often ironically using decidedly pre-modern forms and words to express that fear. Furthermore, the link of hell with concretely cultural and historical forms of human horror has a rich biblical and theological pedigree that arguably renders hell and the atonement more compelling for a world more exposed than ever to the quandaries of nature, the cosmos, and human ethics. The stubborn survival of premodern ways of thinking of God, sin, the cross, and the afterlife suggests, then, that premodern religious and theological texts may very well serve to “re-enchant” the world on the other side of the Enlightenment in specifically theological and Christological terms.

This brings me back to Calvin’s view on the descensus ad inferos and its own afterlife among the Reformed. I came to the Center hoping to explore the impact of Calvin’s view in two basic directions: firstly, upon the ways Reformed writers linked Christ’s own redemptive experience of hellish torment to various human experiences of pain and suffering; and, secondly, how that first link influenced (or was influenced by) their understandings of the nature of the hell that awaits the unredeemed at death and at the end. More specifically, my goal was to investigate to what extent, if any, the embrace within the Reformed tradition of a Calvinian reading of the descensus prompted theologically promising ways of connecting profound human suffering, devastating calamity, hell, and the cross. The relevant materials for review would therefore include sermons preached during times of crisis as well as theological and biblical materials on the topics of the atonement, hell, and intense forms of evil and suffering, whether physical, natural-environmental, or psychological and emotional. As I knew from previous experience, the Meeter Center’s collections are uniquely fitted for such an investigation, and I am honored to have been given the opportunity once again to make use of them.

In my next post I will outline some of the results of my work at the Center. Many thanks to the highly capable and warmly welcoming staff at the Center, and of course to Mrs. Van Halsema and family.