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Inventing Hell: Dante, the Bible and Eternal…

Inventing Hell: Dante, the Bible and Eternal Torment

by Jon M. Sweeney

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In Inventing Hell Jon Sweeney makes the uncontroversial claim that our image of hell owes more to Dante than it does to the Judeo-Christian tradition. Dante himself combined his reading of the Bible with pagan poets, Greek Mythology (particularly Hades), the Greek philosophical idea of the immortality of the soul, and Islamic ideas about retributive justice in the after life.

Despite the back cover identifying Sweeney as a 'independent scholar' this is a popular level book and accessible to the lay reader. Sweeney is entertaining and occasionally whimsical. But this isn't a deep book by a long stretch. He summarizes the Inferno in a few pages, talks briefly about the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, before turning to Dante's other source material. Here he is largely dependent on the more careful and nuanced work of other scholars. Jeffery Burton Russell comes to mind as historian who has traversed the same ground with a little more depth, detail and skill.

I would disagree with Sweeney's reading of biblical texts and their significance. I also think he dumbs down Dante too much. But his main point is well taken, our imagination about hell is often more medieval than biblical. ( )
  Jamichuk | May 22, 2017 |
The author does a great job of intellectual history in showing the roots of the ideas that Dante developed in his poetry. It is serious but with some light touches, such as each chapter has a subtitle written on a "Dante's index card". One particular idea that I found profound was the discussion about Plato/Socrates exposition of the eternal soul - a concept not directly pronounced in the Bible. Saint Paul introduced a lot of Greek philosophy into Christianity.

The author has a very personal conclusion to this work where he discusses whether we, modern people. need the concept of hell as Dante has painted it or not.

The book is written for the general public (otherwise I probably would not have read it) and I recommend it especially to provoke those ideas about how poetry/mythology shapes thought.

I found a provocative quote from Santayana in it "Truth is only believed when someone has invented it well." Nearby there is a quote from Peter Barnes, "History is not history unless it is imagined. No one I know was present in the distant past, so the past, like the future, is an act of the imagination." ( )
  joeydag | Jul 23, 2015 |
Traces the concept of hell held by most Christians today, to Dante's Inferno, which itself was influenced more by ancient Greek ideas of Hades, and from the Quran,than it was by the Bible. ( )
  MarkBeronte | Jan 25, 2015 |
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"Hell: The word means terror, darkness, and eternal separation from God. Some people think the Bible is clear about hell, but what if they're mistaken? With gripping narrative and solid scholarship, Sweeney charts hell's "evolution" from the Old Testament underworld Sheol, through history and literature, to the greatest influencer of all: Dante's Inferno. He reveals how the modern idea of hell is based mostly on Dante's imaginative genius-but in the process, he offers a more constructive understanding of the afterlife than ever before. Disturbing and enthralling, Sweeney will forever alter what we think happens to us after we die-and more importantly, he will make us reconsider how we live"--… (more)

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