​How we see heaven and hell

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"The Disputation of the Sacrament" (1509-10) by the Italian Renaissance artist Raphael, in the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican.

CBS News

"Upstairs/Downstairs" could describe two very different visions of the afterlife . . . one of which seems particularly frightful in these days before Halloween. Martha Teichner takes us on a tour:

The members of Temple Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tenn., may sing about heaven . . . but over the years, their pastor, Charles Lawson, has often warned them about hell.

"Deeper and deeper and deeper you go into the bottomless pit," he preached. "The horrors rise up beside you, the sound and the screams and the smell and the fire, all encompasses you. Because you're dropping down into the land of the condemned."

When Lawson preaches about hell -- you know what it looks like: "It's a place of torment, outer darkness, weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. The worm dieth not; fire is not quenched. That's a place you don't want to go to."


Now picture heaven: It doesn't matter whether you're a Christian or Jew, Muslim or Buddhist, or an atheist. A bright, cloud-filled sky is what will pop into your mind. Why is that? It's because no matter what we grew up believing, for centuries in Western culture, we've seen the same pictures.

Where did those images come from? Well, for starters, not really from the Old Testament.

Dale T. Irvin, president of the New York Theological Seminary and a professor of World Christianity, says that in the Old Testament, "Hell is a shadowy place. It's a place of sleep."

It was not the place of eternal damnation we think of today. Instead, it's a vision shaped by Hades, the underworld of Greek mythology.

Irvin says initially, in the Old Testament, hell was not about punishment -- that came later, with interpretations of the New Testament.

"What about the Biblical references to heaven?" asked Teichner.

"Heaven, for the Bible, is the place that's over our heads," Irvin said. "It's the sky, and it's a place where God lives."

From the earliest times, heaven has been up -- and that other place, down.

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"The Harrowing of Hell," c. 1500. Victoria and Albert Museum

Richard Townsend, director of the Museum of Biblical Art in New York City, showed Teichner an English alabaster sculpture (left) dating from around 1500. "It shows, in the three days between Christ's crucifixion, death and entombment and the resurrection, it shows him leading the faithful out of the yawing mouth of hell, which is pretty hellish! It's some great demonic beast's mouth, [and] in the upper right-hand corner, that little monkey-like demon who's holding a giant key, symbolizing that he's the gatekeeper to hell."

Hell had become hellish by the Middle Ages -- and heaven, heavenly.

Dante's "Divine Comedy," with its bizarre, layered visions of heaven and hell -- like the New Testament Book of Revelation on steroids -- had a huge impact. Soon, in Europe, all you had to do was go to church and look up.

On the frescoed ceiling of a dome in the cathedral in Parma, the artist Corregio introduced the idea of a sort of "great stadium of heaven," said Townsend, "this idea that the saints, God and the virgin, and your loved ones are all in the clouds."

And in Florence's Great Baptistry, a vision of hell.

"I walk into a church and I see this monster eating people, and serpents -- it's pretty gruesome," said Teichner.

"It would put the fear of God into you," Townsend said.

And that was the point.