Thursday, April 03, 2008


"How long shall God and his Saints reigne? How long shall the damned burn in Hell? For ever. How long is that? Imagine an hundred thousand yeares. Alas! That is nothing in respect of Eternitie. Imagine ten hundred thousand yeares, yea so many ages? Yet that is nothing: Eternitie is still as long as it was. Imagine a thousand millions of yeares. And yet that is nothing. Eternitie is not a whit shortened. Imagine yet more, 1000000000000000000000000000000, a thousand, thousand, thousand, thousand, thousand, thousand, thousand, thousand Millions of yeares. Imagine, I say, the damned should burn in Hell so many yeares, and yet thou hast not found the very beginning of Eternitie. Imagine once more so many millions of millions of yeares as there are drops in the sea, and yet thou art not come to the beginning of Eternitie."

After my last post, I have been reading a few 17th century writers on hell. This present post is about one of the good guys, Samuel Richardson (no, another one of the same name), who denied the existence of hell, and I have read about others of his persuasion in D. P. Walker. But, as a trial of a technology unavailable to the learned Walker, I put ‘millions of years’ into the EEBO keyword search, and out tumbled all the grisly enthusiasts for eternal torment inflicted by a just and angry God. My two images here are a page from The considerations of Drexelius upon eternitie translated by Ralph Winterton (1636), one of many attempts to frighten and dismay with a diatribe on the length of eternity, and the handsome title page of Robert Bolton’s treatise affirming hell’s existence. Highly decorative for teachings so rebarbative, I liked Bolton’s portrait too: bluff, apparently kindly, but everlasting fire and brimstone all round, ye sinners!

I have read Steve Jay Gould’s Time’s Arrow/Time’s Cycle, but till one looks at these primary texts, you don’t realize how odd a view of time they had: One day in Eden, 6,000 years, after that, the millennium adding another thousand, then eternity. We have since almost turned time round imaginatively: something like eternity first in geological time, homo sapiens sapiens with 7,000 years of civilization, and no confidence in the future.

But before I start on Richardson, here’s the awful idea put into poetry, by the Wesley’s in the 18th century. It's a cheery ditty indeed:

‘The smoke of their torment ascendeth up, &c’. Revelations xiv. 11.

The smoke alas, must still ascend,

And never will their torment end,

No respite can the damn'd obtain,

No interval of rest from pain:

Millions of years shall pass away,

Nor shorten the eternal day,

While still in blasphemies they own

Their punishment but just begun.


Vain, wretched man, whose fond desire

Would quench the everlasting fire,

Or teach it will not always last

ter a course of ├Žons past;

O mayst thou never, never know

The dark abyss of endless woe,

Or in its literal strictness feel

The truth of an eternal hell.

I was recently reading a set of student essays on Milton, many of them about Hell and Pandemonium. Though one or two had succumbed (creditably enough) to the interest of the intellectual background, but everyone treated Milton’s hell with the same serene composure, merely as a literary idea, no more perturbing than (say) ‘Comus’ being set near Ludlow. But presumably some of Milton’s contemporary readers might have thought that, unless they could experience grace, they would finally get to compare the poet’s version with the real thing.

But hell as in Milton’s poem was under open attack (rather than discreet Socinian denial) in England even before Paradise Lost (and blogging last week about Mount Etna also reminded me of this book): Samuel Richardson’s A discourse of the torments of hell The foundation and pillars thereof discovered, searched, shaken and removed. With many infallible proofs, that there is not to be a punishment after this life for any to endure that shall never end. This was printed anonymously in 1658, but over his own name in the 1660 text.

Richardson has a brief ODNB entry to his name, and gets three brief mentions in D. P. Walker’s The Decline of Hell. I think he deserves a bit more attention than Walker gave him. Anyone who wrote and published both a denial of hell and a plea for religious tolerance (as Richardson also did) was mustering a humanity and tolerance unusual in his time. Richardson was not an atheist, but to explain his position, writes simply: “Must we suffer the torments of Hell? I believe Christ hath born the whole punishment of sinne; in it I am satisfied, and desire no more.”

Richardson was up against a difficult problem. Central texts in the New Testament relating to hell rather dismayingly indicate that the redeeming Christ, the God of Love, was actually quite keen on the idea. Richardson scatters allusions to bits of the texts in Matthew’s Gospel rather than engage in a direct contradiction of Christ’s words. Unable to attack here, Richardson puts a general emphasis on the unreliable nature of Bible translations: “The testimony of the learned, of the proper signification of shheol, Hades and Gehenna caused a further search, and my descent herein; I alledge not the sayings of men for proof, but for a witnesse against themselves…” Walker expounds how normal this angle of approach was for critics of the idea of eternal damnation (was that word really ‘eternal’ in the Hebrew?).

Richardson was quite prepared to be direct: he says he ‘detests’ the notion of hell (“as M. Beza did detest the Papists Limbus and purgatory, so do I their dreams of hell, it being a device of man without scripture, with all their uncertain brain-sick fancies, for the imaginations of men have no end”).

Regular attacks on the credibility of the witnesses for hell serve Richardson well – where do they get their evidence from? “When you write again, I pray tell us how you know that in Hell they do so, for the word of God saith not so, nor have you been there to hear it, nor they that told you so; to affirm things in Religion not revealed in the word of God, is to presume above that which is written, and contrary to 2 Cor. 4. 8. Rom. 15. 4. Socrates an Heathen, was more wise and modest in not affirming things he knew not, being asked what was done in Hell, said, he never went thither, nor communed with any that came from thence: yet you and others affirm with great boldness and confidence things you know not; some say in Hell the eye is afflicted with darkness, whereas darkness is no affliction to the eye; also they say their eares are afflicted with horrible and hideous outcries, their noses with poysonous and stinking smells, (of what I pray?) their tongues with gally bitternesse, the whole body with intollerable fire; the damned shall prize a drop of water worth ten thousand worlds; cursing shall be their tunes, blasphemies their ditties, lamentation their songs, and shrieking their straines, they shall lye shrieking and screaming continually. Ye see how men set their braines awork to invent lyes; for all they say is without warrant from the word of God."

Richardson at least writes without fear for his own personal safety, but he does expect the persecution of his book. In his pertinacious way, if the book must suffer, he puts it in the best possible company: “some have burned the Bible; and Doctor Crisps book of salvation by Christ alone, Mr. Archers, late of All-hallowes London, his Treatise of comfort to believers, against their sinnes and sorrow, was burnt by the Hang-man; the same spirit is alive to burn this also; I expect no better from such as are not taught of God.

He does that characteristic scrutiny of what the originatory text doesn’t say: “We doe not finde the place of Hell mentioned in any of the Six dayes work of God; if it be a place, it is a created place, and so a part of the Creation of God; the Whale is mentioned in Scripture; if there be a place of Hell, it is a greater thing, and in that it is not found in the Creation of God, it is a ground to judge that it is of the creation of man, a vain imagination of man; for their reasons prove it not, nor do they agree amongst themselves of the proof of it, neither where it is nor what it is.Milton has quite a bit about God separating off a bit of chaos to make room for hell (and Chaos and old Night being miffed about the encroachment). Chaos has (I suppose) the potential to be briefly pleasant, God doesn’t want any of that.

I was also reminded of Milton and that famous passage on Mulciber’s long fall from heaven when Richardson repeats some unnamed astronomers’ mathematics for the duration of falling from the fixed stars of the firmament to earth: “Astronomers say that there are three Heavens above the Firmament, where the fixed stars are is a hundred and sixteen millions of miles above the earth, which is so high, that if a stone or weight should fall from thence, and continue falling an hundred and fifty miles an houre, it would be eighty eight yeares, two weeks four dayes five houres and twenty minutes a falling down to the earth. "

Richardson mentions Robert Bolton and, of course, deplores his doctrine:

After man had sinned, God expounded the punishment of the breach of his Law, Gen. 3. 14. to verse 20. it is evident that the punishment of the old Serpent the Devill, and of the woman and of the man for their sin, are onely punishments of this life; there is not the least word of any punishment after this life, much lesse of a punishment never to end; so that by that which is said we may judge of that Mr. Bolton and others say, of being everlastingly in a red hot scorching fire, depriv’d of al possibility of dying, or of being ever consumed in torment eternally; they say the fire of hell burneth far hotter then ten thousand rivers of brimstone; how know they it, seeing they never felt it, nor they that told you so? three drops of brimstone will make one so full of torment that one cannot forbear roaring out for pain, yet it must be born so long as God is God.

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