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Life After Death: Classic Depictions of Heaven and Hell

By Megan Powell, Sarah Goosem, Yagmur Dur and Lucy Carr

Heaven and Hell are concepts that most of us grapple with throughout our lives, so it is no surprise that they are often explored through art. In literature, writers are free to conjure up their own interpretations of what awaits us after death, and we have really enjoyed looking at how different many of these depictions are. So, let us take you on a journey to some of our favourite representations of the afterlife in classic literature.

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

The Divine Comedy, known as La Divina Commedia, published in 1320 by the infamous Italian poet Dante Alighieri, is perhaps one of the most notable works of medieval literature. The narrative poem is divided into three parts, or books; Inferno, Purgatory and Paradiso, in which our author, Dante, describes his ultramundane journey into the three realms of the afterlife in a quest for his beloved Beatrice and to find his way to God. As he stands by the gate of Hell, Dante is faced with the inscription "Abandon all hope ye who enter here."

These ominous words foreshadow the macabre tone Dante will set during his journey to the nine concentric circles of Hell. Guided by the ancient Roman poet Virgil, Dante makes his way through the agonising pain of tormented souls and the abominable creatures of the Underworld. Durin++++g these scenes, it may become apparent to the reader that Dante's journey is of a psychological and metaphysical manner. Dante's Hell and Heaven is the ultimate medieval guide to salvation, leading to an exploration of the human condition's complex nature.

Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe

Doctor Faustus is an acclaimed Elizabethan tragedy and Christopher Marlowe’s most famous play. When it was first performed in 1604, Doctor Faustus precipitated a sensational reaction for its depictions of the devil and the blasphemous ideas and actions of its titular character.

The plot centres around Faustus, a scholar from Wittenberg, Germany, who, propelled by ambition and dissatisfaction with his studies, begins to pursue the dangerous art of black magic, leading him to conjure a devil named Mephistopheles. Refusing to heed Mephistopheles’ warnings of hell and damnation, Faustus labels hell a “fable," and signs a contract exchanging his soul for twenty-four years of Mephistopheles’ service. Doctor Faustus is a play that looks at themes essential to a Christian understanding of the world, especially those of redemption, sin and power as a corrupting influence – themes that were not so openly talked about in Elizabethan society. Marlowe’s depiction of Faustus’ debauchery and indulgent use of his new-found power, and the play’s more general exploration of sin, hell and repentance is utterly compelling. If you’ve never seen Doctor Faustus, the Globe (2011) and RSC (2016) productions are absolutely fantastic.

Paradise Lost by John Milton

Paradise Lost presents one of the earliest depictions of Heaven and Hell in classic literature. Published in 1667, Milton’s epic poem is divided into ten books (later revised to twelve) and narrates the familiar biblical story of Adam and Eve, the fall of man and Satan. The depiction of Heaven and Hell has been sustained throughout literature and the qualities found would support attitudes of the time and allow modern readers to assert their own judgment. According to Milton, the universe is viewed with Heaven, a light-filled Empyrean, at the top and Hell at the bottom. It is viewed as the underworld, a complete juxtaposition of Heaven.

Where Heaven radiates light, darkness and evil are found in Hell. The two poles of the afterlife are presented as binary opposites – and not just in terms of appearances. Earth is the chaos in between, connected to both Heaven and Hell. The cloudy image of Heaven is vividly explored by Milton with God, his Son and the Angels next to the fiery perception of Hell and Lucifer.

No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre

No Exit, the French play by Jean-Paul Sartre, premiered in 1944 at the Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier in Paris and addresses the concept of Hell in a darkly comical way. The play follows three recently deceased characters, Joseph Garcin, Inèz Serrano and Estelle Rigault, as they arrive in Hell. In No Exit, Hell is depicted by Sartre simply as a drawing-room furnished in the style of the Second Empire. “But I say, where are the instruments of torture?” Garcin asks the valet upon his arrival. Where are the “racks and red-hot pincers and all the other paraphernalia?” As the play progresses, the characters, who have been imprisoned together in the same room of Hell specifically to irritate and, in their own way, torture each other, begin to realise that the “fire and brimstone” notion of Hell that they were expecting is actually unnecessary. All that is required to condemn these characters to an eternity of misery is that they remain imprisoned together. The play’s most famous line comes when Garcin arrives at the conclusion that, in fact, “Hell is — other people!”.



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