Alan E Bernstein

Professor, Emeritus

In my research, I explore the origins of belief in hell and especially how postmortem retribution emerged from among competing conceptions of death where punishment was absent.  My  multidisciplinary approach integrates Scripture, theology, and preaching with art, literature, mythology, and folklore. 

Far from the limitations of the history of doctrine (the elucidation of one belief within a single creed), my work retraces the competing currents among religions.  Within individual faiths, I examine the debates between proponents and opponents of punishment after death.  My publications analyze the interlaced “levels of discourse” that express different ideas differently for different audiences.  This work integrates sources from ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Israel, Greece and Rome and, moving into the Middle Ages, Islam, Celtic and Germanic religion.  The history of hell involves issues pertinent not only to history and religion, but also to criminal law, ethics, and psychology. Given the worldwide tension over religious differences today (as, indeed, at almost all other times), hell belief takes on a new importance for understanding the stigmatization of “the Other,” the culture wars in the U. S., and some animosities that underlie terrorism. 

My two monographs on the history of belief in hell probe all these questions. The Formation of Hell (1993) traces belief in punishment after death from its origins to its articulation in early Christian writing. Hell and Its Rivals (2017) shows that patristic Christianity, rabbinic Judaism, and early Islam each taught eternal suffering for the wicked. Each faith also rejected parallel challenges from three rival notions: the idea that punishments can be modified, that victims can leave, and hell can end. A third volume, in the works, will show the appearance of hell in art, the establishment of financial incentives to help those in "the punishments," and the use of hell to stigmatize, persecute, and murder opponents believed doomed to its confines. In the process of articulating these full-length studies, I have published articles setting forth some preliminary results. In addition to the bibliographical references below, I summarize their conclusions.'

Now available, an annotated bibliography of my decades of research on the History of Belief in Hell.

N. B.  I have recently launched a website dedicated to altruism and its implications for public policy: