October 8, 1871 is remembered by many as the night of the great Chicago Fire. Few Americans ever learn that it was also the night of what many consider to be the greatest natural disaster in United States history: the Peshtigo Fire. The autumn of 1871 was tumbleweed dry in the upper midwest. A wildfire that burned over a million acres of northern Wisconsin and Michigan completely incinerated the town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin on the same night Chicago burned. 1,200 people were killed in a single night. One of the most terrifying books I’ve read is Robert Wells’ Embers of October (also published as Fire at Peshtigo), a factual horror story filled with survivors’ accounts and early aid workers’ reports. Many described the scene as reminiscent of Hell.
Hell is an interesting concept. Following on from my podcast on the origins of the Devil, the concept of Hell is an equally interesting development. The Hebrew Bible knows of no Hell. The dead, good and bad alike, go to Sheol, the gloomy world of the dead, after they die. There is no punishment or torment beyond the languor of being deceased. People seem to be described as having some recollection of life and its benefits, but they are weak and sleepy and attached to their drying bones. The concept of an afterlife comes pretty late to the Israelites, depending on how you define “afterlife.” The book of Daniel, the latest in the Hebrew Bible, provides our first glimpses of a kind of resurrection for the righteous who died before their time. The earliest biblical Hell is the Gehenna of the Gospels, the garbage heap perpetually burning outside Jerusalem.
To picture an eternity of constant burning and torment requires a kind of distinction between an afterlife and afterdeath to be made. Zoroastrian influence on emergent Judaism provided the dualism that made a Devil possible after a few centuries. It also provided the distinction between the glorious afterlife of the good and the doleful fate of the wicked. Concepts that eventually blossomed into the theological constructs now regarded as Heaven and Hell drew their inspiration from an ancient religion of Afghanistan and Iran. Given what human imaginations are, Hell has naturally grown more and more gruesome over the centuries, but if one requires a sense of an entirely natural version of what can happen to good and bad alike, the Peshtigo Fire may also deliver many sleepless nights.