Strange Worlds

The Bible can lead you astray sometimes. Don’t worry, it’s unintentional, I’m sure. It has less to do with the Bible itself than with the way it was compiled. Any book written over centuries by different people is bound to show some inconsistencies. Unfortunately some of those inconsistencies are about things people really want to know. What happens when you die, for instance. Pretty important to get that one straight. The Bible has shifting views about that, and those views led to ideas such as Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, and reincarnation. Wait, what? Reincarnation? Isn’t that an eastern religion thing? That’s what I always thought. Then I read the provocative Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism by J. H. Chajes. This started for me, as things often do, with a scary movie.

Some time back I watched The Possession. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it regards a Jewish exorcism—based on a true story, it says, but aren’t they all? Now demons exist in the Hebrew Bible, but the monster in this movie wasn’t exactly a demon. It was a dybbuk. Sharing the Gentile liability, I wasn’t aware of what a dybbuk was. A religion professor in the movie tried to explain it, but I had to read a book. Between Worlds seemed the best place to start. What a fascinating book this is! Anyone who’s interested in the history of exorcism, whether Christian or Jewish (and perhaps even Muslim) will find abundant information here. Jewish exorcism? Much of it depends on how one understands the concept of “soul.” It also depends on who’s doing the possessing. A dybbuk is a displaced human soul from someone deceased. If it can’t get into Gehinnom (which Jesus mentions a time or two) it reincarnates into an available body, often sharing it with the resident soul.

From there things only get more unusual. For those of us who know about exorcism from the movie (you know the one I mean) or even from Chick tracts, the idea that a human soul (which can be good or bad, depending) can possess someone is unexpected. The fact that reincarnation developed from the same Bible that gave us Heaven and Hell is equally surprising. I suspect it’s because the Good Book doesn’t give a clear picture of what comes hereafter. The Hebrew Bible has Sheol, and the New Testament adds Heaven, Gehenna, Hell, and the underpinnings of Purgatory—a buyer’s market for the afterlife. With that being the case I suppose it’s to be expected that some spirits prefer to move from house to house. To learn what’s available Chajes is an excellent choice.

Hell on Earth

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.

Gehenna in Wisconsin

Gehenna in Wisconsin

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.