Ancient peoples dreaded the prospect of improper burial. To die without any burial at all was seen as more terrible still.1 Such a fate, while no doubt humiliating—a sign of divine displeasure (cf. Psalm 53:5)—also carried effects beyond the grave and into the underworld. It is to these postmortem effects that we will turn in a moment.
First, however, let’s consider the relationship between early Christian eschatology and the hoped-for bodily defilement of the unrighteous dead.
Gehenna: devoured by beast and blaze
At the center of Jesus’ prophetic program was the image of Gehenna. Centuries before, the prophet Jeremiah had warned the people of Judah that the nation would soon meet a terrible end at the valley of Hinnom (i.e. Gehinnom, from which the Aramaic Gehenna originates). Jeremiah declared that the familiar Judean valley, in this time associated with child sacrifice (Jeremiah 32:35, 2 Chronicles 28:3, 33:6), would be renamed “valley of slaughter” when pagan armies arrived to punish God’s people for disobedience. The plain would overflow with bodies and the citizens of Jerusalem would receive no burial—they would instead be devoured by birds and animals (Jeremiah 7:30-34, 15:3, 19:7, 34:20, cf. Deuteronomy 28:26).
While Jesus does not take up the image of bodily consumption by animals directly into his vision of judgement (though see Matthew 24:282), his appropriation of Jeremiah’s Gehinnom prophesy surely evoked in Jewish minds this particular terror associated with the Babylonian invasion. Moreover, one of Jesus’ followers, the author of the Apocalypse, perhaps inspired by Gehenna-type sayings in the Jesus-tradition (cf. James 3:6), allows Christ’s enemies—mangled at the last battle—to satiate the birds of the air as “God’s supper” (Revelation 19:17-21, cf. 6:8). And like Queen Jezebel before her, the Whore of Babylon, that is, the city of Rome, is consumed by the Beast and the ten horns: “They will devour her flesh and burn her up with fire” (Revelation 17:15-16).
Added to this retooling of Jeremiah’s Gehinnom omen, Jesus incorporated the prophetic nightmares of Isaiah into his own conception of Gehenna. According to Isaiah, when the Lord came to restore the fortunes of Jerusalem he would slaughter his enemies with sword and with fire (Isaiah 66:14-16). As a consequence, the inhabitants of the holy city would “go out and look at the [unburied] dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against [the Lord]; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh” (66:24). Jesus appeals to this text explicitly: “If your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into Gehenna, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched” (Mark 9:47-48). For Jesus then, Gehenna was a place of fire into which one might be delivered alive if he is not careful (cf. Mark 9:43, Matthew 3:12, 5:22, 13:49-50, 18:9, 25:41). John’s apocalyptic account again follows Jesus’ lead here: much of humanity is removed from the earth by plagues of fire (Revelation 9:18, cf. 11:5, 14:10-11, 20:7-9).
Taken as a whole, at the heart of Jesus’ singular symbol of God’s impending judgement—Gehenna—was the threat of corpse desecration, whether by beast or by blaze. As in the oracles of Jeremiah, God’s people, slain wholesale by pagans, would lie exposed to hungry birds, never to be buried. As in the vision of Isaiah, on the day of God’s fiery retribution, heaps of smoldering bodies would lie rotting on the field. It is not mere coincidence then that John’s notice regarding the Whore satisfies both of these concepts: “They will devour her flesh and burn her up with fire.”
Worlds under the ancient world
The meaning of these gruesome images, and why early Christians gravitated towards them, becomes intelligible when we consider burial practices within the broad context of ancient Mediterranean underworld mythology. We must ask What became of those whose bodies were left unburied, burned, or eaten? How might ancient Jewish and pagan readers have understood the apocalyptic threats made by Jesus of Galilee and John of Patmos?
In answering these questions the Israelite conception of the underworld, that is, Sheol, proves disappointing for our purposes. The Biblical texts disclose little concerning the nature of the Israelite netherworld and on that matter there is substantial scholarly disagreement.3 No Hebrew heroes trespass Sheol’s gates and tour the underground fortress as in the stories told by other peoples (cf. Jonah 2).
Still, it is likely that the people of Israel and Judah shared with their neighbors many similar conceptualizations. With the advent of comparative religious studies, this has proven especially true in cases of ancient cosmology. While it is clear that the Israelite Sheol and the Greek Hades, for instance, were not thought to be identical, the translators of the Septuagint considered ᾍδης an adequate rendering of שְׁאוֹל in almost every place. Sheol was not, in the end, so different from the other underworlds of ancient Mediterranean conception.
Dead man’s rest
Presented in broad strokes, ancient peoples of the Mediterranean and Near East viewed the underworld as a dark and dismal place into which all the dead descended. There, the spirits of the deceased hoped only to maintain peace and quiet in the company of their family members.4 N. Wyatt writes that “In Mesopotamia, Ugarit, Israel and Greece, a shadowy wraith-like existence was endured, in which the deceased were likened to birds, or to people asleep, who would resent disturbance and interference from the living” (The Concept and Purpose of Hell, 163). That a shade might be disturbed by the unexpected loss of his child (Genesis 37:25, Jeremiah 31:15), by the desecration of his bones (2 Kings 23:18), by necromantic machinations (1 Samuel 28:15), or by a bloody death (1 Kings 2:6-9, Genesis 4:10, cf. Isaiah 14: 3-21, Ezekiel 32:20-32), is at least entertained in Hebrew thought. Sheol, like other underworlds, was a blurry and hollow extension of one’s life and death.
Improper burial, of course, could also upset the dead. For example, according to one Sumerian legend, Enkidu tells the hero Gilgamesh that the ghosts of those whose bodies were “left lying in the open” “find no rest in the netherworld” (Tablet XII 335-338, cf. Ecclesiastes 6:3-5, Isaiah 14:18-20). Similarly, the man who is eaten by a lion, Enkidu reports, wails bitterly “Oh my hand! Oh my foot!” (Tablet XII 312-315). As John Walton explains it: “In Mesopotamia the importance of the burial of the body was connected with a belief that, without burial, the etemmu (ghost) of the deceased would not find its natural place among the community of the dead and would therefore have no rest” (Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, 632-633).
This motif of restlessness appears also in Greco-Roman myth. In the works of Homer and Virgil, for example, the shades of those left unburied fail to enter the underworld altogether. They are prevented from crossing the marshy boundary into Hades and as a result are resigned to wander the riverbank in misery until they can secure burial—or at least funerary rites if no body remains (Iliad 23.65-74, Odyssey 11.51-83, Aeneid 6.317-383). Proper rest escapes them.
In the case of defilement by fire, however, less can be said. In the Gilgamesh legend mentioned above, the ghost of the man who is set on fire “does not exist, it went up in smoke to the sky” (Tablet XII 385-388). According to one Greek myth, in an attempt to prevent a girl’s ghost from again returning as a possessing spirit, townsfolk burn the girl’s body.5 The Hebrews apparently also viewed the burning of one’s bones as a weighty act, probably for similar reasons (Amos 2:1, 2 Kings 23:15-18): burning a body in malice could ruin or even destroy the spirit. In the fires of Gehenna, Jesus states, the body and the shade are both destroyed (Matthew 10:28). Those consumed by God’s fire in Revelation 14:9-11 “have no rest day or night [in the land of the dead],” perhaps because their wraith is no more. For Jesus and for John, it would seem that fire is the final destroyer, being able to reduce even Hades and its inhabitants to nothing (Revelation 20:14).
Whatever else may be said of these diverse and often inconsistent mythologies, for the cultures into which Christianity emerged, death by fire and death without burial were associated with miserable postmortem states, or with the lack thereof.
Divorce of Gaia and Hades
If we may speculate on the origins of these infernal stories—that is, consider the sociological and psychological reasons these myths take the forms they do—those left without burial were understood to be deprived of prestige and identity: “All the kings of the nations lie in glory, each in his own tomb; but you are cast out, away from your grave, like loathsome carrion” (Isaiah 14:18-19). Rather than protected, mourned, and honored6 as valued members of the community—incorporated into the memory and continuing character of the ethne—they were subjected to the humiliation of desecration by exposure, animals,7 and fire. In such cases, without a proper tomb, the living were unable to commune with their dead and sustain them with offerings: “Jezebel’s body will be like dung on the ground.. so that no one can say ‘This is Jezebel'” as one prophet gleefully puts it (2 Kings 9:37). In the end, the memory of such persons could be purged from the community, their natural connections with their people, with their ancestors, and with their identity in life forever severed. As with the act of storytelling, burial (and indeed non-burial) functioned as a form of propaganda—as a way by which communities exerted control over the reputation (or even knowledge) of the dead.8
Turning back then to early Christian apocalyptic, imagining the bodily destruction of hostile pagans and Jews in these ways conveyed an important message. The enemies of the churches were staring down the abyss of historical annihilation. Deprived of a proper and honorable burial, the idolatrous age which harbored (in Christian perspective) compromised forms of Judaism, would not only perish from the earth, but be utterly forgotten. Pagan civilization itself would be devoured and incinerated, allowing Christians to build a new order upon a clean slate. Unable to enter the underworld, or unable to find rest and fraternity in it, the old world would suffer total futility, cut off from the community of the living and therefore unable to maintain the reciprocal relationship shared between the living and the dead. In transforming the political-religious reality in heaven and on the earth in accordance with Christian apocalyptic, the underworld and its relationship to the living would have to be undone as well (cf. Revelation 20:14).
1—So horrible, in fact, that ancients sometimes allowed for burial truces during war (cf. Iliad 7). Even though he massacres them, Odysseus allows the suitors to be given proper burial (Odyssey 24).
2—In reference to the war with Rome and the coming of the son of man Jesus remarks: “Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” It was not uncommon for victims of Roman crucifixion to be left in a mass grave exposed to animals. As Jesus seems to have expected an ignominious burial for himself (Mark 12:8, cf. 14:8, Revelation 11:7-10), he likely believed his enemies would receive just deserts on the day of judgement.
3—Some argue that Sheol is merely a synonym for the grave—that is, that the Hebrews held no belief in a gloomy underworld existence.
4—It was of critical importance that a man be buried with his fathers, perhaps so that he can more easily commune with them in the subterranean world (cf. Genesis 49:29, 2 Samuel 19:38, 1 Kings 16:28—Sheol has “chambers” and “far reaches” according to Proverbs 7:27 & Isaiah 14:15). Kings Jehoram and Ahaz, on the other hand, are stripped of their identity in and communion with David since they buried apart from their fathers (2 Chronicles 21:20, 28:27). Although Uzziah was recognized as an admirable king by the Chronicler, he is buried “near” (rather than “with”) his fathers as he was “considered a leper” (2 Chronicles 26:23). Even in death the leper must remain set apart for the good of the community: “[The leper’s] food is separate, his drink is separate… He lives outside the city [of the dead]” (Tablet XII 324-330).
5—The myth of Philinnion’s ghost is found in the work of Phlegon of Tralles (2nd century AD, Book of Marvels 2.1).
6—Although some Israelites railed against the traditional practice (cf. Deuteronomy 26:14), in these cultures the dead were often honored by means of food-gifts offered at the tomb. In the Sumerian Gilgamesh poem, the shade who has “no one to make funerary offerings” “eats pot scrapings and bread crusts thrown out into the street” as if he is beggar (Tablet XII. 339-342).
7—Being eaten in this way also possibly implied the annihilation of the spirit (N. Wyatt, The concept and purpose of Hell: its nature and development in West Semitic thought, 164-167).
8—Elpenor tells Odysseus “Heap up a mound for me on the shore of the grey sea, in memory of an unhappy man, that men yet to be may learn of me” (Odyssey 1.77-78).