"The boys" and I had not long begun our study of early American history when we read the diary of Mary Rowlandson. She was a young frontier wife and mother taken captive from her Lancaster, Massachusetts home and held for ransom by Indians. Her devotion to God during the ensuing months and her prodigious knowledge of the Scriptures impressed us. And our admiration of her deepened as we read of her humble repentance for relatively minor offences of her former life (such as pipe smoking and ingratitude for friends and the ordinary comforts of home) and of how sincerely she dedicated herself anew to God.
Mary was an exceptionally observant and perceptive young woman. Her diary, written after she was ransomed by her husband from the Indians, includes insightful and detailed descriptions of the Indians' way of life. One night, she recorded how her captors danced wildly in the camp:
"There was [near] by a vacant house (deserted by the English before, for fear of the Indians). I asked them whether I might not lodge in the house that night, to which they answered, "What, will you love English men still?" This was the dolefulest night that ever my eyes saw. Oh the roaring, and singing and dancing, and yelling of those black creatures in the night, which made the place a lively resemblance of hell."
As the boys and I were reading that section of Mary's diary, we fell into a discussion of how people in our culture typically imagine Hell. I pointed out to this small group of homeschoolers that, as a whole, Western society's concept of Hell from the time of the Middle Ages actually has its roots more in Christian myth than in biblical truth. It is still true, for example, that when provoked by doctrines that displease them, many Christians contemptuously scorn those teachings as "doctrines from Hell", or they may respond to an especially atrocious deed as having been inspired by "demons from Hell". And yet, the Bible clearly states that the Devil and his angels came to earth from heaven, not from Hell (Isa. 14:12; Rev. 12:7-12).
The notion that anything on earth is from Hell is completely non-biblical. That idea originated in the mythology of ancient Classical culture and was infused into the Western psyche by Christian theology and poems, such as Dante Alighieri's masterful work, The Divine Comedy.
When asked if they would like to read Dante's Divine Comedy, the boys eagerly accepted the offer. Afterward, however, I had second thoughts. How could I justify exposing their impressionable young spirits to such a powerful, godless myth-maker as Dante before they were established in the truth revealed in the Scriptures? I could not. I was loathe to renege on my offer to read Dante with them, but I also knew that I could not foist on them Dante's powerful, mythological vision of the underworld (and heaven) without first making certain that they possessed a steady plumb line by which to judge his work. They had to have a sure knowledge of what the Bible reveals about the places Dante would pretend to take them. That was the genesis of this study, and as it progressed, it proved to be more beneficial to us all than I expected; so, with good confidence in the benefit of the enterprise, we determined to pass along to you what we learned.
It seems odd that the study of Hell and the other gruesome places of spiritual damnation could inspire a gentle and deep loving care for others, and yet, that is what we experienced. How could such a thing be? Holy love is perceived generally to be such a tender thing, and, by contrast, Hell is a place where tenderness can only be remembered, never experienced. Nevertheless, this study produced in us a sense of the love and goodness of God that is always directed toward men. In truth, and to our happy surprise, this work proved to be more a story of God than of Hell.
This study had its roots in the love of God and a desire to attain to the knowledge of His truth, and we found that as we pursued it, the truth bore for us a fuller measure of the sweet, peaceful fruit of love and hope for those who will read what we have written.
This book, dear Reader, is humbly offered to you in the love of Christ, as a service to your faith, which love always produces an earnest hope for others' eternal blessing and peace.
The boys and I greet you and wish for you only the best in Christ Jesus, the Son of God and only Savior of mankind.
John Clark, and "the boys":
Elijah Clark, Aaron Nelson, Josiah Payne.