Although many of us now associate hell with Christianity, the idea of an afterlife existed much earlier. Greeks and Romans, for example, used the concept of Hades, an underworld where the dead lived, both as a way of understanding death and as a moral tool.
However, in the present times, the use of this rhetoric has radically changed.
Rhetoric in ancient Greece and Rome
The earliest Greek and Roman depictions of Hades in the epics did not focus on punishment, but described a dark shadowy place of dead people.
In Book 11 of the Greek epic the “Odyssey,” Odysseus travels to the realm of the dead, encountering countless familiar faces, including his own mother.
Near the end of Odysseus’ tour, he encounters a few souls being punished for their misdeeds, including Tantalus, who was sentenced eternally to have food and drink just out of reach. It is this punishment from which the word “tantalize” originated.
Hundreds of years later, the Roman poet Virgil, in his epic poem “Aeneid,” describes a similar journey of a Trojan, Aeneas, to an underworld, where many individuals receive rewards and punishments.
This ancient curriculum was used for teaching everything from politics to economics to virtue, to students across the Roman empire, for hundreds of years.
In later literature, these early traditions around punishment persuaded readers to behave ethically in life so that they could avoid punishment after death. For example, Plato describes the journey of a man named Er, who watches as souls ascend to a place of reward, and descend to a place of punishment. Lucian, an ancient second century A.D. satirist takes this one step further in depicting Hades as a place where the rich turned into donkeys and had to bear the burdens of the poor on their backs for 250 years.
For Lucian this comedic depiction of the rich in hell was a way to critique excess and economic inequality in his own world.
By the time the New Testament gospels were written in the first century A.D., Jews and early Christians were moving away from the idea that all of the dead go to the same place.
In the Gospel of Matthew, the story of Jesus is told with frequent mentions of “the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.” As I describe in my book, many of the images of judgment and punishment that Matthew uses represent the early development of a Christian notion of hell.
The Gospel of Luke does not discuss final judgment as frequently, but it does contain a memorable representation of hell. The Gospel describes Lazarus, a poor man who had lived his life hungry and covered with sores, at the gate of a rich man, who disregards his pleas. After death, however, the poor man is taken to heaven. Meanwhile, it is the turn of the rich man to be in agony as he suffers in the flames of hell and cries out for Lazarus to give him some water.
Matthew and Luke are not simply offering audiences a fright fest. Like Plato and later Lucian, these New Testament authors recognized that images of damnation would capture the attention of their audience and persuade them to behave according to the ethical norms of each gospel.
Later Christian reflections on hell picked up and expanded this emphasis. Examples can be seen in the later apocalypses of Peter and Paul – stories that use strange imagery to depict future times and otherworldly spaces. These apocalypses included punishments for those who did not prepare meals for others, care for the poor or care for the widows in their midst.
Although these stories about hell were not ultimately included in the Bible, they were extremely popular in the ancient church, and were used regularly in worship.
A major idea in Matthew was that love for one’s neighbor was central to following Jesus. Later depictions of hell built upon this emphasis, inspiring people to care for the “least of these” in their community.
Damnation then and now
In the contemporary world, the notion of hell is used to scare people into becoming Christians, with an emphasis on personal sins rather than a failure to care for the poor or hungry.
In the United States, as religion scholar Katherine Gin Lumhas argued, the threat of hell was a powerful tool in the age of nation-building. In the early Republic, as she explains, “fear of the sovereign could be replaced by fear of God.”
As the ideology of republicanism developed, with its emphasis on individual rights and political choice, the way that the rhetoric of hell worked also shifted. Instead of motivating people to choose behaviors that promoted social cohesion, hell was used by evangelical preachers to get individuals to repent for their sins.
Even though people still read Matthew and Luke, it is this individualistic emphasis, I argue, that continues to inform our modern understanding of hell. It is evident in the hell-themed Halloween attractions with their focus on gore and personal shortcomings.
These depictions are unlikely to portray the consequences for people who have neglected to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, cloth the naked, care for the sick or visit those in prison.
The fears around hell, in the current times, play only on the ancient rhetoric of eternal punishment.
The superstar rapper/entrepreneur Jay-Z has generated lots of buzz lately regarding his spiritual beliefs. Is his music satanic? Is he a member of a secret society? Commentator Paul Scott suggests we may be getting distracted by the wrong questions, and that’s exactly how the hip-hop industry wants it. “Big Ballin’ is my hobby / so much so they think I’m down with the Illuminati.” — from the song “Hot Toddy” by Usher, featuring Jay-Z.
Over the past year, the hottest topic in the hip-hop world has been whether artists such as Jay-Z, Kanye West, and others are part of some diabolical secret society. From street corners to college campuses, people are losing sleep over the question: “Is Jay-Z part of the Illuminati?” The issue has reached such a level that Jay-Z has responded to the accusations on collaborations with Rick Ross and Usher, as well as radio interviews. To add to the controversy, MC Hammer reportedly has jumped on the bandwagon insinuating that Jay-Z is a devil worshiper.
While some of the discussions have been thought provoking, many have done nothing but subject people to the same “spookism” about a devil with a pitch fork and a red suit that they get in many churches. Much of the “spookism” that is being used in regards to the Illuminati is just a mask to divert attention from the real issue, global white supremacy.
The Illuminati was formed May 1, 1776, by Adam Weishaupt, with the purpose of organizing a secret society of “enlightened white men” to rule the planet. However, it must be noted that — according to the book Illuminati 666, compiled by William Sutton — Weishaupt has said, “regarding the order, let it never appear in any place in its own name, but always covered by another name and another occupation.” So when an interviewer asks a rapper if he is a part of the Illuminati, the person is really creating a smokescreen to hide the real issue.
What should be questioned is why hip-hop industry insiders from J. Prince, Ice Cube, to 50 Cent have felt compelled to address the issue. If the accusations of something fishy in hip-hop did not have at least a grain of truth, the whole controversy would have been easily dismissed and not dignified with an answer.
There is a term called “limited hangout,” which is defined as “the release of previously hidden information to prevent a greater exposure of more important details.” This is the deception that is transpiring with the hip-hop secret society controversy.
It is often said that if you don’t ask the right question, you cannot get the right answer. The question that should be posed to Jay-Z is not whether he is a member of the Illuminati, but “What does he know about the Illuminati?” Because if he claims that he doesn’t know anything about the order, then he cannot possibly know if he is playing a role in their agenda, can he? Also, the major question should not be whether a rapper is part of a secret society, but what is his relationship with the 10 percent of the population that controls 90 percent of the wealth and how does this affect “the ‘hood”?
The discussion of the role that covert white supremacist organizations have played in the oppression of the non-white people of the planet has been discussed by researchers and conspiracy theorists. However, the issue has been rarely viewed in a hip-hop context, so people have been either unwilling or unable to connect the dots.
The same agenda was also being carried out across the Atlantic by European white supremacists, such as Cecil Rhodes who founded the Round Table Group that espoused the doctrine of Anglo-Saxon world domination, including the colonization of Africa. So, perhaps, instead of looking at rappers, we need to be looking at Rhodes Scholars?
Although many of the societies have been based on racism, the motivation has also been economic, as these organizations follow the proverb that “a fool and his money are soon parted.” If you keep the masses ignorant, they can be easily exploited.
Herein, lies the role of hip-hop.
While commercial rappers like Jay-Z may not be card-carrying members of a secret society, it is not debatable that many support global white supremacy by way of “racial shadow-ism,” which Neely Fuller defines as “when victims of racism are directly or indirectly, ‘assigned,’ bribed, coerced and or likewise influenced by white supremacists to speak or act to do harm to other victims of racism.” He says that the reason for this is to cause us to believe that the person acting in a “shadow” capacity is in control, when in actuality he is a mere flunky for the global elite.
Also, while most people reference a Tupac video clip as evidence that he exposed the Illuminati, if one really listens to the clip, Shakur actually denied its existence. In it, Shakur said the only thing that matters is getting money, regardless from whence it came.
There is an old saying that if you want to hide something from a black man, put it in a book. So the information about secret societies that has hip-hop heads buggin’ is not really secret, but can be found in our local libraries. But when you have successfully dumbed down a society, you do not have to really hide the truth, as it can be “hidden in plain sight.”
So if the power of secret societies is keeping the masses clueless, what role does hip-hop play in making ignorance bliss? Frankly, I’m less concerned about Jay-Z being on the cover of Forbes magazine than I am about the “conspiracy” of rappers who are considered too dumb to be in a secret society (such as Gucci Mane and Wacka Flocka Flame) carrying out a mission to dumb down black and urban children.
Our greatest weapon against oppression is knowledge of the truth. Instead of engaging in ghetto gossip and fairy tales, we must encourage people to read. We cannot rely on hip-hop websites and YouTube for our information, but must get our information the old fashioned way — from a book.
We must understand that for those who do not study, everything is a secret. However, for those who diligently seek truth, as Jesus taught: “There is nothing that is hidden that shall not be revealed.”