Interpretation & Perspective in the Visions of Hell

By  Julia Liu, Wren McMillan, Ann Rayburn

In our group discussions, we started by understanding the commonalities between different visions and thinking about why they are in common.

One aspect we found across multiple visions is the aspect of retelling. The vision is not just for the visionary to keep, but to spread it to other people so they can witness it too. The visionary is in a sense only witnessing for other people. They have to put it down into words to spread it to other people. St. Peter’s Apocalypse is written in the first person narrative, so while we are reading it we are witnessing what St. Peter witnessed. Meanwhile, St. Paul’s Apocalypse is written on a scroll and presented to the emperor. Since the aspect of retelling is so important, to what extent are we having the same experience of witnessing as the visionaries then?

The visions are retold because of its didactic purposes. An act of witnessing is not complete without interpretation. Our interpretations of the visions are crucial to its purpose. Therefore, the perspective of the listener is really important. This is why some visionaries choose to tell their visions to a selective group of people so that others won’t interpret it in a wrong way. Furseus would only tell his vision to “those who wished to learn of them from holy zeal and desire for reformation” (55). Here there seems to be the implication that the visions will only serve their own purpose if you approach them with a zeal to believe. Drythelm would not tell his vision to “lazy people or those who lived negligently; but only to those who are terrified with the dread of torments or delighted with the hopes of heavenly joys and would make use of his words to advance in piety” (62). The same thing seems to be implied here, that the words would only be useful to us if we already believed, since we would use them to “advance in piety”, to become more pious. In some Christian traditions, people are not allowed to read the Bible on their own, but they have to have someone read it to them and interpret it for them.

The visions recognize the importance of interpretation in witnessing, and that’s why guidelines are included in these visions, to tell the readers how to approach a vision. I think one example is in St. Paul’s Apocalypse, where the visionary weeped at the sight of people suffering even though he knew they were sinful, and the angel kept saying “why do you weep? Are you more merciful than the Lord God” (42). This seems to be a guideline for readers who are witnessing these visions through someone else, almost a warning to tell people not to feel pity for the sufferers or else we would be thinking that we were more merciful than God. The aspect of physical pain is also important for interpretation. Even though most of these visions include a separation of soul and body, physical pain has an almost didactic aspect, so we need this pain to exist even when the soul is separated from the body. We need pain to feel and believe.

Since all these visions include an aspect of retelling, interpretation of the listener/reader is especially important, and only those who witness with faith and zeal and understand the whole story.

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