More on heaven, hell and judgement

More on heaven, hell and judgement

Life after death

Christians believe that they have an immortal soul. In other words, a human being does not simply consist of a body which will die, but also has a spirit which will live on for eternity after the death of the body.


Christians also believe that, after death, all humans will be judged by God according to their actions on this earth. Because of the religious turmoil which had taken place in England just before and during Shakespeare's lifetime, beliefs would differ about what might happen after God's judgement.
For Shakespeare's audience, there were three possible after-life existences: heaven, hell and purgatory.


Christians believe that heaven is a place of eternal joy, where God is enthroned and surrounded by angels — creatures of pure spirit who act as God's messengers to earth. It is depicted as a place of shining light and great beauty: the most famous vision of the Christian heaven is in the last book of the Bible, Revelation. No human being deserves to enter heaven because all are guilty of sin. However, the Bible teaches that those who repent of their wrong attitudes and actions, put their faith in the fact that Christ's death has saved them and seek to live in obedience to God while on earth, will spend eternity in heaven with him.


However, according to Catholic doctrine, which would be pertinent in plays with an Italian setting such as The Taming of the Shrew, there is also a place called purgatory — a place between heaven and hell where the souls of those who are not damned, but who are not yet fit for heaven, may go to be purged, or purified, of sin (though this idea is not found in the Bible).


The Bible taught that those who had rejected Jesus on earth, and were guilty of evil acts of which they did not repent, would be condemned by the judgement of God to hell — a place of eternal separation from God and thus eternal torments (far worse than those believed to take place in purgatory).
Although the Bible does not provide a detailed description of hell, Christian tradition has included the following beliefs:
  • Hell is a place of fire and suffering.
  • Hell is the abode of devils and demons — evil spirits (traditionally, angels who have rebelled against God). These devils torment souls in hell and also tempt humans on earth
  • Hell is the home of Satan, the chief evil spirit, whose name means ‘enemy' (as he is the enemy of God and of humankind).
For further information see Big ideas: Devils.

Mercy and forgiveness

With death an ever present reality in Elizabethan life, it is no wonder that there was such a preoccupation with what happened to people when they died. People's fears were focused on the torments of punishment, but the influence of the Reformation meant that there was also a clearer understanding of God's grace and the possibility of forgiveness

Changing emphasis

The Bible states that God, who created the world and entrusted its care to humankind, will judge all according to the way they have lived:
  • The Old Testament frequently shows God punishing individuals for sinful behaviour
  • However, both the Old Testament and the New Testament also show God offering mercy and the possibility of repentance and forgiveness, even when individuals or nations have previously ignored and refused to obey him. In the New Testament, God's love is emphasised as he is shown sending his son Jesus to die on the cross, making the sacrifice necessary to wipe out, or redeem, people's sins and making forgiveness and a new start available to all.
  • It was this which particularly inspired Reformers like Martin Luther, whose writings had a huge influence. 

Confession and repentance

In order to gain forgiveness, according to Christian belief, individuals needed to recognise their failure to live in obedience to God, confess their sins, and repent (turn their back on that way of living), thus accepting the forgiveness and new life made possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus. In response to true repentance, God washes away all guilt of sin.

Justice and mercy

According to the Bible, since all people are in need of God's grace and forgiveness, all should show forgiveness to others in their turn. In many of his plays, Shakespeare illustrates that those who judge others harshly may expect to be so judged themselves. 

Vengeance forbidden

Vengeance, or revenge — the taking of retribution for a perceived injustice or harmful act — is directly opposed to ideas of mercy, forgiveness and grace. Consequently, in Christian theology, it is seen as being entirely the wrong response to an injury. Although the phrase from the Old Testament, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth' is well-known, by contrast in many places in the New Testament the followers of Christ are told to forgive and not to seek revenge (see Luke 6:27-29; Romans 12:17-19).  
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