Louis Markos on the Poetry of Heaven & Hell (Encore Presentation)
Date: July 23rd, 2017

C.S. Lewis once noted that humans are the only species to fear their own dead.  Not surprisingly, visions of the afterlife — or of heaven and hell — loom large within literature.  Prof. Louis Markos, the Robert H. Ray Chair in the Humanities at Houston Baptist University, explains how these visions have changed over time, starting back with pre-Christian pagan writers such as Plato, and all the way through our contemporary period with an emphasis on C.S. Lewis.  The interview also mingles in a variety of insights about how the great texts of Western Civilization are being taught today.

We begin the discussion with Dr. Markos making a case for why studying the classics is important.  Tony admits that literature was never one of his favorite topics in school, and also has Lou explain to him the difference between poetry and prose.  Poetry, we discover, does not necessarily mean words that rhyme, but rather a genre of writing where every word counts and there is extensive and deep use of metaphor, simile, and cadence.  Lou proposes that while there is not merely one “correct reading” of poetry, there can be “wrong answers.”  Tony reveals that his skepticism of literature emanated from a college course that seemingly read too much Freudian psychology into The Odyssey, which then launches Dr. Markos into a discussion of how poorly literature is often taught today.

The discussion of contemporary education in the area of literature then takes us to Dr. Markos’s book Heaven and Hell: Visions of the Afterlife in the Western Poetic Tradition.  He notes that his goal is to bring Athens and Jerusalem together.  Lou explains the difference between general revelation, wherein God speaks to all humans throughout history, and special revelation, wherein God specifically speaks through Jesus Christ.  Christianity, he asserts, is not the only truth, but is the only complete truth.  This allows him to note the importance of early pagan writers and the foundational influence they had on later writers such as Dante, Milton, and Lewis.  It is at this point where Prof. Markos also explains why C.S. Lewis wrote that humans are the only species that fear the dead and what the difference is between fear of an imminent danger and fear of the unknown.  It is the latter, in the form of what comes after life, that has motivated great literature throughout the ages.

The last half of our interview walks (or perhaps jogs) through nearly three millennia of literary history.  Lou starts us with Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey, which deals directly with Odysseus having to face death (though it is not clear in this epic work if the hero actually ventures into the afterlife or merely stands at its gates).  Plato is next up, and although Plato banished the poets, Lou observes that this great Greek philosopher plants himself firmly in the poetic tradition as he tends to “lose himself” in myth after introducing a philosophic principle.  Here we also see how the afterlife becomes a place of judgment, not just a destination, which in turn helps Plato to wrestle with the concept of justice.  Moving to Rome we briefly pick up the work of Virgil who becomes a major influence on the likes of Dante.  What is introduced here is that we are introduced into the souls of the great Romans who act out an eternal drama.  It is no wonder, Lou mentions, that Dante then picks up on Virgil who Prof. Markos considers to be the climax of general revelation.  Dante infuses this vision with the specific revelation of Christianity and develops the notion that hell is not just punishment for a sin, but that it is the sinner becoming sin — an explanation of what sin does to humans.

Time constraints forbid us from examining a number of other authors that Prof. Markos discusses in his work (e.g., Milton), and so we jump up to the (relatively) contemporary period and C.S. Lewis where Lou reveals that his favorite work of that author is The Great Divorce.   Lou discusses how Lewis builds upon Dante and gives us a psychology of sin by using the story of the grumbling old lady on the bus from hell.  He points out that “the grumbler” really is nothing more than a “grumble” herself, leaving little to save on the road to heaven.  The intellectual challenge of that work is how all but one of the characters, when offered a choice of heaven and hell, choose the latter revealing how the process of sin is really the hell we face; hell is not just a single destination.  We finish with an interesting observation about how evangelical Christians, who used to be very skeptical of reading non-Christian authors, are once again embracing these classics at a time when The Academy may be abandoning them.  Lou offers the analogy of building a bridge between the pre-Christian and Christian eras and its important for general and special revelation.  Recorded: July 6, 2015.



Prof. Louis Markos’ website over at The City Online, a website hosted by Houston Baptist University.

Lou Markos’ bio at HBU’s Department of English and Modern Languages.

Heaven & Hell: Visions of the Afterlife in the Western Poetic Tradition, by Louis Markos.

From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics, by Louis Markos.

The Eye of the Beholder: How to See the World Like a Romantic Poet, by Louis Markos.

On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue in Tolkien and Lewis, by Louis Markos.

C.S. Lewis: An Apologist for Education, by Louis Markos.

The Great Divorce, by C.S. Lewis (mentioned in podcast).


John Mark Reynolds on A Christmas Carol.

Jason Jewell on Why Christians Should Read the Great Books.

Pamela Edwards on Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Corey Olsen on J.R.R. Tolkien, Religion, and the Hobbit.

Hunter Baker on the Future of Higher Education.

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