Death & Dying Doctrine & Practice Faith

What is hell?

The abyss of hell. (Wikimedia/Sandro Botticelli).

(The Conversation) — The recent dispute over whether Pope Francis denied the existence of hell in an interview attracted wide attention. This isn’t surprising, since the belief in an afterlife, where the virtuous are rewarded with a place in heaven and the wicked are punished in hell, is a core teaching of Christianity.

So what is the Christian idea of hell?

Origins of belief in hell

The Christian belief in hell has developed over the centuries, influenced by both Jewish and Greek ideas of the afterlife.

The earliest parts of the Hebrew Bible, around the eighth century B.C., described the afterlife as Sheol, a shadowy, silent pit where the souls of all the dead lingered in a minimal state of silent existence, forever outside of the presence of God. By the sixth century B.C., Sheol was increasingly viewed as a temporary place, where all the departed awaited a bodily resurrection. The righteous would then dwell in the presence of God, and the wicked would suffer in the fiery torment that came to be called “Gehenna,” described as a cursed place of fire and smoke.

Early depictions of the afterlife in ancient Greece, an underworld realm called “Hades,” are similar. There, the listless spirits of the dead lingered in an underground twilight existence, ruled by the god of the dead. Evildoers suffered gloomy imprisonment on an even deeper level called “Tartarus.”

Beginning in the fourth century B.C., after the Greek King Alexander the Great conquered Judea, elements of Greek culture began to influence Jewish religious thought. By time of the first gospels, between 65 and 85 A.D., Jesus refers to the Jewish belief in the eternal fire of Gehenna. Elsewhere, he mentions evildoers’ banishment from the kingdom of God, and the “blazing furnace” where the wicked would suffer sorrow and despair and “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Jesus also mentions the Greek Hades when describing how the forces of evil – “the gates of Hades” – would not prevail against the church.

Depiction of the seven deadly sins and the four last things of man (death, judgment, heaven and hell).
Hieronymus Bosch or follower.

Medieval ideas of hell

In early Christianity, the fate of those in hell was described in different ways. Some theologians taught that eventually all evil human beings and even Satan himself would be restored to unity with God. Other teachers held that hell was an “intermediate state,” where some souls would be purified and others annihilated.

The image that dominated in antiquity eventually prevailed. Hell was where the souls of the damned suffered torturous and unending punishment. Even after the resurrection of the dead at the end of the world, the wicked would be sent back to Hell for eternity.

By the beginning of the fifth century, this doctrine was taught throughout western Christianity. It was reaffirmed officially by popes and councils throughout the Middle Ages.

Medieval theologians continued to stress that the worst of all these torments would be eternal separation from God, the “poena damni.” Medieval visions of the afterlife provided more explicit details: pits full of dark flames, terrible cries, gagging stench, and rivers of boiling water filled with serpents.

Cerberus, with the gluttons in Dante’s third circle of hell.
William Blake

Perhaps the most fulsome description of hell was offered by the Italian poet Dante at the beginning of the 14th century in the first section of his “Divine Comedy.” Here the souls of the damned are punished with tortures matching their sins. Gluttons lie in freezing pools of garbage, while murderers thrash in a river of boiling blood.

Hell is God’s absence

Today, these images seem to be part of a past that the 21st century has outgrown. However, the official textbook of Catholic Christianity, the “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” reaffirms the Catholic belief in the eternal nature of hell. It omits the gory details found in earlier attempts to describe the hellish experience, but restates that the chief pain of hell is eternal separation from God.

The ConversationThe Vatican insisted that the pope was misquoted by the journalist. But theologians have pointed out that Pope Francis has stressed the reality of hell several times in recent years. Indeed, for today’s Catholics at least, hell still means the hopeless anguish of God’s absence.

(Joanne M. Pierce is a professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross. This article was originally published on The Conversation here.)

About the author

Joanne Pierce

48 Comments

Click here to post a comment

  • While we know all about the fires of hell, it is heaven that has not really been described. Sitting on a cloud, playing a harp is not what I want to do throughout eternity.

  • The early Hebrew sheol was drawn in all likelihood from earlier Near Eastern conceptions of the afterlife. It went by many different names (e.g. “the House of Dust and Darkness” mentioned in the Epic of Gilgamesh) but the notion was virtually the same. This concept was so widespread, and so ancient even in ancient times, that it may well have influenced the Greeks and their ‘αδης (hades). 

  • If “Hell is God’s absence” … after reading the Bible — I’m sure there will be a waiting list for Hell…and discount tickets for Heaven.

    Who in their right mind would want to be around the Christian God in Heaven?

  • Good question, Damien. Who indeed? Well, me, for one.

    “I believe on the 3rd day,
    Jesus rose from the grave,
    The world thinks I’m crazy,
    But I’m just radically saved!!”

    — Carman

    But look here. He says He got some great stuff for **you too.**
    He says it’s bigtime stuff you ain’t NEVER seen, nor even once considered (1 Cor.2:9). Stuff that will change your mind and blow your mind at the same time.

    So, regardless of the past, why not sign up with God NOW? You belong in heaven. So stop showin’ out, go get hooked up with Jesus, and take care o’ business!

  • “Jesus refers to … the eternal fire of Gehenna … [as] ‘where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'”

    Ouch.

    ‘NUFF SAID.

  • No, or didn’t you read? “Hell would be spending eternity” – “weeping and gnashing … teeth”!

    FUN.

  • floydlee sez “Well, me, for one.” And I sez “Well, me, for one”, too. And we’re of the “right mind” just as you are. Which therefore is immaterial.

  • So “what [do you] want to do throughout eternity”, then? You’re too scared & confused to say.

  • And you know what it’s like in hell how? Oh right, you read it in a book written 2,000 years ago by people who didn’t know where the Sun went at night. Wake up.

  • The Bible states, “Eye hath not seen, ear hath not heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man the things that God has prepared for those that love Him…” Presumably you have experienced the pleasure and joy of Choral song. An experience in which you are surrounded by like minded people, each with different vocal gifts, and each one is pouring their heart and soul into the song they are singing, and you, in effect, are immersed in an evocative sensory experience that thrills you to the very depths of your being. That is what it will be like to worship God in His heaven when that Day comes. There will be no desultory strumming of harps on a cotton candy cloud. Such images are merely a shallow cultural cartoon of the mid-20th century.

  • That demonstrates the metaphysics involved via humanity’s inner consciousness and self awareness, which revealed Sheol and Gehenna as very real places. The entirety of antiquity knew it.

  • I’d like a harp, myself. Preferably a Lyon and Healy style 17. I took lessons in college but it’s a whopper of an expensive instrument 😊

  • Sure you wannabe his protege-wannabe? But you can’t even do Bill Maher, an Alt-Right Atheist, justice with that quote. What he said was:

    “To me the most obvious decision a person could make in their life [is]: Do I want to make real world policy decided on the basis of proven facts and the outer reaches of where humans have gotten to do in science, or do I want real world decisions made based on ANCIENT MYTHS, WRITTEN BY MEN WHO DIDN’T KNOW WHAT A GERM OR ATOM WAS, OR WHERE THE SUN WENT AT NIGHT? I pick Choice A. Science and facts. I want to do the smartest thing possible. Smart choices, I feel, have a greatest chance of resulting in me being happy. I like happy. That is my goal. But not everybody feels this way. And that’s OK too. But for the people who do see it that way, it’s really important that you say so. So it’s important if you are a secular person to stand up and say, ‘It’s not OK to make decisions based on myths!’ Don’t let it look like, in America, that the most reasonable — not to mention correct — fact-based argument is really the weird one, the one held by a tiny minority of misguided eggheads. No! Secularists are bigger than that! Way bigger! But you gotta show yourself. You might find you have more friends than you think.”

    Source: Leonardo Blair, “Bill Maher Urges Atheists to Speak Up; Knocks the Bible as Book Based on ‘Ancient Myths’ in New Ad for Openly Secular”, The Christian Post, January 20, 2015.

  • My father was a magnificent tenor. Alas, that gift did not pass to me. I’ll be content to hide among greater voices than my own.

  • Actually, γε‘ενα was a relatively late invention and by no means a widespread belief in the ancient world — not anywhere near as extensive, pervasive, or as primeval as sheol aka ‘αδης aka “the House of Dust and Darkness. 

    But even if it were, that it was widely believed cannot and will never magically grant it any veracity — metaphysical or otherwise. People in large numbers can be, and often are, very wrong about things. You’ve fallen for a couple of fallacies in one fell swoop: Argumentum ad antiquitatem, or appeal to tradition, appeal to antiquity, etc.; and argumentum ad populum, or appeal to popularity, bandwagon fallacy, appeal to consensus, etc. 

  • Hell is defined (marketed) as that which will keep the collection-plate full at that particular moment in time.

  • There are a lot of things in the Bible but very few, if any, Jews read the Old Testament literally. Among the Jews I know, there is no belief in an eternal hell and limbo (sheol) is generally seen as a temporary period to cleanse after death, perhaps a few months or a year, and then the souls leave and go to… well, that’s not so clear. Maimonides, in his Thirteen Fundamental Principles of Jewish Faith, included resurrection of the dead, though today few Jews would accept that idea. https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/332555/jewish/Maimonides-13-Principles-of-Faith.htm

  • Dem bones, dem bones, creep back to Jerusalem when the Messiah returns. The Passover Seder say “next year in Jerusalem” because of it.

  • You may want to re-read your question there. Unpleasant implications, it seems.

    We all got freewill choice, sure, but other than imitating Satan, (and presumably wanting to stay at **his** cr*ppy house), why would anybody actually want to leave heaven?

    Who wants to miss out on the new heavens and the new earth? Who wants to miss out on total fulfillment and peace, eternal life, and unimaginable joy? Don’t you want to cash in as well?

  • You only get the kind of harp they had back in the old days. Six strings, if you’re lucky. Tuned to the Dorian mode forever. But not the entire dorian mode, just 6/8’s of it. Enjoy.

  • I’m amazed there’s no mention of the Orthodox concept of hell, which not only greatly simplifies the metaphysics involved, but appeals to concepts of fairness and common sense as well.

    Orthodoxy holds that all souls end up in the presence of God, –which is heaven for those who accept Him (and His sacrifice), and hell for those who resist Him. According to an Orthodox theologian, Orthodoxy “makes no distinction, essentially, between the fire of hell and the light of God’s glory.” Damnation is “the soul’s resistance to the beauty of God’s glory, its refusal to open itself before the divine love, which causes divine love to seem an exterior chastisement.”

    Hell is IDENTICAL to divine love, as experienced by sinners who, in C. S. Lewis’s words, prefer self-righteousness to the righteousness of God and “the deformed sense of satisfaction from holding on to bitterness, resentment, and hurt” to the joys at God’s right hand. Hell is not the absence of God, it is the resistance to God’s presence. The gates of hell are locked from the inside – by those who suffer its torments.

  • All he did was adduce evidence to support his (single) “protest.” Methinks thou art deflecting his point.

  • Actually hell is having to read “Being and Nothingness” cover to cover aloud (that way you can’t cheat) again, and again, and again…

  • You’ve already left (see my comment on the Orthodox concept of hell, below), so you’ve got quite a flock of Satan’s failed angelic rebels to keep company with. Enjoy.

  • You’re still deflecting. HpO’s point was that you copied your rant from somebody else — and did it badly. You don’t have any response to that, because it’s true. But if by chance you have a “clue” about something else, by all means share it with us.

  • Still at it. The ONLY point of this discussion is your plagiarized rant, still not acknowledged, or even referred to by you. That’s what I call deflection dedication.

  • Well, then, seeing as you’d rather spend eternity in meaninglessness, you won’t like what eternal life has to offer to atheists. It’s everything atheists hate about God & Jesus. So, carry on & don’t bother. Because, see, truth be told, to live eternally is:

    (1) To know the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom He has sent, with the understanding that Jesus came forth from God, and that God sent Jesus.

    (2) To know that everything God has given Jesus is from God; that the words which God gave Jesus have been given to His children by Jesus.

    (3) To know that God loved them, even as God has loved Jesus.

    (4) To know that it’s only Jesus who has made God’s name known to them, and will continue to make it known, so that the love with which God loved Jesus may be in them, and Jesus in them.

    Source: John 17:2-26.

  • Just so we’re clear. Eternal hell isn’t the opposite of eternal life. It’s the punishment for rejecting eternal life offerred in the following gospel:

    John 17:2 God gave Jesus authority over all flesh, so that to all whom God has given Jesus, He may give eternal life. 3 This is eternal life, that they may know Him, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom He has sent. … 7 They have come to know that everything God has given Jesus is from God; 8 for the words which God gave Jesus have been given to them by Jesus; and they received them and truly understood that Jesus came forth from God, and they believed that God sent Jesus. … 22 The glory which God has given Jesus has been given to them by Jesus, that they may be one, just as God and Jesus are one; 23 so Jesus in them and God in Jesus, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that God sent Jesus, and loved them, even as God has loved Jesus. … 25 Although the world has not known God, yet Jesus has known God; and these ones have known that God sent Jesus; 26 and Jesus has made God’s name known to them, and will make it known, so that the love with which God loved Jesus may be in them, and Jesus in them.

  • Arguably, even within the context of those fallacies, that does not mean unequivocally, that such fallacies are never applicable.

  • In the second chapter of Acts Peter states clearly that King David was still in his grave (hades, hell) awaiting the resurrection. Jesus stated earlier that no man had yet ascended to heaven and he (Jesus) would be the first. That rules out a burning hell. Those in their graves (hades, hell) are awaiting the ressurection – some to a good judgement others to destruction. Again not a description of an everlasting fiery torment. In Revelation death and (hell, hades) would eventually be hurled into the lake of fire, the second death. You Christians are really confused on this issue.

  • All the folks I’d like to hang out with for all eternity will likely be in hell so I vote for that. Anyway I hear the Devil has got great weed and no worry about hunting around for a lighter. What nonsense!

  • You failed to respond substantively to my response, a significant philosophical shortcoming on your part; your Latin phrasing is not etched in stone. Now you’re having a snit? I suggest you grow up. It is precisely due to people like you who throw tantrums that I quit posting to this site for such a long time. I’m prepared to meet argument with argument. Otherwise I have nothing more to say.

  • And made the Sun ‘stand still’ so Joshua could capture Jericho. For that event to happen god would have to stop the Earth’s rotation – a disaster for life on earth.

  • Re: “You failed to respond substantively to my response …” 

    I explained you used fallacies. You tried to say there’s nothing wrong with fallacies. I said they’re still fallacies. No more substance is called for, than that. In fact, this response is probably more of a response than is called for, given your initial appeals to fallacies. Fallacies are contemptible, the last resort of intellectual bankruptcy. 

    Re: “… your Latin phrasing is not etched in stone.” 

    Too bad so sad for you, you poor little man. 

    Re: “Now you’re having a snit?” 

    Funny you’d say that, obviously YOU are the one who’s in a “snit.” I’m just telling you, you have no idea what you’re talking about; you have no idea you initially used two different fallacies, and now you’re actually DEFENDING using them; and on top of it, you’re sanctimoniously outraged that I insolently dared point it out (using the “Latin phrasing” you dislike). 

    Waaah wah waah, little man. 

    Re: ” It is precisely due to people like you who throw tantrums …” 

    Explaining your fallacies to you is not a “tantrum.” Had I wanted to “throw a tantrum,” I’d have just called you names instead of trying to educate you as to how and why you’re wrong, and that fallacies are ALWAYS wrong when used to support an argument. 

    Re: “… that I quit posting to this site for such a long time.” 

    If all you’ve got is fallacies, and can’t even understand why using them is indefensible, then you probably should go back to lurking. 

    Re: “I’m prepared to meet argument with argument.” 

    Not if you use fallacies and then get your knickers in knots when someone tells you you’re using fallacies. 

    Re: “Otherwise I have nothing more to say.” 

    Your fallacious appeals are the logical equivalent of “nothing more to say.” So, yes. 

  • Books and plays are meaningless? So what are you going to do there? Thanks, but I will choose hell.

  • 1st death – is death, death as we know it. The dead is like the in-ground pools – embedded. Heretical to say, but no soul goes nowhere etc. Jesus called it sleep for His dead followers, to be awakened on resurrection. (Don’t know what He called the state of dead rejecters.)

    2nd death – is death of death, and eternal torment of resurrected unbelievers, together with Satan, and the Anti-Christ and the Beastly Nation Heads.

    No confusion here.

ADVERTISEMENTs