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Ongoing history of hell: Compass 94

According to Pew research, 62% of American Christians believe in hell. It’s actually hard to find topics that Christians agree upon more universally. But our beliefs about hell differ by a great degree: from it being a place of eternal torment to it being an ideal of separation. Where did our ideas about hell come from? Why might there be so many divergent beliefs about hell?

Let’s take a look…


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Research notes

Episode transcript:

[Ryan Dunn]

This is the Compass podcast where we seek out the Divine interruptions in everyday life. Including during the spooky, scary Halloween season

[scream or boo]… which is when we’re recording this particular episode.

I’m Ryan Dunn… and I’ve spent too much time in hell lately. This particular Halloween has inspired some questions for me about the Christian doctrine of hell–which is a topic I’ve generally avoided. It’s not crucial to my theology. But it is present in a lot of Christian thought and theology. So I’ve taken a bit of a research dive into Christian beliefs about hell and where these beliefs came from… and this episode of Compass is all about sharing those findings regarding how we’ve gotten to our current beliefs about hell. 

Despite not being very comfortable with the idea of hell, I DO like the Halloween season. I’ll admit it. I think it’s fun. I think there’s something exciting about exploring the scary things because with it comes a sense of the unknown… That inspires a sense of wonder and mystery about the world. I find it inspiring to consider the unknown.

There’s a bit of subset to this scary season. It’s based on the haunted house / spookhouse / scare house novelty attractions of the Halloween season. But instead of scaring people for the sheer thrills, this subset of Halloween attractions scare people towards a choice about their eternal fate. They’re sometimes called hell houses, sometimes just called outreach events…

Visions of hell

Scaremare is one of these types of attractions… and it may be the most well-known. It provides a good example. It’s produced by the Christian school Liberty University. Their website describes the attraction like this: “Scaremare presents fun-house rooms and scenes of death in order to confront people with the question ‘What happens after I die?’”

Scaremare and attractions like it feature scenes of human torment and suffering, with the idea that these scenes can scare people towards a decision into Christianity. Because the outcome of these events are so horrifically scary without faith. Some of these attractions have historically tried to recreate scenes of hell in an attempt to scare people towards heaven.

It’s not clear if Scaremare uses this tactic. From what I’ve been able to pull together it appears the attraction uses some grizzly death scenes and then poses a question at the end: what would would happen to your soul if you died tonight? I could be wrong about that. But that feels like the gist of it to me.

Of course, that question itself is a scare tactic, because the unspoken question behind that particular question is “Do you fear going to hell?”

Scaring people towards faith never seemed like an effective tactic to me. I think such a tactic is based on people’s own selfish desires. Which is counter to a lot of what Christianity is about. The faithful are called to be selfless as Christ was selfless. So utilizing faith as a punchcard out of hell and into heaven runs counter to selflessness. It’s all about saving one’s own butt.
Perhaps because of this mindset, I’ve not invested much energy in considering hell. The apostle Paul wrote that we should run with our eyes towards the prize… which to me is the establishment of a new creation based in grace… The prize has not been staying out of hell. A fascination with hell represented, to me, a kind of backing our way into salvation instead of running towards it. So I have a stunted theology of hell… just because it’s not something I’ve allowed myself to consider much.

[remember hell sermon]

According to Pew research, 62% of American Christians believe in hell. It’s actually hard to find topics that Christians agree upon more universally. So it would seem that the existence of hell is one of the more fundamental beliefs of the religion–at least in western expressions of the religion. But, beyond an agreement that there might be a hell, the unity breaks down. Because there are many, many ideas about where hell is… what happens there… How long souls exist in hell… who ends up in hell… and so on. And this nothing new. As we’ll see, Christian views about the afterlife, including the idea of hell, have always been a bit divergent.

The word "hell"

Let’s start with the word itself. “Hell” does not appear in “original” Biblical manuscripts. “Hell”, the word, is derived from Germanic languages and the Bible was written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. In the Germanic languages, hell referred to a concealed or covered over place–maybe like a pit, cave… or a grave. In old Norse, “Hel” (H-E-L) was the ruler of Niflheim, which was the world of the evil dead. It might have reinforced the English word "as a transfer of a pagan concept to Christian theology and its vocabulary".

Now, this is important, because just by looking at the etymology of the word, we’re seeing how it carries excess cultural baggage. Many of us think of hell as the holding cell for evil persons who have died. And it sounds like that is what Niflheim was thought to be. So it’s a convenient word substitution, right? Welllll… actually, it might be that by making that word substitution in translation, we’ve projected Niflheim onto views of the after life. In a sense, we run the risk of putting words in the mouths of biblical authors.

Hell in the Bible

Some English translations of the Bible utilize the word “hell”. When they do so, they’re substituting ‘hell” in for one of four words: “Sheol, Hades, Gahenna, or Tartarus.” And in each case, these words carry different ideas and meanings concerning death and the after life.

In order to understand this, let’s start with Sheol–since it is the first of the words to appear in Bible. Hell is an interesting substitution for Sheol (and this is why most modern translations simply says “Sheol” instead of “hell”). Sheol connotes nothing about an afterlife. It’s synonyms are the pit or the grave. It’s not really a place where one goes. It’s just the state of being dead. If it is a place, Psalm 86, Lamentations 3 and Psalm 115 indicate it is full of darkness and silence… which sounds an awful lot like death.

We don’t get indications that the early Israelites believed there was an afterlife. There wasn’t life after death, there was just being dead after death. People lived on in the sense that they were remembered by their loved ones. I suppose you could say there was an afterlife in legacy–which is one of the reasons why children and righteousness were so important in this culture. In their legacy the people lived on.

In a way, this view still lives on in Judaic theology. Though with a lot of variations. I appreciate how Moment Magazine summed up Judaic thinking on the afterlife:
“Ask Jews what happens after death, and many will respond that the Jewish tradition doesn’t say or doesn’t care, that Jews believe life is for the living and that Judaism focuses on what people can and should do in this world.” The article then goes on to note that where there are 2 Jews, there are three visions of the afterlife. 

So it’s not surprising that Sheol evolved over time to indicate a kind of temporary abode for souls before the resurrection came. Isaiah 26 and Daniel 12 indicate a belief in resurrection: the dead will rise. But in these cases, the dead are coming up out of the dust. They’re not ascending from a state akin to hell. It’s like they’re dead and buried… then they’re not dead.

So in the earliest days of the Judeo-Christian tradition, hell was not a thing. It’s not even clear whether or not an afterlife was a thing. I find this interesting because so often we tend to imagine a picture of God in the Old Testament who is a bit jealous and vindictive. This is the God who inspired acts of mass violence and pronounced judgement by toppling cities and empires. And yet, this is not the picture of a God who sentences people to eternal conscious torment. 

Sooo… does hell as a place of torment appear then in the New Testament?

[Heavy metal music]
Consider these words:
“The Reaper guard's the darkened Gates
That Satan calls his home
Demons feed the furnace where
The Dead are free to roam
Lonely children of the night
There's seven ways to go
Each leading to the burning hole
The Lucifer controls”

OK, I’m just kidding… those are lyrics from the song “Hell Awaits” by the thrash metal band Slayer.

In the synoptic Gospels–meaning Mark, Matthew and Luke… believed to be the first Gospels written–in those Gospels, Jesus mentions a place of seeming torment. The word used is Gehenna.

Gehenna is an actual place, on Earth. Actually, if we’re going to be linguistically accurate, the place is the Valley of Hinnom, which was verbally shortened to Ge-hinnom… and then to Gehenna. The valley is just outside of Jerusalem. It is deep and narrow. It is believed to have been the locael of child sacrifice–particularly the child sacrifice of a couple apostate kings of Israel. Once that practice was done away with, it is speculated that the valley became a dump. And during that time there were fires there to consume to stream of waste and a putrid smoke that often arose from the valley. It’s also possible that plague victims–particularly those of an invading Assyrian army–were discarded in the valley of Hinnom. 

It’s likely all this was general knowledge for the people of Jesus’ day. By using “Gehenna”, Jesus is making reference to a cursed place.

Of course, Jesus and his contemporaries were Jewish. So we have to ask: did some new understanding of the afterlife arise between Jesus’ ministry and the latest of the Old Testament texts? Because we still haven’t been presented with the idea of of there being some place of eternal torment for the dead. 

OR, when Jesus is talking about Gehenna–this actual, physical place–and warning that those who do not repent from selfish self aggrandizement and selfish pursuits and ill treatment of their neighbors are going to end up being cast there… is it possible that he’s talking about something that happens in the here and now and in the physical?

Remember, in Jewish thought what we do in this life is a big deal. It matters. It also matters that Jesus was preaching a message that suggest that the kingdom of God was at work in the here and now. The message of Jesus was not about ushering souls to heaven when they die. The message of Jesus was generally about establishing heavenly conditions on earth. 

I’m going to borrow the words of NT Wright. NT Wright is an English scholar and Anglican bishop. He wrote this in Surprised by Hope:

When Jesus was warning his hearers about Gehenna he was not, as a general rule, telling them that unless they repented in this life they would burn in the next one. As with God’s kingdom, so with its opposite: it is on earth that things matter, not somewhere else.

His message to His contemporaries was stark, and (as we would say today) political. Unless they turned back from their hopeless and rebellious dreams of establishing God’s kingdom in their own terms, not least through armed revolt against Rome, then the Roman juggernaut would do what large, greedy and ruthless empires have always done to smaller countries (not least in the Middle East) whose resources they covet or whose strategic location they are anxious to guard.

Rome would turn Jerusalem into a hideous, stinking extension of its own smoldering rubbish heap. When Jesus said “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish,” that is the primary meaning He had in mind (Wright, Surprised by Hope, 176).

So when Jesus makes other warnings to religious leaders that they could be cast out into darkness, he was offering a warning that was based in this line of thought. The religious leaders who insisted on drawing close the religious hedges and ignore their neighbor’s injustices were on a course leaving them excluded from God’s earthly state of light.

As it comes to the afterlife, Jesus was Jewish in thought… you know, again, because he was a Jew. There was life and death. You may encounter resurrection, or your dead after death.

Now Jesus does bring up an interesting story… and it is an example that probably sounds the most akin to any other we have of what we suppose hell is like. Jesus told the story of the rich man and Lazarus. Lazarus was a sickly beggar who died. A rich man also died. In the afterlife, the rich man is being tormented by fire and can see Lazarus being consoled by the patriarch, Abraham. 

This story is offered as a parable. No one maintains that these events actually happened. It’s a story meant to communicate a truth… like Jesus’ other parables. And in this case, the truth being conveyed is not necessarily about the geography and states of heaven and hell. 

Instead, the parable communicates a truth about life priorities, indulgence, and caring for our neighbors.

Taking the story literally raises all kinds of strange questions: can people in heaven see people in hell being tormented? If so, not a real good view. Can people somehow communicate across the chasm between heaven and hell? Do we all get direct lines to patriarchs? How does the relaxing on Abraham’s bosom part work? Do we take turns? 

Sooo, that’s what record we have of Jesus talking about hellish things. There are several other references beyond the Gospels in the New Testament.

One being in 2 Peter, which uses the word “Tartarus”. Tartarus was a plane of the afterlife in Greek mythology where the really bad people went. In 2 Peter 2, Tartarus is referred to as the place where angels who sinned were cast.

The other Greek word for the afterlife is Hades… and it is used several times in the New Testament. But it’s used in a similar fashion to Sheol–it is the place of the dead. So, for example, when Peter declares that Jesus and David died in Acts 2, he says they went to Hades. 

Hades is mentioned is mentioned several times in the book of Revelation. Which also speaks about a lake of fire. Curiously, though, death and Hades are thrown into the lake of fire… which the author calls the second death. So this small suggestion is akin to the earlier view of the afterlife: there is resurrection, and there is death. There is alive and non-existent. 

This is often called an annhilationist view of the afterlife: those who are accepting of God’s grace experience life. Those who are unwilling to exist with the author of life simply cease to be.

As a United Methodist, I like to use a tool we call the quadrilateral for forming theology. The base of the quadrilateral is scripture. The other three sides consist of tradition, reason and experience.

Hell in traditonal theology

Tradition is split on the who, what, where, when and how of hell. It’s kind of like Jewish thought on the afterlife: where there are 2 Christians, there are 3 ideas about hell. Early church leaders like Augustine and Tertullian suggested a hell of torment. Church leaders like Justin Martyr suggested the torment of hell was temporary and would one day cease.

However, it was pretty early in the Christian tradition that the idea of hell as a place of eternal torment began to take off. Several apocryphal texts, including The Apocalypse of Peter, paint a picture that might sound familiar to us: Those who blasphemed and slandered the righteous were forced to "[gnaw] their own lips... and [receive] a red-hot iron in their eyes." The rich who refused the orphans and widows were made to wear "tattered and filthy" garments and to walk endlessly over "pebbles sharper than swords or any spit ."

Augustine, who had a profound influence in early Christian thought, wrote that “hell, which also is called a lake of fire and brimstone, will be material fire, and will torment the bodies of the damned.”

And it could be that these early theologians are drawing on some traditions outside of the Judeo-Christian world… because these traditions were parts of their worlds. As we already noted, the Greeks had a vision of the underworld that included a plane of torment. And a lot of our early Christian theologians merged Greek philosophical thinking with scriptural tradition. Augustine definitely merges the ideas of Plato into his theological works As Bart Ehrman put it: Christian hell is Hellenistic. 

In a world that was a bit less metered in its deliverance of fair judgement, perhaps the idea of eternal conscious torment felt natural because the wages of being a lawbreaker were typically quite severe. So perhaps those who were breaking the greatest of laws: to love the Lord your God, were deemed deserving of a truly abhorrent punishment.

The church grew up amidst persecution. Sometimes, this came as state sanctioned persecution. The Roman Empire repeatedly committed purges of Christians. We get stories of Christians being burned alive, or fed to wild animals in the Colosseum, or being killed by gladiators, or being crucified. It became a tool of Christian leaders to say: we may experience momentary torment. But then we go on to eternal reward… while those who torment us are going to experience what they subjected us to for eternity.
When Christianity became state-sanctioned religion in the Roman Empire, the idea of eternal conscious torment still proved a useful tool. Because now there were a lot of people converting for less than authentic reasons. It was politically useful to be a Christian. So a hell of eternal torment became a way to keep people in line: “If you keep sinning, you will end up eternal torment.” Hell wasn’t just for unbelievers. Hell was for Christians who refused to toe the line and follow the rules. Hell could even be a place for people with bad theology.

The Apocalypse of Paul, a popular apocryphal text that definitely influenced Dante’s Inferno (which we’ll hear about) it promises some of the worst torments for heretics. And these punishments are apparently too crazy to detail. Christians who deny that there will be a bodily resurrection are enclosed in a sealed well… from which rises an abhorrent stench. Other people receiving punishment in this version of hell are those who failed to pay attention as the Bible was read in church, people who ended their periods of fasting too soon, and Christians who left church and argued. (A warning to the United Methodist Church, maybe?)

In my own United Methodist tradition, John Wesley definitely believed in a hell of torment and that sinners should fear the coming wrath. 

In our Confession of Faith, we speak of an eternal condemnation. But “hell” is never used. So this could be a suggestion of an annhilationist view of the afterlife… where those who are unwilling to live with God cease to be.
[Apostles creed clip]

We do have mention of hell in the Apostle’s Creed… except most United Methodist’s use a verson that omits this particular portion. The Apostle’s Creed in English says that Christ descended into hell and then rose from the dead. I have a feeling that saying Christ descended into Hades or the grave would be more appropriate, and that’s why many traditions omit the hell part.

But probably, the most influential traditional source on our concepts of hell is Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, which is the first of three epic poems about the afterlife. It describes a journey through hell. As an allegory, the Divine Comedy represents the journey of the soul toward God, with the Inferno describing the recognition and rejection of sin.

Dante reveals a hell that People are eager to get in to. These people are trapped in an eternal cycle of pursuing their basest compulsions. And another traditional source, CS Lewis, draws out this same idea in The Great Divorce. In both texts, the damned are so caught up in self-love that the idea of a love beyond self and a life with God seem repulsive.

Because of this cycle of self entrapment, the punishment of hell is somewhat matched to the sin. In Lewis, the residents of hell are tormented by that which is good. The feeling of heaven is painful to them. They can’t stand the light and the nature. Dante paints hell in the terms we’re much more likely to conjure in our own assumptions of the eternal pit of hell:

For example, those guilty of greed are given too much–they are overburdened by being attached to large boulders and weights. Murderers are submerged in rivers of boiling blood–because they seemed to thirst after blood in life. There is a lot of material in Inferno that is simply imagination. Dante also pulls in a lot of cultural items. The text is not mean to be biblically based. It is an imaginative work of fiction. BUT, because it’s so revealing in regards to our human conditions, we’ve given it a place of reverence.

The horror house attractions we touched on in the beginning of the episode likely draw a lot of inspiration from Dante.

Hell in our reasoning

So let me talk to you about reason… and here we’ll get into our cultural conditioning. I have a hedgehog principle when it comes to theology. My hedgehog principle is found in 1 John 4:7-8… it says that God is love. My experience in God is based in love. I experience the Divine because I experience love. 

I cannot reasonably equate a hell of eternal conscious torment with love. It does not make sense. Under no circumstances would I want to watch someone suffer for eternity. IN my human condition, I’ll admit that my sense of justice would be okay with some of the world’s baddies experiencing some torment. But for eternity? And if we view God as a parent would that change our perspective? Because there’s no way I would wish that on my child… no matter their degrees of rejection. 

And here I have to admit something: I’m starting with this bias. And as I look back through tradition and scripture, I can definitely find evidence to support my viewpoint. But I suspect that if I had an alternative bias I would be able to look back through tradition and scripture and find support for that, as well.

It would seem that most Christians today don’t necessarily believe in the fiery pit of torment image either. But they do hold to an ideal of eternal separation from God. In that way, hell is the kind of place which is locked from the inside. Those who are cast there go willingly, it seems, since they prefer to live in way without God. However, it’s unclear whether such a place would hold the damned forever, or if it held opportunities for individual or universal repentance.

I’m not vain enough to claim that I’ve made the final, irrefutable conclusion on the who, what, where, when and how of hell. I’ve learned quite a bit through this research. I ‘ve formulated some clearer thoughts on hell. And here’s what I’ve come up with for me:

Hell is the rejection of God… which is the rejection of love. It is a state of sadness, loneliness, dehumanization and waste. And maybe that’s all we’ll be able to agree upon about hell. And that’s OK. I don’t believe we need the scary threat of eternal conscious torment to introduce people to the irresistible grace of God.

Thanks for joining me on this academic journey into hell. Hope it wasn’t too rough.

If you want to know more about the Compass podcast, check out That’s part of the website for the United Methodist Church who graciously resources this podcast.

A couple other episodes that might interest you include:
Satanic Panic and Divine Imagination with Derek White
OR Living with doubt with Brian McLaren.
While you’re checking out those episodes, hit the like or follow or subscribe button. Thanks much!

We’ll have another fresh disruption for your day-to-day in two weeks.

In the meantime, peace.