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The Invention of Hell

The results of a recent survey showed that, while belief in God’s existence is in decline, particularly among the young, the concept of a human afterlife still has widespread support.[1] Paradoxically, the most pervasive idea of our postmortem fate is that of the binary alternatives of Heaven and Hell promulgated by Christian faith, whose other tenets have been subjected to much greater suspicion and rejection. This article seeks to chart in particular the provenance of ideas regarding Hell, particularly how it came to be the everlasting inferno that many people in the West still envisage to be the eventual fate of the wicked.

Everything is the same for everyone. The same fate awaits the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the pure and the impure, those who sacrifice and those who don’t sacrifice. The good person is like the wrongdoer; the same holds for those who make solemn pledges and those who are afraid to swear. (Ecclesiastes 9:2)

Any assessment of the origins of Hell must start with an exploration of ancient Judaism, the precursor to Western, Christian-influenced belief. The initial belief held by ancient Jews about an afterlife is vague, but it appears that they believed that all people inhabited a dark, shadowy common grave after death, irrespective of their beliefs and actions while alive. The above quote from the Book of Ecclesiastes most clearly expresses the view prevalent among many of the Jews of antiquity; ultimately all people meet the same fate in death. Consequently, they concluded that one should enjoy God’s blessings during one’s life on Earth as what came afterwards was, at best, unfavorable. The idea that one might be punished after death is not found in the earliest Jewish writings. Instead, God prescribes an immediate punishment for wrongdoers meted out by humans themselves (see Deuteronomy 22:13-30 and Leviticus 20), or punishes perpetrators himself, such as in the case of Cain (Genesis 4:11-14), or Lot’s wife (Genesis 19:26). The very concept that there would be punishment after one had died would have seemed absurd to the ancient Israelites.

Additionally, there seems to be a complete demarcation between the heavens and earth. The Earth was where humans lived and died, and the heavens constituted the realm inhabited by God. There are isolated examples of humans experiencing the heavens. For example, many Christians interpret the vague reference to Enoch being ‘taken by God’ (Genesis 5:21-24) as a reference to him entering the heavens alive. More famously, the prophet Elijah is described as being taken up into Heaven on a ‘chariot of fire’ (2 Kings 2:11), and there are various others who have visions of the heavens. However, the very idea that it might be the fate of the rank and file of Israelites to go to live with God in the upper atmosphere would have been seen as preposterous.

And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake… (Daniel 12:2)

In the Second Temple period the ancient Israelites began to feel aggrieved that humans were not rewarded for living pious lives while others seemed to go unpunished for not meeting God’s expectations for human behavior. As the Jewish nation was continuously harassed, invaded, and eventually exiled by the Babylonian Empire in 597BCE, they came to wonder how their aggressors would encounter God’s justice. They also wondered how they themselves might see their exaltation as God’s chosen people when faced with what seemed to be relentless persecution. As a result of this perceived injustice, the possibility of divine judgment being meted out after death began to attract some support. Concurrently, the Jewish world’s exposure to Persian and Greco-Roman beliefs regarding a differentiated afterlife began to influence Jewish thought. While the Jews may have lived harsh and oppressed lives, their aggressors continued to enjoy the spoils of war. An emerging belief among various Jewish groups was that God would redress such imbalances after death.

For some ancient Jews, Greek ideas about the dualistic nature of body and soul were persuasive and became a useful explanation for how life could continue after the very visible decomposition of the postmortem human body. Other Jews were influenced by the Persian idea that, at some future time, God would resurrect the dead, and the wicked would gain their comeuppance while the righteous received their reward. This latter belief became entangled with the belief that the Davidic monarchy, which God had promised would reign in perpetuity in Israel (see 1 Kings 9:5), would be restored with a descendant of David ruling over a kingdom of the righteous. Jesus was one of those Jews who subscribed to this idea of a future apocalypse that would see Israel’s occupiers overthrown. The dead would be then be resurrected and enjoy eternal life in a “Kingdom of God” along with those who were alive at the time. As I mentioned in a previous article[2], this was to be on Earth, with Jesus being one of many who garnered support to be its king or “messiah.” Jesus taught that this age was coming very soon (Luke 10:9), as did many other apocalyptic preachers of the time, such as John the Baptist (Matthew 3:2)

You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to Gehenna! (Matthew 23:33)

So what was to happen to those people deemed unworthy of this new kingdom? When Jesus talks about the fate of such individuals, he refers to “Gehenna” at 11 different junctures. What was this? Gehenna was a small valley just outside of Jerusalem. In the first century CE it is said to have been used as a place to dispose of rubbish (which was then burnt). It is also said to be a place to which dead bodies were taken to be cremated when a more expensive formal burial could not be afforded. Fires burned permanently and were not extinguished, and those not deemed worthy of eternal life in Jesus’ kingdom were to end up here. Denied admission to his new Garden of Eden, they would die and their bodies would be cremated. There is a very strong case to be made that Jesus did not teach of eternal punishment as the antithesis to life in his “Kingdom of God,” and there are only scant references in the Gospels where he refers to it. These come in the form of the parable of the sheep and goats (see Matthew 25:31-46) and the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). Both of these moral stories were voted by fellows of the Jesus Seminar as likely to have been later additions to the Gospels and to have not originated from Jesus himself.[3] In sayings considered to be more likely to be authentic, Jesus does talk of “unquenchable fires” (e.g., Mark 9:43). However, it is to the unending fires of the valley of Gehenna to which he refers, and there is no sense that its flames would burn people for eternity.

St. Paul, the author of the very earliest Christian writings to which we still have access, also appears to subscribe to the idea that the fate of the righteous after death would be on Earth. He considered Jesus’ supposed rising from the dead to be the start of a general resurrection and “the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). He expected more resurrections and the establishment of God’s kingdom to follow imminently. Paul also held that there would be a day in the very near future when the unfaithful should expect retribution (Romans 2:5, 8:3; 9:22). However, as far as Paul is concerned, “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). There is no suggestion at all in Paul’s writings of the everlasting conscious torment espoused by later Christians.

As time went on it became apparent that the notion of Jewish self-rule in Israel under a reestablished Davidic monarchy ruled by Jesus was untenable. However, the early Christians had to reconcile this state of affairs with Jesus’ promise of eternal life to a generation of followers who were beginning to pass away. Consequently, they began to find greater solace in Hellenistic ideas of dualism. The idea of a soul that was separate from the body allowed them to continue to claim that life could be eternal. The “Kingdom of God,” where this life could be enjoyed, was gradually relocated to the heavens where it could not be disconfirmed by political and temporal realities.

The relocation of the kingdom gave the impetus for a similar repositioning of Jerusalem’s bonfire to an extraterrestrial location. Whereas hitherto Christians believed wicked people died and were cremated, the adoption of ideas regarding an immortal soul offered them the opportunity to claim that people could be perpetually cremated while still alive and able to experience pain. It is in this post-Jesus context that our modern conception of Hell was born. In later Christian writings the rhetoric about this potential destiny becomes more vivid. The Book of Revelation—viewed by many as having been written some 60 years after Jesus’ death[4]—talks of the unfaithful being consigned to a “lake of burning sulphur” (Revelation 21:8).

As was the case with Jesus, St. Paul was also subject to the posthumous updating of his views regarding the afterlife. The book of 2 Thessalonians, regarded by many scholars as being a later forgery[5], has him refer to eternal castigation for sinners (see 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9). The same fate also befell St. Peter, an Aramaic-speaking fisherman and one of Jesus’ most loyal disciples. In highly elaborate Greek, a language which he did not speak and is unlikely to have ever used, St. Peter supposedly refers to the unfaithful being held in “chains of darkness” (2 Peter 2:4) in a letter to which he is almost certainly fraudulently attributed.

Details concerning what God had in store for sinners continued to be developed by the early Church Fathers. The writings of Hippolytus of Rome in his book “Against the Greek,” written in the early 3rd century CE, give us a flavor of Christian thinking at this time; it is not difficult to envisage how powerful a recruitment tool brutal depictions such as these would have been:

The lovers of evil shall be given eternal punishment. The unquenchable and unending fire awaits these latter, and a certain fiery worm which does not die and which does not waste the body but continually bursts forth from the body with unceasing pain. No sleep will give them rest; no night will soothe them; no death will deliver them from punishment; no appeal of interceding friends will profit them.

Eventually, references to “Gehenna” in the Christian Scriptures began to be consigned to the biblical dustbin. Today it is only those translations of the Bible that have consciously and meticulously decided to stay as true as possible to its original words that mention it. “Hell,” an Anglo-Saxon word from the High Middle Ages, now replaces “Gehenna” in the overwhelming majority of Bibles currently in common usage.

Hell has its origins in the reinterpretation of Jesus’ assertion of an ignominious death and cremation for sinners as a place of perpetual torment, the envisioning of which was to live on in the collective consciousness of Christendom for many hundreds of years. In the post-Enlightenment period, some Christians became more conscious of the oxymoron of an omnibenevolent God that was prepared to torture beings that he had created “in his own image” for eternity. Some began to develop a more benign interpretation of Hell. In a keynote speech made in 1999, John Paul II played down some of the more horrendous biblical references to it and described it more innocuously as a “state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed.”[6] Some modern Christian denominations, such as the Seventh Day Adventists, go further and teach that a final death or “annihilation” is closer to what Jesus had intended for the unfaithful. They are quite correct to do so.


[1] NBC News, “Fewer Americans Believe in God—Yet They Still Believe in Afterlife” (2019). <https://www.nbcnews.com/better/wellness/fewer-americans-believe-god-yet-they-still-believe-afterlife-n542966>.

[2] Robert Shaw, “How the Story of Jesus’ Birth was Cobbled Together from Jewish Sources” (2018). The Secular Web. <https://infidels.org/kiosk/article/how-jesus-birth-story-was-cobbled-936.html>.

[3] Robert W. Funk, Bernard Brandon Scott, and James R. Butts, The Parables and Jesus. Sonoma, CA: Polebridge Press, 1989.

[4] For evidence of the late authorship of the Book of Revelation, see: Pheme Perkins, Reading the New Testament (New York, NY: Paulist Press, 2012); Henry Dean, The Fifth Book of St. Irenaeus Against Heresies (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1874); and G. B. Caird, A Commentary on the Revelation of St. John the Divine (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1966).

[5] For evidence of a later, non-Pauline authorship for 2 Thessalonians, see: Beverly R. Gaventa, I and II Thessalonians (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998); Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004); and Vincent Smiles, First Thessalonians, Philippians, Second Thessalonians, Colossians, Ephesians (Collegeville, PA: Liturgical Press, 2005).

[6] Catechism of the Catholic Church. (1999). Official website of the Vatican. <http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/_P2O.HTM>.