Saturday, August 29, 2015

Does Hell Exist?

In the modern popular Christian imagination Hell is a fiery abyss into which the ungodly are cast at the end of the ages, where they will suffer throughout eternity.  Oddly enough, the word "Hell," as such, does not appear in the Bible.  In ancient Israelite and Greek thought there are two principal words that describe the abode of the dead.  In Hebrew thought Sheol, generally translated by the English words grave, hell, pit, is the underworld where a person's shade went at death; they continued there in a shadowy semi-existence.  Sheol included both the good and the wicked (Jacob: Genesis 44:29, 45:31; the wicked: Psalm 31:17).

            In the ancient Greek tradition Hades is the God of the underworld and the area he rules is the "House" of Hades.  Hades (frequently translated Hell in the New Testament) is the universal destination of humankind upon death, although even in the fifth century BCE some special dead ascend to the "upper air," and a privileged few enter the "Isles of the Blessed."

            In the early Christian tradition the designations Hades and Gehenna are exclusively places of torment in fire for the unrighteous (Matt 5:22; Luke 16:23-24; Rev 20:11-14).  Gehenna is the valley of Hinnom , where it has been suggested that the killing by cremation of children as an offering to Baal and Molech, possibly gave rise to the notion of a hell of fire (Matt 5:22; 2 2 Kgs 23:10; 2 Kgs 16:3; 2 Chron 28:2-3).  The Israelite tradition was also likely influenced by ideas of the underworld as a fiery place of punishment during Judah's captivity in Babylon (587 BCE; 2 Kgs 25).  The concept appears in later Israelite writings (2 Esdras 7:36; Sirach 7:17; Judith 16:17; 2nd Isaiah 66:24; Ethiopic Enoch 90:26 and 54:1-5).

            Other words for the abode of the dead/punishment are also used in the New Testament. Tartarus (2 Pet 2:4) is the lowest part of the underworld, even deeper than Hades.  The underworld is also described as the Abyss, Bottomless Pit (Luke 8:31; Romans 10:7; Rev 9:1-2), and the Outer Darkness (Matt 8:11-12; 22:13; 25:30).

            In the Middle Ages Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) wrote a poetic imaginary vision of a guided trip through hell, purgatory, and paradise, the three spiritual realms of departed spirits, reflecting the views of the medieval Christian church.  His vivid descriptions of the suffering of the dead rival in many ways the later (1743-1758) preaching of Jonathan Edwards ("Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"), who terrified his congregation with warnings of the damnation awaiting them unless they repented:

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire...Therefore, let everyone that is out of Christ, now awake and fly from the wrath to come.

This view of hell as a place of terrifying punishment is alive and well in the modern Christian church and even in the popular imagination of the un-churched.  Does such a place exist?  Of course it did in the imagination and faith of Dante; and Jonathan Edwards clearly believed that it did, and it was likewise very real to his audiences, who responded to his preaching with hysteria, distress, and weeping.

            But does it exist in the material universe as well as "exist" in imagination and belief?  The short of the matter is this: if you believe Hell exists then surely it does—as might other specific locations of faith, such as the Pearly Gates and streets of gold (Rev 21:21), New Jerusalem (Rev 21:2), and Purgatory (not in Protestant and Jewish Bibles, but in the Catholic Bible: 2 Maccabees 12:40-45).  These latter "places" are part of the imagination and belief of the writer of Revelation.

            We don't know Hell by means of our primary senses (seeing, touching, smelling, tasting, hearing), but rather through our minds (i.e., as an idea, or item of faith and/or superstition).  Hell does not in fact exist in the normal ways we think of things existing—that is, as a locatable and visit-able "somewhere," or as something that occupies space and time at a certain longitude/latitude, and/or parsecs location.  Could it "exist" as part of a spiritual universe that perhaps overlays our material universe, and/or is "over there spiritually" in parallel to our material universe, although not a part of it?

You, gentle reader, will be the judge of that.
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University


Anonymous said...

Hi Charlie,

Hell, I think, requires some understanding of emotion. One way to think of emotion is to identify the basic six: joy, sadness, anger, fear, shame, and guilt. The first four, perhaps, have a stronger biological component, and the last two, perhaps, have a stronger social component.

I'm thinking that the need for justice is rooted in guilt, and hell and the second coming have guilt in common, as both are a human projection of the need for justice onto the world writ large. Hell and the second coming are metaphors of the human longing for justice. Further, they are expressions of the frustration of anger born of a world of deception and cruelty.

I would say that both Hell and the Second Coming are located in the seat of emotion, popularly identified as the human heart.

Personally, I would hate to be a victim of the judgment which they represent.

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa.

Anonymous said...


Like so many other items about religion, Hell was created by humans to satisfy some need. I can see no ordinary human need for creating Hell other than to serve the religious clergy. A belief in Hell surely aids the recruiting and retention of religious membership.


Charles Hedrick said...

Good Morning Jim and Gene,
I think you both may be interested in the discussion going on between sociologists and psychologists that tracks the universal religious impulse to an inner human inclination to what they refer to as prosociality. Here is a quotation:
"The tendency to detect agency in nature likely supplied the cognitive template that supports the pervasive belief in supernatural agents."
Norenzayan/Shariff, "The Origin and Evolution of Religious Prosociality."
Science vol 322 (3 Oct 2008), 58-62.

Anonymous said...


Though I do not clearly comprehend the intent of the quoted statement "...detect agency in nature likely supplied the cognitive template...", it indicates the socialists & psychologists are also attempting to answer some of the human religious responses. Science is the most capable of uncovering/explaining questions about our universe including the human inhabitants herein. Biological science research into human brain functions will offer the best hope for clear understanding. After all, the human brain is no more than a very complex organ of biology, electrical impulses, and stimuli.


Charles Hedrick said...

Hi Jim,
You may be correct, but the fact that the brain is capable of highly complex abstract thought in my view makes it more than just a bit of very complex human gristle--or as you put it "a very complex organ of biology, electrical impulse, and stimuli."