Popular Beliefs About Hell That Aren't Actually In The Bible

From the intricate paintings of Hieronymous Bosch to the excessive pulp of movies like Constantine, hell has been depicted in dozens of different ways. However, its most common elements - hellfire, souls screaming in torment, and gruesome demons - cannot be found in the Bible.

Similar to how our beliefs about angels formed, today, the imagery of "hell" is the result of hundreds of years of art, theology, and imagination. The Greeks believed in a punishing afterworld called Tartarus, and Christian artists and writers borrowed heavily from its complex mythological structure. Other influences include the Sumerian afterlife called Kur, an enormous and bleak cave, as well as the Jewish concept of sheol, a hell-like darkness. In more recent centuries, few Christians have had more lasting impact on the perceived landscape of hell than Dante Alighieri (Inferno) and John Milton (Paradise Lost), though dozens of visual artists, Bosch chief among them, have also made the attempt.

And yet, as Western artists and churchgoers have developed a cultural vision of hell, that fiery afterlife moves further from the actual hell of the Bible. Here's a list of common misconceptions about perdition.

  • There Are People Being Punished In Hell Right Now
    Photo: Martin Schöngauer / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    There Are People Being Punished In Hell Right Now

    Many Christians believe that when we perish, we are judged by God and sent to either heaven or hell. Christian children worry about people who have passed, hoping they aren't in the Lake of Fire.

    It turns out that God doesn't work that way. Instead, God withholds judgment until the final day. According to the Bible, no one is in hell right now except Satan and his demons. Every single human ever to have lived, from the very best to the very worst, is simply sleeping, waiting for Christ's return and the final day of judgment.

  • People Are Sent To Hell On The Basis Of Their Actions

    One of the most contentious debates throughout Christian history has been on the value of good works versus God's grace. The gospel of works says that we must perform good deeds in order to be admitted to heaven. The gospel of grace says that God decides where to place us based on criteria beyond our understanding or control.

    Surprising as it may seem, the gospel of grace is more supported by the Bible. Take Ephesians 2:8-9, which says, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast."

  • Hell Is Eternal
    Photo: Gustave Dore / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Hell Is Eternal

    This is perhaps the most pervasive misconception about hell. Members of the fire-and-brimstone branches of Christianity will be familiar with the phrase "everlasting torment." However, there is a large contingent of theologians who believe the Bible supports a doctrine of annihilationism.

    Annihilationism is the belief that, after a period of torment, God simply wipes out the consciousness of those who cannot be redeemed. Annihilationists point to passages like Isaiah 5:24 to support this position:

    Therefore, as tongues of fire lick up straw

    and as dry grass sinks down in the flames,

    so their roots will decay

    and their flowers blow away like dust;

    for they have rejected the law of the Lord Almighty

    and spurned the word of the Holy One of Israel.

  • Satan Rules Hell
    Photo: Franz Stuck / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain`

    Satan Rules Hell

    Lucifer was originally known as ha-Satan, a term that simply means "the Adversary." In the Bible itself, Satan's powers and provenance are not well defined. It is only much later, through Dante and especially Milton, that we get our image of Satan as a powerful, winged demon - AKA the King of Hell.

    In the Bible, and in all mainstream post-Biblical theology, it is understood that hell is Satan's prison, not his kingdom. God rules over hell just as he rules over heaven. However, this is hard to square with events like Satan's temptation of Jesus during his 40 days in the wilderness. There are also moments in Genesis that seem to imply God allows Satan to be a kind of co-ruler of Earth for his own mysterious purposes.

    Ultimately, there is no resolution for these contradictions. Some theologians have posited that Satan is used by God as a test or temptation to see who is worthy of entering heaven.