Graveyard Shift
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Where Our Image Of Hell Comes From

Updated May 26, 2021 6.2k views13 items

The most popular modern conception of Hell posits an underworld filled with fire and torment. Surprisingly, however, the concept of Hell in the Bible is almost entirely separate from this image: Hell was once viewed as a shadowy and unsavory yet fire-free underworld. The apocryphal - or non-canonical - books of the Bible that likely influenced the modern view of Hell drew on pagan imagery to construct the burning abyss we imagine today. Dante's Inferno, meanwhile, provides graphic descriptions of torment and the supposed geography of Hell, and modern conceptions still draw from this infamous story.

The popular view of Hell is changing: Though some people claim to have been to Hell, others, perhaps even the Pope, deny its existence entirely. Just as the Bible has undergone major changes since its inception, our idea of Hell has continuously transformed.

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  • The Fires Of Hell May Have Originated From A Jerusalem Trash Heap

    The New Testament term that most closely resembles modern conceptions of Hell is "Gehenna," the Hebrew word for "valley of Hinnom." This valley was an actual place in which Jerusalem's refuse was dumped and burned. Gehenna was employed as a metaphorical depiction of Hell in Mark 9:47:

    And if your eye subverts you, pluck it out, for is better for you that you should enter the Kingdom of God with one eye than having two eyes that you should fall into the Gehenna of fire.

    "Gehenna" was first translated to Hell around 1200 CE.

  • Photo: Sandro Botticelli / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Dante's 'Inferno' Introduced Hell As An Underground Pit Of Torment

    Inferno, part of Dante's epic poem The Divine Comedy, solidified Western culture's modern perceptions of Hell. Dante can likely be credited with the notion of Hell as an underground abyss, as his nine Circles of Hell reflect the most abysmal sins of humanity in descending order.

    The punishments Dante describes are similar to, if not more imaginative than, those of modern conception: souls are blinded, forced to fight one another for all of eternity, or torn apart by wild beasts. The most notable difference between Inferno and the modern understanding of Hell, however, is the frozen lake in which Inferno's Devil resides.

  • Photo: Luca Signorelli / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Gospel Of Nicodemus Portrays Hell As A Purgatory For The Righteous

    The apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus details Christ breaking into Hell following his crucifixion. Christ frees those in Hell who are "awaiting their redeemer," likening Hell to a waiting room for God's children. Hell's righteous inhabitants seemingly spend their time readying themselves for God's return.

  • Photo: Gustave Doré / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Apocalypse Of Peter Incorporated Pagan Imagery Into Christianity's Hell

    The Apocalypse of Peter, written by a man claiming to be the Apostle Peter himself, consists of a conversation between himself and Jesus regarding the end of the world. The Apocalypse of Peter details the eternal torment the sinful will experience upon reaching the afterlife.

    The text allegedly drew from Orphic and Pythagorean religious writings, incorporating pagan imagery into the Christian concept of Hell.