May We Steal Your Hell?

Four Sections of Hell, St Thomas Aquinas. Artist Unknown.

Once again, the post-apostolic church was confronted with intellectual challenges to the young Christian faith. These challenges came in two forms: heresies and the intellectual reaction of paganism. The body of work written by the early church fathers and used to meet the intellectual challenge of the Hellenistic pagans is called Patristic Theology1. (Patristic comes from a German word with a Latin root that means “father”.)

These works of defense reflect the philosophical and religious thought of the Hellenistic world. In other words, the early church fathers, in defending the Christian faith, tried defining it in terms of the Greek philosophy that permeated their world. They did so by expressing biblical truths in philosophical terms; using the ideas, terminology, and imagery of the Greeks.

For the next 700 years, biblical truths find their expression dressed up in the garb of Greek philosophy and mythology and early church fathers “argued that the religion of the Bible is compatible with Platonic philosophy.”2

One of the subjects most susceptible to this influence were the concepts surrounding the afterlife.

The Hebrew word nephesh in the Old Testament and the Greek psuche’ in the New Testament, both better translated “life” or “person” were rendered “soul” by translators and so the Greek concept of a dualistic human nature was perpetuated.

Outside of the “unhappily” rendered sheol and hades as hell, the co-opting of the Valley of Hinnom (Gehenna) and a parable-mistaken-for-real-life story, hell has no foundation on which to stand. There is just those three interpretive mishaps.

The idea that we have a soul that exists beyond the death of the body and is either tormented in hell or rewarded in heaven immediately following the body’s demise is not sound biblical teaching. These things do not exist.

The earliest Christian writing to contain overtly pagan ideas about the afterlife was the Apocalypse of Peter, a Christian text of the 2nd century AD. These fake prophetic visions contain detailed descriptions of hell that parallel the Sibylline Oracles of Greek mythology. Considered to have been written between AD 125 and 15o, it takes the form of a nekyia (a ritual in which ghosts are called up to be questioned about the future).3

Intended for a simple, unsophisticated audience, hell is described in detail with different kinds of torment depending on the offense of the sinner4, as follows:

  • Blasphemers are hanged by the tongue. Women who “adorn” themselves for the purpose of adultery, are hung by the hair over a bubbling mire and the men who had adulterous relationships with them are hung by their feet, with their heads in the mire next to them. Murderers and those who give consent to murder are set in a pit of creeping things that torment them.
  • Men who take on the role of women in a sexual way, and lesbians, are “driven” up a great cliff by punishing angels and are “cast off” to the bottom. Then they are forced up again, over and over, ceaselessly, to their doom.
  • Women who have abortions are set in a lake formed from the blood and gore from all the other punishments, up to their necks. They are also tormented by the spirits of their unborn children, who shoot a “flash of fire” into their eyes. (Those unborn children are “delivered to a care-taking” angel by whom they are educated, and “made to grow up.”)
  • Those who lend money and demand “usury upon usury” stand up to their knees in a lake of foul matter and blood.

The Middle Ages brings the development of levels to hell (St Thomas Aquinas):5

Infernus, the place we think of when we hear the word “hell”. It is the place of torment for the demons and the dammed.

Purgatory, a fabrication of the church of the Middle Ages where saved souls go to be purged of sin before going to heaven.

The Limbo of the Infants (Limbus Infantium), a place of happiness to which those infants who died before baptism, having obviously not committed sin, are sent. They cannot achieve full salvation in heaven because of original sin.

The Limbo of the Patriarchs (Limbus Patrum), reserved for the righteous who lived before Christ.

In The Divine Comedy (AD 1320), Dante’ describes the afterlife as having three realms of the dead: Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. He developed habitations for every type of person, contained in nine concentric circles of hell.6 The meticulous scenes created by the poet were copied by many of the artistic renderings of hell throughout the Middle Ages and beyond. Movies, books, television shows, plays and advertising have been created with the imagery contained in Dante’s Inferno.

In the same vein, Paradise Lost, (AD 1667) was John Milton’s masterpiece which, at first appears similar to Dante’s work, but develops Hell further to be an exact opposite of Heaven – pure evil and darkness so pure that it is visible.7

The Harpies’ Wood, By Gustave Dore. 1861. The Suicides of Dante’s Inferno

It has been said that, if the church created hell, Dante’ and Milton furnished, decorated, and populated it.

Jonathan Edwards preached his famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, to his congregation in Northampton, MA in 1741. It was reported that the sermon was interrupted repeatedly by people moaning and crying out, holding onto pillars to keep from being dragged into hell.8

“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. He is of purer eyes than to bear you in his sight; you are ten thousand times as abominable in his eyes as the most hateful, venomous serpent is in ours.”9

Of all the detailed punishments of the Apocalypse of Peter, of all the levels of Aquinas, of the hellish perdition contained in Dante’ and Milton, and of Edward’s exuberantly preached torments of a wrathful God – it is extraordinary to realize, none of it is real. Absolutely none of it. It is all a depiction of perdition plagiarized from the Greeks or acquired by imagination.

The Bible teaches that once death occurs, we are dead in our grave until the day of the resurrection (either the first or the second) to be judged from there. There are no wings, no sitting on clouds with harps – no haunting ghosts or watchful spirits or moving of Ouija boards – no gazing across a divide to converse with a soul on the other side. None of that is biblical teaching either. Those that dabble in such things are playing with evil spirits.

Where you will find the ideas and imagery of hell shared in this chapter is in Greek mythology and philosophy.

It’s time to undress that old orthodoxy.


1”Patristic Theology”,, (accessed 5/4/2021)

2Avrum Stroll and Richard Popkin, Introduction to Philosophy, 3rd edition, New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, ©1979, p 342.

3A. Dieterich, Nekyia, Leipzig: Druck Und Verlag Von B G Teubner, ©1894 and reprinted 1969.      1893, reprinted Stuttgart, 1969.

4David Fiensy, Lex Talionis in the ‘Apocalypse of Peter’, The Harvard Theological Review 76.2, Cambridge University Press, ©1983, pp. 255–258.

5Taylor Marshall, (website, The Four Sections Hell (St Thomas Aquinas),, retrieved 5/18/21.

6Peter Brand; Lino Pertile, The Cambridge History of Italian Literature (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press, ©1999, pp. 63–64.

7No Light, But Rather Darkness Visible, ( Study Guide on Paradise Lost, retrieved 5/18/2021.

8Richard Ostling, Theologian Still Relevant After 300 Years, Times Daily, Associated Press, October 4, 2003, quoted in Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, Wikipedia, retrieved 5/17/2021.

9Jonathan Edwards, The Works of President Edwards, vol. 6, New York: Burt Franklin, ©1968, pp. 458, 461–62, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, excerpted.

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