What the Hell Is the Purpose of Hell?

Whether hell is other people, a place, or just a bad date, it’s deeply ingrained in society’s collective consciousness. But why?

03.22.15 10:45 AM ET

Whether hell is an expletive, a coercive threat to keep naughty congregants in line, or a euphemism for a bad date, it seems that hell is thoroughly ingrained in our religious and cultural consciousness. But this wasn’t always the case. And there are many believing theologians today who think that hell is immoral, nonexistent, or both, prompting the question: where does hell come from and why do we have it?

Chronologically speaking, hell didn’t always feature in conceptual maps of the afterlife. In the Hebrew Bible there are frequent references to Sheol, a place of shadows located physically beneath us. This is where everyone goes when they die, because people are buried in the ground. Upon occasion, Sheol opens its jaws and swallows people—a phenomenon we probably know as earthquakes, but which can in part explain why death is described as swallowing people up. Without a doubt, Sheol is a generally dismal place where people are separated from God, but it isn’t reserved for the especially wicked.

In Judaism, the idea of post-mortem judgment, reward, and punishment seems to have gathered strength in the second century BCE. During this period Israel was again a conquered land, ruled by a succession of oppressive Greek empires. Along with high taxation and cultural colonialism, Alexander the Great and his successors brought the ideas of post-mortem punishment in the underworld to the Holy Land. There were many other potential religious groups envisioning post-mortem destruction, but the Greeks appear to have been the most influential. Think Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill, Tantalus being cursed with eternal thirst, and Prometheus having his liver eaten on a daily basis. For beleaguered and oppressed Jews, the idea that the injustices levied on them in the present would be rectified in the afterlife held a lot of appeal. And that kind of justice involved punishing their tormentors as well as rewarding the righteous.

Punishing the wicked required some real estate. So pits of torment, restraint, and interim punishment start to appear in ancient otherworldly topographies. Usually hell is a region beneath the earth, but it is sometimes a remote and far-flung place at the ends of the earth. Like Secaucus, New Jersey. Or South Bend, Indiana. A whole host of names and regions—Gehenna, Hades, the Lake of Fire, and the Valley of Fire—are used to describe these places of pain and confinement.

Over the next two thousand years, and under the influence of advances in real-world torture technology, the mechanics and specifics of punishment grew more and more detailed. What started with a lake of fire in Revelation turns into a complicated torture chamber as Christianity gathered steam.

The apocryphal Apocalypse of Peter—an account of a tour of hell undergone by the apostle—describes the tortures of the wicked in excruciating detail. Blasphemers are hung up by their tongues; women who gussy themselves up for adultery are suspended by their hair over boiling mire; murderers are cast into a gorge filled with venomous snakes; women who procured abortions were buried up to their neck in excrement while their aborted children shot rays of fire at them; those who compounded interest on loans stood up to their knees in a lake of muck, discharge and blood; and those slaves who weren’t obedient to their masters were forced to chew their own tongues while being tortured with eternal fire forever. The punishments for sexual immorality and the punishment for failing to help the poor are equally horrendous. Dante got his visions of hell from a similar apocryphal account known as the Apocalypse of Paul.

As we might imagine, not every Christian theologian has been onboard with the idea of eternal punishment. The third-century Christian teacher Origen speculated that even Satan would make it back to heaven eventually. In a recent panel at the winter meeting of the American Society of Church History, noted Duke historian Elizabeth Clark discussed the careers of English Catholic Jesuits who were excommunicated for denying the existence of hell. And evangelical it-boy Rob Bell made his name and eventually secured an Oprah-backed talk show for questioning the existence of hell.

It’s easy to see the ethical problems inherent to eternal torture. After the first billion years of torment, God starts to look a little bit vindictive. What kind of a loving God lets people burn in hell for all eternity? What kind of a just God lets people pay for all eternity, even if they knew that that was the deal? Sure, we can talk about Satan as the agent, but that explanation doesn’t really satisfy either, because an all-powerful deity should be able to intervene. Follow the theodicy wormhole here, if you like, but the point for now is: if hell isn’t about justice, why do people talk about hell?

The answer may lie in the roots of stories about hell in early Christianity. In her book Educating Early Christians through the Rhetoric of Hell, Professor Meghan Henning of the University of Dayton argues that whole question “Does hell exist?” is a post-Enlightenment one. The ancient authors who first dreamed up a torturous afterlife were more interested in using hell to turn people into ideal citizens than in describing the layout of an actual place. In other words, hell is more about pedagogy for the present than it is about the fate of the soul in the future. To ancient Christians the questions “Who should be in hell?” and “Why should they be there?” was more important than “Is this a real place?”

Henning told me, “This is very different from the way that hell functions rhetorically today. …  [Today hell is used] to offer some black-and-white pronouncement that a person is once and for all ‘saved’ or ‘not’ based upon their confessional status. This usually is the result of importing ancient images into the contemporary context without any reflection on the differences between the ancient world and our own.”

When I asked Dr. Henning if hell has a place in the modern world, she answered: “If we want to return to the spirit of ancient Christian understandings of hell we have to think more seriously about our behaviors, and how they impact other people. …. [But] as Christians, we also have to ask ourselves if hell is the best pedagogical tool we have at our disposal.”

Certainly, the immorality and barbarism of hell isn’t lost on modern Christians. Modern Catholic teaching stresses that hell is primarily a place of separation from God. It’s a lot fluffier and there’s good Biblical basis for this, but modern hell lacks the persuasive punch of medieval hell. After all, for atheists, eternal separation from God just seems like more of the same.